When Kenneth Gerhardt of Peekskill, N.Y., a manufacturer's representative who sells pollution control and efficiency equipment to power plants, was asked last winter to include the frozen tundra of upstate New York as part of his sales territory, he was overjoyed. Gerhardt could hardly wait to get up to Oneida Lake, 10 miles northeast of Syracuse, where the average temperature in January and February is 18° and where the average snowfall each winter is 112.3 inches. A dedicated ice fisherman, Gerhardt was well aware that Oneida has the reputation of being the finest walleye lake in the East and perhaps the entire country. "Walleyes might fight with all the dash and abandon of a wet cardboard box," Gerhardt says, "but they are delicious."
Fishermen who know Gerhardt consider him the best ice fisherman they have ever met. Christopher Letts, a 46-year-old naturalist and educator who now lives in Cortland, N.Y., says, "I grew up in Illinois and Michigan, the heart of ice fishing country, and by the time I was 16, I thought I knew it all. But Ken has changed me. He has influenced me more than anyone else ever has. He's showing the way in ice fishing. He's the driving force."
Not everyone is so impressed. Gerhardt laughs and admits that when his three daughters were younger and still living at home, they and his wife, Janet, would send him off on his midwinter angling expeditions with comments like "You're insane. You're a sick man."
Gerhardt's specialty is going after panfish—yellow perch, white perch, crappies and sunnies. "Contrary to what many people think, ice fishing for panfish is more effective than summer fishing by a factor of 10," says Gerhardt, who averages two to three dozen fish a trip. "The fish school tighter in the winter, you can hold right over them, they don't move around much, and once you find them, they stay in the same general area for three or four days. And for eating, there's nothing like panfish from an icy pond. In the summer I wouldn't walk across the street for a yellow perch, a crappie or a blue-gill, but in the winter I pursue them with devotion."
Gerhardt is the kind of fisherman who attracts a crowd even on a day when the wind-chill factor is —20°. Not surprisingly for a salesman, he is a talker; stories, quips, jokes, limericks and fishing tips pour out of him nonstop. Gerhardt isn't just interested in entertaining or instructing the crowds that gather around him, he wants to have company, because ice fishing can be extra productive when other fishermen are nearby. The panfish down below often go into a feeding frenzy, Gerhardt theorizes, because all the lures simulate a school of bait.
Gerhardt also fishes through ice for trout. One winter afternoon a few years ago, a news producer at WNET-TV, the PBS station serving metropolitan New York, decided to send a crew up to the West Branch Reservoir, 15 miles northeast of Peekskill, to videotape all the dopey ice fishermen suffering in the subzero cold. The producer figured the footage would be good for a lot of laughs. No sooner had the crew arrived at the reservoir than fishermen began gathering at a hole and shouting. The crew scampered across the ice and taped the episode, which began with Gerhardt playing a fish as other anglers frantically chopped away at the hole to enlarge it. Finally Gerhardt pulled the fish through the hole and plopped it onto the ice. It was a 14-pound, 6-ounce brown trout.
That night the tape was shown, but if there were any laughs, they were at the expense of WNET. In the rush to get the tape on the air, technicians did not have time to edit the sound track, which came on laden with admiring but unbleeped obscenities from the crowd.
Gerhardt, 62, took up ice fishing 45 years ago, before winning seven battle stars while serving with the Army in Europe during World War II. He also took up fly-fishing to occupy himself during the warmer months. Though he was a superb flytier and a graceful caster—he could effortlessly send a heavy lead-core line 100 feet across a stream—he abruptly abandoned fly-fishing 15 years ago. He had become smitten with deep-sea fishing for cod, pollock and the occasional halibut 25 to 40 miles out in the Atlantic off Cape Cod. His trout-fishing friends were aghast. When one of them. Colonel Henry A. Siegel, chided him for giving up trout in favor of "coarse fish," Gerhardt replied, "Hey, Henry, the fish I catch are wider between the eyes than yours are long."
Gerhardt, who earned a degree in mechanical engineering from Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute, says, "My approach to fishing is that of an engineer. When I go fishing I define the problem, and then I solve it." Ultraprecise and systematic, he makes (and occasionally invents) his own lures, rigs and rods, and he keeps detailed fishing logs that note even the stomach contents offish he has caught. For the record, bluegills taken through the ice often have wads of daphnia—water fleas—in their stomachs, while yellow perch prefer to gorge themselves on dime-sized baby bluegills instead of minnows. Says Letts, "Ken will empty out a stomach, put the contents in a glass of water and then swirl the glass around and inspect it as though it were Dom Perignon."
Gerhardt often writes about his findings in The Fisherman Magazine, a weekly regional that caters to hard-core anglers from Virginia to Maine. "Gerhardt has an incredible following," says Harold Berkowitz, the proprietor of Midland Tackle in Sloatsburg, N.Y., one of the busiest mail-order operations in the nation. "If he writes a story recommending this rod blank or that reel. I'll have at least a hundred orders within a week. And I'm talking about $150 items. Fishermen believe in him."