Ice fishing fun at Watoga
Cecil Underwood, of Beaver Creek, is full of good fish tales, most of them surrounding ice fishing at Watoga State Park. Underwood is retired now and he's been ice fishing the past few years because he said he can't stand the heat the rest of the year. He said it's a good way to while away the hours, and over the years, he's made some lasting friendships on the lake.
“Watoga — that's the only place I like to fish,” Underwood said. “I'm usually over there unless I'm sick. I go fishin' to have fun, and believe me — we have fun. I've made a lot of friends from all over West Virginia, the Charleston area, even Kentucky and Ohio.”
It was Underwood's long-time fishing buddy Melton Renick that got him into ice fishing about four years ago.
“If Melton was here you'd hear some whoppin' stories,” Cecil's wife Addie chimed in. “You talk about some tales, and gigglin' and carryin' on. They have a ball.”
“When I go, I go to have fun,” explained Underwood. “As long as there's somebody to pick on — I'm happy. Somebody to joke and kid with. It keeps you from gettin' bored. There's good days and bad days, but it's still a lot of fun.”
Underwood is no bully, but his good-natured ribbing has made him popular at the lake over the years.
“I walk around and have fun with the kids, too,” said Underwood. “There was this one little boy over there one year — his mother works at the bank, we know her and her husband. Her little boy was fishin'. He had caught a couple of goldies and had 'em on his string. He said 'look what I got!'
“I picked on him,” remembers Underwood. “I said 'you're not suposed to keep them, you're supposed to put 'em back!' Like that — just whispered to him. He said 'I gotta turn 'em loose?' I said 'naw I'm just pickin' on you!'”
“There's not a kid out here that doesn't holler at him when they see him,” added Underwood's sister, Marietta Harrison.
Underwood has made a lot of friends with some of the park visitors over the years.
“This one fella, this guy from Kentucky, he had a couple of fishin' poles, some kind of cherry wood or something. Instead of puttin' 'em in his truck, he leaned 'em up against a tree and put all his other stuff in his truck and took off. I saw 'em down there and said 'I know whose poles those are.' I figured, I'm gonna rag him,” grinned Underwood.
Underwood went home, called his friend up, and left a message on his answering machine.
“I said 'Gene, I bought a couple old fishin' poles off a guy for ten dollars apiece,” said Underwood. “I'll sell them to you for the same price. He said 'yeah, I'll take a look at 'em.' I went down there, he was talkin' to his wife on the telephone. He told her 'I'm gonna take a look at these fishin' poles. I might buy 'em.' I pulled the one out — he was lookin' at it. He said 'what idiot would sell this pole for ten dollars?' He looked at it again, then he told his wife, 'oh, my God, they're mine! They're my poles! She said 'well, pay him! He said 'but they're my poles! She said, 'pay him anyways!'” laughed Underwood.
“And he'll be over on Saturday to have Thanksgiving dinner with us,” added Harrison.
Harrison said she'll go fishing with Underwood when his friends aren't in town. According to them, ice-fishing can be risky, and you don't ever want to go alone.
“It is dangerous,” admitted Underwood. “You get too many holes drilled or too much weight, that weakens the ice. And you don't ever want to be all gathered up in one huddle.”
“And you gotta make sure you're never the first one out there!” Addie laughed.
“Yeah, you know it's safe when you see other dummies out there on the ice!” joked Harrison.
She said it's usually too cold for her, but she'll tag along if the sun is shining.
“If his buddies aren't around, he'll say 'I want to go fishin'.' I'll either have to meet him over there, or he'll have to wait until I'm up and I can get my coffee in me,” joked Harrison. “One time I fried corn bread and took it over. Everyone had their coffee and their mugs and I passed it out to everybody.”
“Well the fish weren't bitin', so we bit!” joked Underwood.
Underwood said if the ice isn't very thick, he'll fish right off the dock. He said the employees at Watoga help keep an eye on him.
“When they go by, I throw my hand up. If I don't do that, they stop and come down and check on me.
The way the ice pops and cracks when it expands, it'll scare you to death. Some guys were out there last year, at the deep part, then it warmed up. A crack went down in between 'em where they were standin' — they were up on the bank pretty quick!”
According to Underwood, you really don't need a lot of specialized, expensive gear to ice fish — just warm clothes and a thermos of coffee, and maybe cleats to keep from slipping.
“That's the best thing you can do,” offered Underwood. “They just snap over your foot, like a tire-chain type of thing. They keep you from fallin' on the ice. There's people that get special ice fishin' poles, these little flimsy things. I'm not gonna waste money on that. I'll even use broken poles and stuff. I used to use an axe and chop a hole in the ice. Then I bought me an auger last year, but I think I've only used it one time.”
Underwood said legally you can cut a hole up to ten inches in diameter, but he prefers to keep his holes around six inches.
“You can bring up anything through that. Me, I'll cut two holes because you're allowed to use two poles, but I don't put 'em close together. Maybe eight feet apart,” suggested Underwood.
Before going out on the middle of the lake, Underwood always drills a hole at the dock first to test the thickness of the ice.
“I saw people out there last year when it was only three inches thick,” he said. “They say that's heavy enough to hold anybody, but it all depends on how cold it is. You gotta use judgment. I try to make sure it's probably about a foot thick.”
Underwood said it's not a problem to have other fishermen around when you're ice fishing.
“You don't have to worry about tangling lines with other people because you just drop your line straight down in there. You're kind of confined to your hole. It's not like throwin' out your line from the bank or in a boat,” explained Underwood.
Underwood said he'll go both early in the morning or late in the evening — really whenever his buddies are available. It's trout that he's after when he ice-fishes, and he's caught some big ones over the years. He caught two, ten-pound brown trout back-to-back one year.
“They're the easiest, and I'm for the easy ones,” joked Underwood. “They're kind of sluggish in the winter. They don't put up much of a fight, and the bigger ones don't fight as much as the little ones do.”
Underwood is actually allergic to fish, but he always gives his catches to people that can't get out themselves to go fishing.
“He's met an awful lot of nice people over there fishin',” said Addie. “No matter where they're from, it seems like everyone is relaxed and just enjoyin' themselves.”
The Underwoods and Harrison cherish the friendships they've made over the years.
“We've got a family that comes in from outside of D.C.,” said Harrison. “They've got children, they come to the park and stay and hike and fish. Then we all gather up at his house and have a cook out. We've done it twice this summer. You're talkin' about fish tales, oh my lord!”
“You talk about some good cooks,” Underwood chimed in. “That whole family gets in our kitchen and they get to cookin'. We just get back out of the way!
“The two youngest kids, they wanted to know what I use to catch fish. I showed 'em how to do everything. They picked that up. Last year this other guy said, 'them young boys, they're puttin' us to shame.' I told him 'well, I taught 'em everything I know!' The oldest son, he started college this year. He had never really gotten involved in fishing until they started comin' here. Now he ties his own flies.”
“It's incredible, he does it beautiful, they look like they came out of a factory or something. He is that good,” said Addie.
“Yeah, we have a good time — fishin' and carryin' on,” Underwood said with a grin.