Anglers enjoy the social atmosphere of ice fishing

Posted: Friday, January 31, 2003

WEST YELLOWSTONE, Mont. (AP) -- It's Monday at Hebgen Lake and the wind is blowing over the lip of the dam. It cuts through wool and polypropylene without regard.

Tiny pellets of snow -- not flakes, but their turbocharged cousins -- sting exposed skin.

The fish have quit biting.

Yet Dan Hurler and Bill Bel couldn't care less.

They are jousting.

''You gonna rub that nightcrawler all over ya or you gonna fish it?'' Hurzeler says with a wide smile breaking his bearded face as Beal wrestles with a worm.

Beal flicks his Camel in Hurzeler's direction but the wind grabs it and it swirls harmlessly to the east.

Beal is a hardcore fly-fisherman, a dry-fly guy to boot. He hasn't touched bait since leaving Ohio decades ago and the prospect of his battle with a nightcrawler being broadcast to his friends isn't a pleasant thought.

''You're drawing me to the dark side,'' he says as he lowers the worm to the bottom of the lake.

He's along on the trip with the hope of hitting the Madison later in the day, and he's enduring the indignity of ice fishing by gunning for a big brown.

''.%$. bait,'' Beal says as he wipes the worm's guts on his pants.

Hurzeler has no qualms with mealworms and nightcrawlers. It's just a part of ice fishing, his way of escaping cabin fever.

It's also his way of being a boy, shedding the five-day-a-week comportment of a serious businessman.

''Quit playin' with that worm,'' he says. ''You might get too excited.''

The banter is broken by the bobble of a rod tip, one of six hanging into the famed ice fishing lake.

Beal jumps into action.

He grabs the rod and sets the hook like he's a Saturday morning bass fishing celebrity.

The fight is on.

The fish strips line and Beal recovers.

Finally, the trout gives up the fight and Beal jerks it through the ice.

The fat 16-inch rainbow flops around, searching for a return to its watery home.

Beal dispatches it with a sharp blow from a thermos lid.

''Ah the fish gods,'' Beal says. ''They're gonna be upset today.''

It's surely the first fish he's killed in two decades and he seems to be amazed his body knew what to do.

Hurzeler is in high gear now.

''Come to me Luke Skywalker,'' he says in the horse whisper of Darth Vader. ''Come to the dark side.''

Beal's laugh bounces off the canyon walls.

The cuts continue.

There are two types of ice fishermen: the hardcore and the social animals.

The hardcore dot the ice in singles or pairs, awash in rod tips and theories. They don't talk much and when they do utter a sound, it's normally about why they're changing the depth of their hooks or switching baits.

They hunker over holes with fish finders and an unnatural concentration as they wait for the rod tip to dance.

They are would-be Una-bombers, Beal says. Irrational folk, who'd be better off with some warm company, preferably of the opposite sex, he claims.

Then there are the conversationalists and beer drinkers.

For them, ice fishing is a tactic in the war against cabin fever, otherwise known as the shack nasties.

Fish are secondary to the camaraderie.

Beal and Hurzeler are a mixture of the two worlds.

Hurzeler hustles between rods like a nervous dog in new surroundings. He cleans holes, jigs rods and checks and rechecks baits.

If Beal weren't there, Hurzeler would be, alone in his thoughts and the push for a limit of orange meat.

Beal is there for the debate.

And everything is fair game.

Viagra? A lazy man's vice, he claims. If you aren't ready, then too bad.

Bigfoot? Real. Hurzeler forwards a theory about photo technology in the 1960s and something about calf muscles. Beal howls.

Crop circles? A sign of things to come.

Politicians? We can't print the words here.

Breaching dams? Blow 'em up.

He plays to his two-man audience and the audience loves it.

The conversation turns to favorite fishing spots.

Hurzeler: The Madison has big ol' browns.

Beal: The Henry's Fork has big ol' rainbows.

Hurzeler: The South Fork has big ol' cutthroat.

Apparently there are no small fish in their world. Only 8-pounders. No, 10-pounders.

Daylight escapes. Beal's laugh booms.

Fish fall victim to mealworms and ice flies.

Hurzeler starts to pick up rods for the trip home and Beal sits his post, watching the deep rod, the one set for big browns.

''You're hooked,'' Hurzeler says.

''You ..$%,'' Beal says. ''When are we coming back?''

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