On Ice

Ice fishing is very much like fly fishing. If you believe that, I have a snowy bridge in Brooklyn that I’ll gladly sell to you for a song.

Ice fishing is technological fishing. That is, without electronics, you’re probably not going to catch much aside from cold feet and fingers.

I had thought it would idyllic, you know, go out on the ice, drill a couple of holes, sit in a tent and catch fish, drink a couple of beers, catch a few more fish, have a fish fry with more beer and enjoy the outdoor experience.

Not even close.

It all starts with an ATV and two sleds. One is a clam shell, the other is for equipment: an ice auger, electronics, spud, shovel, buckets and bait. My son drives an ATV built for two, I ride on the back for ballast.

We roll from the garage to the lake. It is quiet at seven am and we roll six miles to an ice shack, it’s not really a shack but a well-equipped trailer: stove, heater, music, TV and six holes in the floor. My son has to go to work so leaves me at the trailer to fish for crappie. It’s a good morning bite and I pull up a half dozen or so between ten and fourteen inches. I listen to music by the American Composer Aaron Copland and wonder, how would he have written a piece to honor ice fishing in Wisconsin?

Would it start in the minor tones with a quiet but eerie sense? Would he have added the sound of the rattle, as the trailer I’m in is equipped with reels and rattles?  Would he capture the moment a fish takes the bait and then the action as all hell breaks loose in the trailer as three rattles go off and the fisherman is trying to set the hook and harvest his catch? Could he make music that would reflect the use of electronics and the faces as they peered at them as if they were some sort of mystic video game that let them see the world beneath them in colored lines that moved up or down till the fish struck the bait? Would he add the ice singing as it splits and moves or how we he add the low tones that are produced when making ice?

My son opened the door, “What are you playing, we’ve got Greenday and you’re listening to this?”

Later we would venture out on the ice, drill holes and chase fish. Imagine if you will, fan casting. But instead of casting a line, you drill a line of holes. Like fan casting, you go to your left, your center and right. Sometimes you drill four holes out sometimes three. Then drop electronics, check for fish, if there’s fish, you sit and fish. If not, you move onto the next hole. The GPS and flashers are your best friends on the ice. Once again, technological fishing, the GPS allows you to locate bends, bays, drop offs, and slots where fish hang for the winter. The flashers tell you if there’s fish there.

We fish for four days. We Swiss cheese the ice in a number of places and we caught fish. I tied an ice jig that worked okay and caught a couple of perch. We caught bluegills, crappie and perch. We set-up tip-ups but no fish seemed to want the bait on those days.

I have fished a few times on the ice but never at night. We took a trip out in the dark, the stars so bright that you know you must not be alone in the universe. The moon provides enough light for shadows and the sound of owls and the occasional coyote punctuate the night. The snow sparkles like cold fire and the bite comes on.

One night a truck rolled out onto the ice. Firewood was unloaded, holes were drilled, beers were lifted to the sky and a bonfire was started. The dogs ran about on the ice while the fishermen sat and talked and played AC/DC on their truck radio. I was struck by the incongruity of a bonfire on the ice. But after they walked over an offered me a brat, I figured, this is it isn’t it?

A night under the stars, fishing, a fire nearby, your favorite music, a dog, friends and family.

The ice is a gathering place. There are dangers, but there is mystery. There is the sound of the ice splitting, moving, and groaning under its own weight.  Finding and catching fish is the goal, battling the elements to achieve that goal is just part of being on the ice.

But it’s not like fly fishing. Even if you go steelheading, which is about as close as you can get for an analogy. Nope, ice fishing is more about the gathering. About people leaving their homes and venturing out on the ice and exploring the mystery beneath them. About a community that knows, it’s only temporary and in about three months, the sheds and trailers will be taken back to storage, cleaned and put away. It’s about being out there.

I didn’t see that many drunks but I saw people drinking at 8:00am. I saw people catching fish and putting them back into the lake, so not all ice fishermen keep everything they catch. I met a number of good folks while sitting on a bucket, got my face licked by Gunnar, a very large black lab who was patrolling a section of lake and I was nearly pushed off the bucket by a friendly Golden Retriever.

I still prefer a summer day with a fly rod over a winter day with an ice auger. But I have a greater respect for those who go out on the ice, brave the elements in search of that mystery, in search of fish whether for lunch or for sport. The ice holds the mystery even more.

So I thank my son for introducing me to a way of fishing that I have never known and tended to make fun of. For showing me the value of electronics and how to enjoy the weather. Also for the loan of warm gloves and bibs. It was a most interesting vacation.

Stuart Van Dorn