Of Ice and Men
Courtesy of Don Knaus and Patricia Brown Davis
Brownie was Ellsworth Brown. He was one of the most talented—and multi-talented—men I have ever known. He was a design engineer for Corning Glass Works (CGW) and the company so valued his skills that he was “borrowed” from the Wellsboro plant to lend his services to their far-flung plants in Rhode Island, West Virginia, and even the home base Corning plants. When the plant needed a new Christmas ornament design, Brownie was their man. When the plant needed a new design for glass tanks, Brownie was their man. When the town needed a giant chandelier to stretch across Main Street at Christmas, Brownie was their man; a Christmas ornament flag at the Penn Wells Hotel, Brownie was their man. Each year, he designed the CGW float for the Laurel Festival Parade and every member of the crowd gathered for the parade waited for that float. It won the festival’s “Best Float” award so many times that, eventually, CGW declined to accept the prize and entered as a non-compete float.
But Brownie could have made a living as a cartoonist. He could produce banquet programs, Christmas cards, or Valentines highlighted with his cartoons and poetry. When Tioga County offered a bounty on rattlesnakes, he became “Mr. Rattler.” His hat had a snakeskin band; his belt was snakeskin, too. Then he fell in love with the reptiles and declined to dispatch them. His artistic skill led him to perfect a method for painting realistic snakeskin belts. I remember that he patiently led workshops for my Boy Scout troop as he guided us in creating our own “snakeskin” belts. He might have done quite well as an artist. His very first attempt at painting in oils was so good he was encouraged to enter it in a show. He was told that he must put a price on his work. He really didn’t want to sell it, so he checked on the prices of the other paintings and doubled the highest asking price. To his chagrin, his oil was the first painting sold.
Old-timers might have thought that “Brownie’s Band” referred to his group of musicians. Brownie, after all, was a dance band pro and he played with all the local greats, eventually forming his own band. But that wasn’t the band. My mother said it best when griping to my dad before an expedition to the outdoors: “If you keep taking that boy around that band of reprobates you fish with, he’ll never amount to anything.” I was about ten when I first started running with that band of reprobates, and they were my heroes. I was just a pup. The crew was made up of old men and me. Actually, the men were in their thirties, with one really old codger in his fifties. But they were ancient to a ten-year-old kid.
Brownie was the brains of the outfit, no doubt about it. The entire ice fishing scheme was created in his fertile mind. It was February 1955, and his pals followed his lead. Deer season was over. The holidays had passed. They’d shot too many rabbits to count, and it was a long winter’s wait until trout season opened. An outdoor frolic in frigid February sounded like fun.
He gathered a group of friends to go along. But first, equipment had to be manufactured. Brownie drew up the plans for a snatch hook. My grandfather was the machine shop foreman, and the shop was put to good use. The machine shop got busy on a “government project,” a term that referred to personal projects other than actual company business. Stiff, three-eighth-inch aluminum rods were fashioned. Wooden handles, originally intended to top rasps and files, were requisitioned from the tool room and attached to the rods. Later models would have threaded male and female ends for ease in takedown and construction. The threading also facilitated the addition of sections necessary to adjust the length of rods depending on the depth of the water. At the ends of the rods, large hooks with two-inch gaps and barbs were brazed to the shafts. Viola! The snatch hooks were born.
Next came the stompers. They were made in the carpenter shop by a fly fishing buddy. Long maul handles were attached to six-by-six wooden blocks. When pounded up and down on the ice they made a loud thump as though someone was stomping his foot.
All snatch hook fishing took place in New York State so, upon crossing the border, the group of grizzled fishers would stop at the Lindley town clerk’s to buy licenses. All of the men fished in New York for trout in the spring anyway.
Licenses in hand, the convoy headed up the Cohocton River to...just about any spot past Savona. We’d hike to the river and the ice, toting axes, snatch hooks, and stompers. Often, one of the men, in a show of bravado, would edge out toward the open water and try to snatch a fish—a dangerous practice. One time Shorty fell through and was doused with near-freezing water. The men just piled snow over him for insulation and proceeded upstream to fish. Fortified by his ever-present hip flask, Shorty did just fine. When the guys picked him up on the way back, he was asked how he could have fallen in and, feeling no pain, he did it again for an encore.
The first order of business, once on the ice, was to use the axes to chop holes through to the water. (This was way before the invention and use of ice augers.) Once the holes were open, Brownie and Wimpy would skim the ice chips out of the holes with rubber gloves, which had also been requisitioned from the tool room at the factory.
Then, “watchers” were chosen to man the holes with snatch hooks. The rest of the cadre moved upstream with the stompers. The stompers began, and it was like a deer drive—only with fish for prey. The fish, mostly suckers and carp, swam slowly ahead of the stompers. The guys manning the holes would wait with snatch hooks resting on the bottom of the Cohocton. When a fish glided through the hole, the guy manning the snatch hook would jerk up and snag the fish in the belly. A quick pull up and out, a flick of the wrist, and the fish flopped on the ice. The snatch hook was immediately jammed back in the hole to hook the next fish. The suckers were a foot long and the carp sometimes exceeded a yard in length and twenty pounds in weight.
Brownie was always trying to improve the system. On the very first trip, he was disgruntled that kneeling on the ice, watching a hole, got the knees of his Woolrich pants wet. By the next trip, the carpenter shop had constructed kneelers that kept knees three inches above the ice—high and dry. Eventually, foam padding was added to the kneelers. Sometimes the water was so deep and torpid, the guys manning the holes couldn’t see all the way to the bottom. Brownie brought along five pounds of white beans and a length of galvanized downspout. The duct channeled the beans to just the right spot and viola—the bottom was white and the fish formed a perfect silhouette against the beans.
One time I snagged the biggest carp I had ever seen. I weighed all of eighty pounds and was on my knees on slippery ice. I refused to give up but the carp was winning. It had pulled my wool-clad arms into the icy water to my elbows. I would have been resolute enough to allow the darn fish to drag me under the ice. Suddenly, I felt a strong hand on my collar, pulling me up. That was enough to win the battle and the fish was soon flapping on the ice. I looked up to my savior...Brownie.
The guys would never eat suckers or carp caught in the summer. But caught in the ice-cold waters of winter, the suckers were pretty palatable. It got so a young dairy farmer from Savona would tag along and take half the carp and a dozen suckers. He used bailing twine to string the fish and then he would happily drag the catch through the snow toward the barn. Shorty knew an old lady who would pickle the rest of the carp. The suckers that were left were ground into fish patties.
I especially enjoyed the debriefing over eats at the Savona diner. The men would order soup and sandwiches and laugh about the day’s fun. Every trip, Brownie would whip out a pen, grab a napkin, and proceed to draw cartoon cels of the day. It amazed everyone. I wanted to impress the older men, so, when George Hatherill gave me a nickel for the jukebox, I punched the keys for some Lawrence Welk tunes. With a wide smile, George pronounced, “That boy sure knows his music.” How much better could a fishing trip get for a kid? I loved it...and I loved that band of reprobates who warmed my heart on frigid February fishing trips.