Dateline: February 1, 2015 – Schluchsee, Germany
On February 1 of this year, Stefan Molnar and I left Walldorf, Germany and headed for a lake in the southwest of that country. The trip would be perhaps a hundred miles – two hours in winter conditions. As we pulled out onto the Autobahn, I knew faintly that if we went the same distance to the northeast, we would reach a tiny village, Georgenthal. My mind wandered to a spring day in that village, 70 years ago, and to a young man named Steve.
Steve was 26 – old for a US Army private in World War II. He had volunteered, leaving behind a wife and two young sons, but he was from a large Polish family in Detroit, and there was an intense desire to “hit back” for the old country. On April 9, 1945, he was leading a patrol outside Georgenthal when they were attacked. In a brief firefight, Steve was killed, and the German unit was wiped out. Only 29 days later, the war would end.
Steve was my grandfather.
PFC Steve S. Wozniak – July 20, 1918 – April 9, 1945.
I think of him often, but especially so when I am in Germany, sometimes just a few miles from Georgenthal. 70 years later, the war is a distant, but for many, a still-painful memory, but time has moved on slowly and old enemies have long since become comrades. Here I am, 70 years later, working for a German company. (And liking it, although the travel policies can be a bit draconian.) And there I was, 70 years later, about to go fishing with one of my best friends, a German. I have even had to explain Hogan’s Heroes to Stefan, because we have a co-worker who bears a striking resemblance to Sergeant Schultz.
What is it that attracts Stefan Molnar to frozen wastelands? And why does my boss make me come to Germany every January? The weather is usually rotten and the fishing less than optimal. I spent years being angry at this, but then I figured out that my boss was actually brilliantly strategic, by having our group meetings early in the year before the Operations people overspend their own budget and try to steal ours. I don’t think fishing figures into his thinking, which is regrettable but probably for the best, but the real villains here are the Operations people, who likely don’t even fish.
This time of the year in Germany, there are two fishing options – fly somewhere sort of nearby, like Dubai (Details HERE) or to tough it out and go after some sort of fish that doesn’t mind snow. (Put on a scarf and click HERE.)
There are very few fish that don’t mind frozen, awful weather, and fewer still who actually thrive in it. The burbot – known as Die Quappe in German – is one such fish. (I thought about making the title of this blog “Die Quappe,” but this would sound a little too violent until you realized it was in German.) A freshwater member of the cod family, burbot tend to live at great depths and are most catchable when they spawn in the dead of winter. I had wanted to catch one for years, and had been regularly tormented by my buddy Bob Reine because he had caught one.
I hate to point this out in public, but Bob’s doormat has a punctuation error, unless he’s trying to make it really, really clear that he owns the doormat, in which case, excuse me.
As always, this was a complex effort that involved a lot of people. Stefan Molnar has been a consistent fishing buddy and sees nothing wrong with going out in below zero temperatures. But we still needed to find Die Quappe. This is where Wolfgang Berse came into the picture. Wolfgang (who was himself introduced to me by the fabled Autobahn Werewolf, Jens Koller,) owns a great tackle store in Pforzheim.
Steve and Wolfgang, about to celebrate a rod purchase with an inadvisable pre-dinner shot of schlivovitz. (You might note that Wolfgang is wearing a “Hi’s Tackle Box” hat.) For Wolfgang’s shop details, click HERE. (Photo taken by Guido, who you just know was wearing sandals and dark socks.)
When we presented Wolfgang with the problem of catching the quappe, he introduced us to Patrick Strass, a friend of his near Freiburg who specializes in such things.
We arranged to make a Saturday drive down the Schluchsee, in the Black Forest, to meet Patrick, who would provide bait, rigging, and ideas on the right spots. We left Walldorf early in the morning, turning south toward Karlsruhe, and away from Georgenthal.
I mused that 70 years ago, we might have been trying to kill each other, but a lifetime later, we were going fishing and talking about home improvement assignments, which never seem to end in the US or Germany. Stefan’s wife also sends most of his things to the garage. I wondered what my grandfather would have thought of this.
The scenery on the drive was stunning. As soon as we turned into the Black Forest, we were treated to wonderful, snow-covered, hilly scenery of the type featured in every Alpine travel guide I have ever seen. There were charming mountainside homes tucked away in the forest, where I imagined charming old couples working on cuckoo clocks and plotting against France.
Charming alpine houses. The area was beautiful until I stepped outside and realized it was 22 degrees.
