HANOVER, Pa. -- It was shortly after dawn, and the three men trudged across crusty snow with makeshift sleds piled with fishing gear, onto the frozen surface of Lake Marburg. They cut holes in the ice with gas-powered augers. Dropped baited hooks into the water. Sat on plastic buckets. Hoped a walleye would bite.
The wait began.
On these waters, time is measured by the movement of shadows. A rise in temperature is heard more than felt -- the warmer the day, the more the ice cracks.
"It can get pretty spooky when that ice cracks beneath your feet, especially at night," said Ken Chilcoat, a carpenter with more than a decade of experience in the chilly sport of ice fishing.
It is best practiced in the hours near dawn or after dusk: The fish seem to bite more during low-light hours. To pass the time, Chilcoat tuned his radio to a country music station, and placed bets with his friends on who would make the first catch. They live in a scattering of small Pennsylvania towns within a half-hour drive of the lake.
"We're out here every day we get the chance," said Wade Bennett, a warehouse worker who 10 years ago met Chilcoat on the lake ice. "We call it the Dead Sea. We can be out here all day without a bite. It's embarrassing."
They cook bacon-and-egg sandwiches on a Coleman stove. They swap fish stories. Those, too, are the pleasures of ice fishing on Lake Marburg, in Codorus State Park, nine miles north of the Maryland line.
"I've caught pike that weighed a solid six or seven pounds and were at least 25 or 30 inches long," said Wayne McClure, a bricklayer from Glen Rock, Pa.
"I caught more than 20 perch at one time," said Bennett.
"I caught a sea gull," said Chilcoat.
A sea gull?
"He swooped down, snatched my bait and flew off. It was a struggle getting the hook out."
The wait continued.
Ice fishing takes the place of cleaning the basement, painting the dining room or sitting on the couch. It is a substitute drug for anyone hooked on fishing from a boat in warm water under a bright sun. Lake Marburg is nearly the southern limit for it. Maryland's Department of Natural Resources allows ice fishing only on Deep Creek Lake in Garrett County, the one area considered reliably cold enough for the ice to be safe.
In mid-morning Chilcoat slid across 50 yards of ice to check his lines. Each one was attached to a red flag that would spring up when a fish took the bait. Two flags were flying, but there were no fish.
"I love the peace and quiet," Chilcoat said. "We spend a lot of time sitting around, trying to out-do each other with new inventions."
He had carved holes on opposite sides of his white plastic bucket, fashioning a fishing rod holder out of his makeshift seat. Bennett had built a sled from plywood and skis. McClure invented what he called "instant cappuccino" -- coffee imported from Glen Rock.
The three friends took in the setting's simple pleasures. Deer walking across the ice. Bare tree limbs swaying in the wind. Geese flying overhead.
"Ice fishermen are of a different breed," said park manager Vince Peterson. "They'll do almost anything to get out on the ice." Some of them bridge gaps in the ice with boards; others take running leaps from shore. "There's a fine line," Peterson said, "between dedication and stupidity."
At Lake Marburg, the ice is still about 6 inches thick; a depth of 4 inches is the minimum for safe walking.
"There aren't too many places around here to go ice fishing, so we try to keep this spot a secret," Chilcoat said. He had scouted the coves with sonar and the gas-powered auger, and placed his lines about where the lake bottom steeply dropped.
Bennett and McClure dropped their lines closer to shore, in hope of finding fish among the underwater grasses.
And the wait continued.