Lunchtime On Boondocks Pond

As MassWildlife’s Western District stocking crews deposit netfuls of large, fresh and frisky trout along the upper Deerfield River this week, diehards are still ice-fishing at secluded upland ponds nearby. Well, at least I think there’s still enough ice left up there.

“I hope so,” growled my buddy Killer, still a hard-charger at 72, when I called Wednesday morning to double check. “I’m getting ready as we speak. The boys will be here at 11 with a couple dozen shiners.”

Even back a couple of weeks ago I was surprised to learn the ice was still safe at a place not that far from home which my dad affectionately calls the boondocks. There was good reason for my skepticism. On a March 4 trip to Bridgewater State University for a Northeastern Anthropological Association conference, a man could have taken his motor boat or canoe for a spin on any of the lakes and ponds we passed on Route 2 east of Orange/Athol. Yes indeed, open water in central and eastern Massachusetts and 16 inches of ice still covering western Franklin County ponds … a month later. Maybe that’s why they call it God’s country, huh?

Anyway, this week’s fishing tale goes back to midweek last, when the Ole Killer called to chat as he so often does after 3 p.m. He had a good yarn to spin that day, having just returned from a well-known pond not far from the southern Vermont border. He, his geriatric friend and the Killer’s 20-something grandson were there ice-fishing for perch and largemouth bass, which had been hitting pretty good after a long, dormant winter. Just the previous week, the trio had pulled a nice 19-inch bass and a tasty 12-inch yellow perch through the ice. That and many pickerel, which Killer and crew aren’t fond of, even though he does savor the liver and roe, which he calls health food. Leave it up to the Killer to make use even of undesirables.

“What good are they, otherwise?” reasons the Killer. “I open them up and they’re full of small perch. Plus they eat our shiners, which aren’t cheap. When we catch them, the legal ones don’t go back into the pond.”

Which reminded him of another matter troubling him about this pond located not far from one of the old line of French and Indian War forts positioned as guard posts along Massachusetts’ northern border from Northfield to eastern New York State. Yep, after a spontaneous, informative pond-side conversation with a ranger, the Killer was all stirred up about trout-stocking at the pond.

“I spoke to him, nice guy, for quite a while and he told me they stock the pond with brook trout,” he said. “The problem is that the pond is shallow and warm, never gets deeper than 10 or 12 feet, and the trout can’t make it through the summer. That’s why I’ve never caught a trout ice-fishing. Not one in decades. Why the hell would they stock trout in a pond that can’t support them?”

Hmmmm? Good point, Killer. But let’s not go there now. Back to the tale at hand. Why stir up the fellas?

Anyway, back the hilltown tale, it seems that last week, after boring holes with a power auger and setting up, the boys were answering their tip-ups’ flags and pulling many a pickerel through the ice, the legal ones of which were lying around on the ice for future attention. When Killer for no particular reason looked up into the sky, he noticed a speck of a soaring bird of prey high, high above. Shielding his eyes from a blinding sun in a bright blue sky to get a better look through cool, midday mountain air, he could clearly see a white tail and head.

“Hey boys,” he yelled, pointing up, “look at that bald eagle circling way up there. I bethca he can see our pickerel.”

He soon realized that the eagle was slowly descending closer and closer to the playing field, and he focused on the decent. Sure enough, it wasn’t long before the majestic bird had dropped to a height not far above the treetops overreaching the shoreline, eventually landing in a big pine tree across the way. Apparently, this bird knew the drill in the Berkshires and was more than willing to wait for tasty leftovers after the boys’ departed.

Well, a gnarly old poker player and trapper, to boot, Ole Killer can indeed be a patient man, but not in this case, especially with young legs in the party. Curious, he decided it was time for action, so he called out to his grandson:

“Hey, Kid (he calls most everyone Kid, even family), “why don’t you pick up a few of those pickerel and walk out a hundred yards or more toward that eagle? When you get out there far enough, throw the fish as far as you can and we’ll see what happens.”

The kid saluted and marched to the friendly order, picking up a few pickerel and lugging them out to the middle of the pond through deep, heavy, slushy snow, to a spot far away from his fishing buddies. There he threw the fish, one at a time, out toward the alert eagle, which stood its ground on a sturdy limb t’other side of the pond. Mission accomplished, the “kid” walked back to where he started, watching and waiting.

“I can’t believe I didn’t bring my cell phone that day,” said the old Killer. “I always bring it with me but didn’t that day. It has a camera that often comes in handy. Although far away, I know I could have gotten something if I had my camera.”

Oh well, camera or no camera, what unfolded was a spectacle to behold. The big, beautiful, opportunistic eagle stood tall, cocked its head, stretched its wings and took flight, gliding gracefully down toward its free, waiter-furnished meal. Killer’s maneuver had worked to perfection.

“It was amazing to watch,” he recalled. “That bird never landed. It just glided, reached down with its legs and picked one of those pickerel up with its talons in one fell swoop. It might have scraped the ice a little, not much, before flying back to a tree, landing and eating it. The bird repeated the process two more times, staying just out of harm’s way too eat as we kept an eye on it and our tips.”

That spectacle, combined with pickerel livers and roe and fresh filet of bass and perch had made Killer’s day, and he was proud of a good deed done for a bird that symbolizes American freedom.

“I do hope we didn’t do anything illegal,” ever-careful Killer wondered aloud.

No, no, very doubtful. After all, I’ve known and hunted with Ole Killer for many years, and often make time to effusively praise his solemn commitment to following game laws to the letter.

Yes sir, the man’s as clean as the mountain air he so often breathes, the spring oozing from that high, shaded, mossy ledge on the cold north face of the ridge.

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