A snow-covered Black Forest meadow. Again, lovely from the car as long as the heater was going full bore.
We got to the area – the lake was also stunning, but the experience was somewhat tempered by my knowledge that I was going to be outdoors for the rest of the day.
The lake as viewed from our hotel.
An old church nearby. I thought about stopping in and lighting a candle for a quappe, but the Fish Gods frown on such frivolity.
We dropped our bags at a charming inn and headed over to the dam. There was Patrick, bundled up like an arctic explorer.
Patrick, a friend, and Steve. They had gotten a zander earlier in the day, filling me with hope.
I reconsidered the wisdom of the whole thing when I saw that the side of the lake was covered in three feet of snow, and that any trip down to the water’s edge would risk a broken ankle and an unplanned swim.
The shoreline. There was something about the idea of hiking down the steep, snow-covered bank that made me think Molnar should go first.
Luckily, there was an alternative. The plan was simple – get out onto the dam where we could access deeper water – well over 100 feet.
The dam wall that would be our home for about six hours.
We would then cast night crawler baits on on sliding sinker rigs and wait. This was interesting for about five minutes, until the adrenaline wore off and I realized how darn cold it was. The brief show of sunshine had disappeared, and the bitter wind was driving down a moderate snowstorm.
What kind of idiots go out in this weather? See above.
About two hours into this adventure, just as the last of the feeling left my toes, my fishing rod gave a slight but definite twitch. Then, just as I reached for it, nothing happened. I reeled the rig back up, and the worm had clearly been chewed. There was hope. I rebaited and recast, and then set to pacing up and down the dam in a vain effort to stay warm. The temperature had dropped below 20, and I recognized that another hour outside and I could be sterile.
The snow cleared up a bit before dark, and if I had been in the car, I would have noticed how beautiful the trees were.
It must be expensive to flock this many trees.
The lake during a brief break in the snow. Just above the lake on the left you can see a red train going along the shoreline – this is a well-known service that brings in tourists year-round.
I kept trying different tactics, even drifting a micro-rig on the dam face. This got me a very small perch, which I took as a good sign – there were fish here.
Not my largest perch.
It had passed 5pm and the already thin light was draining from the sky. I stared at my rod tip, trying to will the fish to bite, but it just sat there, gathering ice. Thirty minutes later, I turned to drink a Red Bull that had turned into sort of a caffeine slurpee, and out of the corner of my eye, I saw the rod snap down about four inches. I dropped the drink and picked up the rod. For a long moment, nothing, but then … another thump. And another. Breathlessly, I reeled the slack out of the line and set the hook hard. I felt weight on the end of the line, then a few lethargic tugs – a sure sign of a burbot. Before Molnar could even consider going down to the water’s edge, I reeled the fish up the dam face and onto the snow. I had added a species.
The beast. Take that, Bob Reine!
A closeup of the beast. Take that also, Bob Reine!
Molnar and Wozniak celebrate the beast. As it turns out, they have teeth. I only found this out after the feeling returned to my fingers. And where the heck did Molnar get that hat? Seriously. it looks like a plant holder.
We whooped and yelled our triumph, which echoed across the lake and disappeared into the increasing snowfall. I was happy with the species, to be sure, but almost equally happy with the idea that I would not have to repeat this particular trip.
After the fish was safely released, we set up again, hoping to get a Quappe for Stefan. The increasing cold and wind quickly dampened our enthusiasm. It was now fully dark, and as much as I wanted to see Molnar catch something, he was not as obsessed with the burbot as I was and he fully supported the idea of going someplace indoors with food and drink. We called it a day and returned to the Hotel Schiff.
The Hotel Schiff – great restaurant and good central heating.
We celebrated into the evening with assorted fried German foods and assorted German beers, and recalled how both this and the Huchen has been very close calls. Another snowy miracle? Perhaps, but the fish was on the books, all of my fingers and most of my toes had thawed, and life was good.
On the drive back to Walldorf the next day, I thought of my grandfather, and pondered what he would think of all this. For many years, there was a collective generational grudge – I know my grandmother was none too fond of Germany – but this has faded as the generation who fought pass into history and leave us only their stories. I also know that the man who killed my grandfather outlived him by less than a minute, and it is likely he too had a family who still feels a loss. At some stage, Stefan and I going fishing together stopped being ironic and started being just how things should be, and I have to think that is what my grandfather hoped would happen in the world.