HELENA, Mont. (AP) -- The Gunslinger has the secret.
''It's all in the wrist,'' he said. ''It's the gunslinger move.''
He swiveled his wrist impressively at his hip and brought his .44-caliber index finger smartly to bear on the Tenderfoot's midsection. Then again.
He made the Tenderfoot practice the move in the kitchen, sitting on a chair.
''Just a couple of inches. You want it just a couple of inches above the bottom.''
That's the motion necessary to be a highly successful ice fisher. It jiggles your bait up and down somewhere far, far below the ice where, legend has it, many large fish will be irresistibly drawn to bite your hook.
He would show the thrill of ice fishing, the Gunslinger promised.
''It's great,'' he said. ''You'll love it.''
The Gunslinger and his friends, Rod and Dixie, revealed many other closely kept ice fishing secrets that January day, too. But the innermost secret to successful ice fishing was somehow more believable coming from Dixie, who was outfishing everybody.
''Luck,'' she said.
Ice fishing requires good company, the kind of friends you don't have to talk to. Dogs, for instance.
The dogs that day were Chugger, a 120-pound Chesapeake retriever who chased a tennis ball; Lugnut, a 12-pound Jack Russell terrier who bullied Chugger and chased an eagle; and Bailey, a border collie cross too polite to ask why we were there.
Canyon Ferry Lake has exciting species like trout, walleye and northern pike, not to mention snakelike ling, so our target of the day, of course, was perch.
There apparently is no reason to catch perch. They aren't very big, they don't fight the hook, and they are very difficult to clean and fillet, the Gunslinger said. They don't have much taste, either, he added.
Perfect, said the Tenderfoot.
To catch the perch, you need bait. The preferred delicacy is maggots, squirming blowfly larvae that you must brood with your body heat, to keep them from freezing before you can drown them.
Can't wait, said the Tenderfoot.
For some reason, there's no limit on how many perch you can catch.
''Sometimes we get bucketsful,'' the Gunslinger said proudly. ''Then we wind up cleaning them for hours.''
The Tenderfoot caught one that day. And a sucker. The sucker fought harder, so the Tenderfoot put him back.
Apparently the very best perch fishing is before dawn, requiring serious ice fishers to begin preparing roughly around midnight. That's because numerous layers of clothing are required to sustain life through several hours of standing on frozen water peering at your icehole and jiggling your bait.
Ice fishers are easy targets for cheap humor, and someone should put a stop to it. But it's their own fault.
All the clothing makes ice fishers look like cartoon characters, barely able to move but almost impossible to topple over. Because of all the padding, there is no documented case of an ice fisher ever being injured by a fall.
You start the adventure by making holes in the ice with an ice auger, hand-powered. It looks like an old-fashioned carpenter's drill, but about 5 feet tall. You press down on the top with one hand and crank the handle with the other hand, and the point of the drill suddenly slides away, making you do a comical dance on the ice to entertain your companions.
''The secret is to keep it straight up and down,'' Rod confided.
Ah. Much better. That way the auger stayed in place while the Tenderfoot cranked. And cranked and cranked and cranked.
The other secret of the ice auger is it should go clockwise, the way a left-handed person would do it. All successful ice fishers are left-handed.
If the first hole doesn't produce, you drill another. And another, and another. So do all your friends, and all the other ice fishers who crowd in if they see you're catching fish.
The secret of a successful hole apparently is the standard mantra: ''I have a really good feeling about this hole.''
The Gunslinger, Rod, Dixie and the Tenderfoot drilled about 400 holes that day.
Another Secret Revealed: Multiple holes weaken the ice around you. The Gunslinger wears ice-grabbers around his neck -- two fist-sized dowels with sharpened screws in one end to stab into the ice if he breaks through.
''It's the only way you're going to be able to pull yourself out of the water,'' he explained.
Ice fishing also requires other highly specialized equipment. The rods are only about 18 inches long, since there is little casting required to reach your icehole.
A rod holder lets you set the rod down, tip in the air, while you drill more holes. The holder, with two slender arms outstretched, also assures that a monster perch can't yank the rig through the hole while you're trying to get all that clothing moving.
The most ingenious item was the Gunslinger's ice house, ''a three-holer.'' It unfolds from a small toboggan that becomes part of the plywood floor, and lightweight plastic pipe forms the framework for the tarpaulin walls and roof.
Cutouts in the floor allow three people to fish from inside, comfortably sheltered from wind and snow and any view of the great outdoors.
It's time to debunk one stubborn ice fishing myth: Ice fishers do not keep the maggots warm by holding them in their mouths. They keep the maggots in plastic pill bottles in their pockets, just like ordinary people.
An insider's tip: Be sure the snap-on cap is on the bottle really really tight before you put it back in your pocket.
End Adv for Jan. 22-23
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