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The Ice Kings of Lake Champlain Part III

3/12/2007

The Lord of the Lake

In the middle of Bryantsville, sits an Oxblood red large shanty, a 12-holer, and inside, sitting at the last hole on the right-hand side, next to an open window, and small gas stove, one ice fishing pole in each hand, bucket half filled with freshly caught smelt between his legs, sits Jim Guyette, Sr.

Or as everyone in Port Henry calls him, The Lord of the Lake.

This lake, the lake I'm standing on.
"I was born in Port Henry, within sight of the lake, in fact when I used to hunt ducks on the lake my mother used to go out on the back porch and watch me in the boat."

Sixty-eight years of putting line into lake, most times when I talk to him he looks me right in the eye, when I ask him about the lake, and if it's changed over the years, his eyes look down as he speaks.

"It's completely different now than when I started fishing. We catch more Lake Trout now because they stock them, more Salmon because they stock them. We don't catch Walleyes now because they don't stock them. They stock the fish that bring more people in rather than the fish that are good to eat."

Since I basically fry everything, I just nod.

Reaching into the bucket between his legs he picks up a small smelt and hands it to me. Lord or not, I pass on holding it. "Used to be when you went ice fishing for smelt, you catch number one … one pounders. Haven't seen one of those in 10 years. These smelt we catch now usually come in at 4-6 ounces. Shame."

Guyette is a puppetmaster, both arms constantly in motion, moving up and down, Jim weaving back and forth, in tune to the lake current only he can feel. In his hands, ice fishing poles, about a foot to a foot-and-a-half long, carved from wood, by him.

"This pole I'm using today I started making 15 years ago, just finished it two Thursdays ago. The other poles I use I made them when I was in high school around 1955 or '56."

How many 50-year-old fishing poles you got hanging around … that work?

And not a reel in sight. When he hooks a fish his arms become a blur as he weaves the line between poles, each loop brings the line up about a foot. The shanty is sitting on 47 feet of water; Guyette prefers it to be on 35, "but I put it here, so if I don't catch anything it's my own damn fault."

It's a hair shy of 10 a.m., and already he has 7 pounds of smelt in the bucket. So much for bad placement.

Reaching into the quickly filling bucket he pulls out about a 4-ounce smelt, picks up a board next to his leg, reaches into his wool pants pocket and pulls out a knife he's had "for 20 years," and quickly cuts a small section of the smelt skin off, and folds it onto his hook.

"The skin off the side of the smelt is the best bait for catching smelt. The fresher the better. Smelt bite on sight, they're attracted to smell, fresh bait with the blood coming out will attract them. I've also used WD-40. It's surprising but sometimes it attracts the fish as well."

I nod, again, thinking, dear God, don't let Greenpeace read that, they have my email.

"You've got to bob, too." That it seems is what he is doing with his arms, for a minute I thought there was someone else in the shanty besides me and him.

"If you don't move the bait, keep it active you won't catch a fish." Bang, another smelt into the bucket. "When you move your arms straight up and down it shoots the sinker out, they'll shoot 15 feet out one way, and then they'll come back and what it does is attract the fish. When my line is down 46 feet, that sinker will shoot out 20 feet, it's almost trolling along the bottom, when it gets there you bob it up and down and the smelt will follow that motion. On days when the fish are not very active, you have to tease them, you have to work them."

"The fish go into feeding times. There are times when the lake gets turned on, when you can catch them one after another, then all of a sudden the lake goes flat. There's a wave effect on the lake that will turn the fish on and off to feeding."

Works pretty much the same here at ESPN.

Bang, another smelt lands in the bucket. "Huckleberry taught me how to fish."

"Excuse me … huckle-what."

"Huckleberry … and Peg-Leg too."

Huckleberry & Peg-Leg

Everybody on the lake seems to come with a nickname.

Huckleberry and Peg-Leg Gilbo were brothers, now long since passed.

"Couldn't really tell you their real names … although Peg-Leg didn't really have anything wrong with his legs far as I knew. Huckleberry taught me how to fish."

Huckleberry spent his life on Lake Champlain, "He was a classic fisherman," Guyette says with pride, "his life was fishing and working and drinking a few beers, you know. He taught me how to set the bait, track the fish, locate the fish, how to bob, how to change the depths, how to find the slopes in the lake."

If the fish weren't biting, Huckleberry would move 100 yards, "Not much on this lake," and suddenly the boat would fill with bullhead, lake trout or walleye.

But he was sneaky. "He kept secrets, he didn't tell people where the fish were biting. Everybody wanted to know where Huckleberry was fishing but he would never tell them. If you leaned in his shanty he would say, 'eh, I have a couple' and he would have a whole bucket full under him."

