On Sundays from now through early fall, sportsman divers wearing air tanks will be slipping off a bait barge into the deeps of Lake Hopatcong in northern New Jersey. At 35 feet they will hit a layer of chill, turbid water that, for clarity, resembles Creole gumbo. This layer, scientifically speaking, is the "thermocline," where the temperature drops sharply. Then, passing through a clearer layer of 56? water called the "hypolimnion," at 55 feet they reach bottom. One diver anchors himself and sits?or more correctly, hangs?for 30 minutes in a numbing but rather beautiful world of brown silt, soft amber light and glinting beer cans. Others head out across the lake, prowling through the thermocline and the hypolimnion.
Surface fishermen, of course, view this diving at Lake Hopatcong with suspicion: the underwater crowd up to another bit of tomfoolery, behaving like a pack of deranged lemmings hellbent for the bottom of a fjord. Actually there is a purpose and a system to it, under the direction of the Fisheries Laboratory of New Jersey's Fish and Game Division. The divers are volunteer fish watchers. They are, in fact, down there chilling their marrow to make happier times for the fishermen overhead.
In Hopatcong the fish watchers are searching specifically for the alewife, a four-inch landlocked species kin to the herring. Find the alewife and they have the missing link in a chain leading to better fishing in some 40 north Jersey lakes. The alewife is the choice diet of bass, pickerel and other sport fish; most of the season a bait dealer can net 5,000 a day. But in July and August when fishermen are most numerous, wouldn't you know it, the alewives disappear.
New Jersey suspects that the alewives may be down deep. An electronic detector can spot fish schools, but it can't tell an alewife from a yellow perch, so the Fisheries Lab called in fish watchers. "They've got to be down there somewhere," says Biologist Dick Gross, director of the alewife hunt. "We may not find alewives, but I can already tell you what brand of beer is most popular on the lake."
In a spirit of learned devil-may-care, Howard Chace, language teacher at Miami University, Ohio, rewrote a familiar fable in what at first looks like gibberish but on closer study proves to be honest English. A year ago it got printed in Gene Sherman's column in the Los Angeles Times and was picked up by the San Francisco Chronicle. Since then, it seems to have moved in more exclusive circles, often by the hand-to-hand of connoisseurs. It turned up a week ago in Nantucket, just about as far east as it could get, in a party of idling summer sailors and golfers. They found the group-deciphering and reading of it as delightful as any parlor sport they had all summer.
Clue: for "Wants pawn term" read "Once upon a time." It gets harder:
Wants pawn term, dare worsted ladle gull hoe lift wetter murder inner ladle cordage honor itch offer lodge, dock florist. Disk ladle gull orphan worry ladle cluck wetter putty ladle rat hut, end fur disk raisin pimple colder Ladle Rat Rotten Hut.
Wan moaning Rat Rotten Hut's murder colder inset: "Ladle Rat Rotten Hut, heresy ladle basking winsome burden barter end shirker cockles. Tick disk ladle basking tudor cordage offer groin murder hoe lifts honor udder site offer florist. Shaker lake! Dun stopper laundry wrote! Dun stopper peck floors! Dun daily-doily inner florist, an yonder nor sorghum stenches dun stopper torque wet strainers."