For a very many years, it seemed, I ice fished Budd Lake, NJ, alone. When my wife and I made a move from a Victorian home in North Plainfield to a second story apartment in Chester above a prominent antique shop, Pegasus Antiques, 1994, I considered trashing my tip-ups and whatever else remained of my old ice fishing equipment. As soon as I had felt that, a counter-rush of feeling came and stuck me to my gear like glue. That was August, we weren't married yet, and when January came we went and spent a couple days at a good friend's place on Little Swartswood Lake, along with my tip-ups. But the clincher was January or February 1997. My friend had moved, but close in vicinity to the lake. His son and I ice fished Little Swartswood, both of us catching pickerel. I had caught the old fever, and the next weekend went out on Budd Lake for the first time.
Budd Lake is a sort of glacial swath, not a deeply dug chasm, if 40 or 50 feet of depth is any chasm with magnificent rock structures in clear depths. It averages 6 feet deep, has almost no rock structure, and in a very limited area reaches 12 foot depths. I placed a couple of my allotted five tip-ups in these depths for a single flag that day. By the time I got to it, the fish had stripped all the line off the spool. Only metal remained. I guess I figured that if a fish ever got that far away, it can have its freedom, or that if I tied the braid to the spool--it might yet have its freedom, pulling along a piece of broken tip-up. But I suppose this fish had some 75 yards of heavy line to contend with against weeds or other obstructions. The shiner had been set about 12 feet down. I figured it was a nice bass, and it could have been, bass really run with a shiner. But a couple years ago I returned to Budd to fish alone. I caught a 15 inch channel catfish that had run like mad with a shiner. I had never before seen a tip-up spool turn so fast.
I like to think Budd Lake is meant for ice fishing. You can set a tip-up almost anywhere for a flag. During the warm months, the lake is bland. The water quality is not at all poor, but it isn't especially good. Budd's natural outflow is the very headwater of the South Branch Raritan River. What amazes me is that a quarter mile downstream from this weedy slough of a sluggish stream, brook trout are present! In that short tumble among stones and rocks that filter and purify water, fed by numerous cold mountaintop springs, the water quality rises to a nearly pure level.
A 15 pound, 39 inch pike came through a hole close to where I fished one afternoon in 1999. Until 2007, when I first took my son ice fishing, I pursued such a fish ice fishing Budd Lake alone, never catching it. I caught some pike, but most often I left skunked. I would walk the ice in solitude--more often than not I had the entire 376 acre lake to myself--and look ahead to my retirement. I remember looking ahead 26 years, seemingly trapped in wage work until then. I knew that I would like to spend time here, sometimes all day instead of 2 1/2 hours, which was usually all the time I had. A 15 degree breeze would make the skin on my cheeks rosy, and the pain of it was enlivening.
It's said that the essence of depression is suspense, but on Budd Lake in solitude I would willingly suspend almost everything and it was a very pleasant, but very remote, feeling. Getting away from it all--I did that, even within a couple hours. I remember I would stop at the 7-11 afterward, perhaps for a pack of cigarettes, always guilty buying them, but peculiarly in need of the pain, for the sake of overcoming this pain for that little pleasure, one among many, but reliable, like a base to touch, a crutch, and the snazzy atmosphere inside of pop music and flashy advertisements always hit me like someplace very far away from where I had just been, even after a couple hours.