Laughing as he remembered the past, "One day George Edwards got so mad at Huckleberry for not telling him where the fish were biting that George backed up his model T ice car up to Huckleberry's shanty, and hooked a rope to it and pulled the shanty with HIM IN IT, down the lake. Unhooked it and just left him there."

I didn't say anything, instead I just let Guyette fish for a few moments once again with his legendary teacher, Huckleberry Gilbo.

"Ice fishing is life"

Quote from a fisherman leaning against a sled, sausage sandwich in one hand, other hand resting on the shoulder of his 12-year-old son.

The Lord of the Lake's shanty door never stayed closed much.

In came an old fishing bud, Zig Karkoski, carrying with him doughnuts and the morning paper. In a ritual for the ages, he gave Guyette "his donut" a powdered sugar one, opened the paper to the sports section, folded it a special way, and cozied up to his corner, five fishing holes to Guyette's left.

Looking at him with a smile, Guyette says, "Sometimes he doesn't even throw in a line, but that's alright." At which Zig replies, "Yeah, but I still catch more fish than he does."

Laughs all around.

Every time the door opens, more respect comes in. Guyette spent 30 years in town as a science teacher … 16 years as the high school offensive line coach in football … a few more years coaching seventh- and eighth-grade boys basketball. Most folks out on the lake still refer to him as Mr. Guyette. With him, class is never out.

"I had you ready," he shouts to a 40-something ex-tackle handing him a bowl of homemade venison stew. "When I stop yelling at you is when I've given up on you." From the sound of it, he never gives up.

Door opens again, this time it's Billy Mitchell, a retired principal, "heys" all around. Across from Guyette sits Rory Clarke, an old-time fishing and "dart throwing buddy." Next to him, his 9-year-old grandson, Chris, who poked me in the side saying, "I dropped my line down to sight, then five more reels off the pole."

Peering over his head, I look to his grandfather to translate just what the hell the kid had just said. "He's been fishing with Jim and me for about 7 years now (meaning since he was 3)."

I should have known. Shanty speak.

Comfortably in what must be his favorite spot, ex-principal Mitchell suddenly says, "I got a 100 fillets out of the 30 perch I caught yesterday."

I nod knowingly, a second later the whole shanty breaks up as Guyette says, "Must have been those special 3-sidded perch again." I look at the kid who shakes his head anticipating I may ask something stupid in a moment.

Up and down the lake, in 2-holers, 4-holers, 12-holers, much the same was happening, drawn by the ice, illuminated only by gas stoves, and the florescent green water in the cut out fishing holes you could tell, it wasn't just about the fish.

From Guyette: "The time my friends and I spend together in the shanty is quality time, we are there for each other, what more can you ask for. These guys are like family to me, we go back to high school, some back to grade school, and when one dies we take it to heart … I miss Joe Graham, Tommie Callahan … these guys weren't just fishing buddies, they were like brothers to me. Friends and family is all you got, and it all comes together in these shanties"

Up the lake in the shanty town known as the Hole, Rich Frampton and his fishing buddies from the Danbury Connecticut Rod and Reel Club have been coming to the lake for the past 15 years.

"I enjoy ice fishing when you go with a group, like the guys from the club … I also go with my son and it is quiet and relaxing I enjoy watching him pulling in the fish," he says. "If you happen to catch a nice fish, it's a bonus to a great day."

Back in Barton Swan's Lakeside Restaurant, where you can sell the smelt you just caught off the lake for $2 a pound, uncleaned, I ask the Lord of the Lake, a guy who has fished all his life, why he does it.

The answer was very spiritual: "Why be somewhere you don't want to be when you could be fishing somewhere you want to be and enjoying life. Mostly it's about peace and quiet. You're getting relaxation from the rest of the world. It takes your mind off everything else and it gives your mind some very peaceful time."

Back in the minivan, I turned Elvis down as the Lord of the Lake poked his head in for one last time. Nodding toward the lake outside my windshield, he smiled, eyes twinkling as he gazed on it for the umpteenth time.

"To see the sunrise, the peace of the lake, just fantastic, what better life could you ask for. You see, it really is a beautiful world."

Driving back home I kept the CD off, The KING no match for the wisdom of the Ice Kings of Lake Champlain.

Part I

Part II

Don Barone is a feature producer for ESPN. Other stories of his are available on Amazon.com. You can reach him at Don.Barone@espn.com

For more information on all things Port Henry Ice Fishing related, go here: www.porthenry.com

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