The cool breeze holds me hostage. I’m held by the fresh air, the smell of open space, and a view of a frozen landscape that seems to go on forever. As if walking on water the weight of my body is kept aloft by slow water molecules. So slow, in fact, that the water that is under my feet is solid and rather unforgiving.
A few moments ago I finished towing the ice sled across the ice. It came packed with an ice auger, a hand woven maple basket filled with tip-ups, an ice scoop, and a few odds and ends that are important to the task at hand, a lunch cooler filled with 24 Arkansas minnows, and a thermos that is keeping two glasses of white wine for later on. Like all early season frozen water the ice groaned and made large cracking sounds under my weight as I traversed the open and frozen lake to a fishing spot I had in mind. I had little real concern about the safety of the ice as I knew it was about ten inches thick. Still, one particularly long cracking sound that fractured the ice and made a loud rippling noise all the way across the lake got my attention. I stopped for a moment and examined the fissure in the ice. It was a major thrust and went in either direction as far as I could see. I jumped up and down. The ice didn’t move so I proceeded.
I begin drilling a hole in the ice with the auger. Shavings pile up around the perimeter of the round cavity and form a perfect volcano-like mound. I brush the shavings to the upwind side and clean the hole with my ice scoop which is a ladle-like device that allows you to pick up slush in the water while allowing the water to drain back into the hole. Once the hole is crystal clear I set up a tip-up complete with a minnow on 8 feet of line.
I notice that I am singing while I work at my ice fishing set up. This is a sure sign that I am very content. And given there is nobody else on the lake to hear me I sing loudly allowing the world to know how happy I am. Singing helps to pass the time and take my mind off of the hard work of setting up the gear. I am singing “Northwest Passage” by Stan Rogers; a fine song to sing when on the cold ice boring holes.
As I spin the auger around endlessly using my arms and shoulders I can feel the muscles in my arms tiring. I can spin a mean ice auger. There is technique and feeling to this art. The trick is to apply just the right amount of pressure with one arm and spin the blade quickly and steadily with the other arm. It takes endurance to spin an auger for an extended time. If you are an artful ice driller you can do this for a long time. If you try to just force your way through the ice you won’t last long at all.
As I cut ice I look around. Two young fellows, perhaps in their early twenties, and a small dog are on the ice about 300 yards away. As I watch them pulling their sled I notice that they take a direct route to an area near the floating island in the center of the lake. They have a power auger and when they start the motor to bore their holes the gasoline machine can be heard for great distances. I know they won’t drill for long. A dozen holes can be dug in less than five minutes in this kind of ice. I’m glad that the machine will be shut off soon and I can be content to hear not much of anything save the wind and an occasional caw from a crow.
A couple of days ago I was thinking out loud one evening. I had been ice fishing that day and I wondered if the accounts of Jesus Christ walking on water had taken place after a very cold night. My wife laughed and said, no, it is supposed to be an allegory; a story with a hidden meaning. I thought about what she said, after all she has more knowledge of Christianity than I ever will. She went on explaining that water freezing was unlikely given where these events took place. I kept my thoughts to myself and pictured Jesus wearing ear muffs. I still wondered. Couldn’t one very cold night might account for this tale?
A tip up extends a flag indicating that I have gotten some interest from the fish underneath the ice. It is the furthest tip-up from my present location. I grab the sled and walk over to the flag. I look into the hole and see the fishing line slowly unwinding from the reel that is beneath the water. I gently take the rig out of the water and place the fishing line in my hand. I feel a gentle tug and set the hook. The fish struggles and I pull it in, hand over hand, as I manipulate the fishing line trying to lay it on the ice in an organized fashion so that I won’t have a giant tangle to deal with later on. The fish is less than cooperative. I finally pull the nose of the fish through the ice. It is a large pickerel, perhaps 19 inches in length. It is hooked in the lip and I gently pry the hook out. I decide to keep this one (and hopefully a couple of more) for dinner tonight.
A gusty wind blows my decrepit chair over. The wind is strong enough to push the chair across the snow covered ice so I have to retrieve it. I use only the most worn out lawn chairs when ice fishing. They’re going to end up smelling like fish anyway. Generally they are pretty beat up by the end of the season. Cold weather has a habit of breaking things. Everything gets brittle in the winter; at fate that can be compared to old age. I have notice that I am more brittle than I used to be. Falls come more often and seem to hurt more. I wonder why I forgot to wear my ice cleats today. And then I remember that another trait of aging is forgetting.
With all my tip-ups set up I take a look around. There are two more flags extended! I go to each tip-up retrieve the fish, return them into the lake and bait the hooks and set the tip-up. Apparently it is going to be a busy day.
My chair blows over again with a strong blast of wind from the west. This time the gloves that were sitting on the seat of the chair get thrown directly into an ice hole that I had drilled earlier. Before they sink I pull them out of the water. One is soaked inside but the other is OK. It looks like I’ll be spending the rest of the day today with my right hand in my pocket. Note to self; bring an extra pair of gloves when ice fishing. I wish I had a dollar for every time I try to remind myself to do this one thing.
Ice fishing alone is different than fishing with one of my sons or a friend. When accompanied during this cold activity the atmosphere seems festive. Jokes are thrown about and there are stories to be told. By myself this activity is more pensive and relaxing. I’m content with my own thoughts these days. This is something that age has improved. It is important to note any improvements with age. This helps to counter act the many setbacks that aging seems to promote. A positive spin on life is always an advantage when it comes to enjoying the moment.
There is a brief lull in my ice fishing agenda. The flags lay dormant. I sit in the beat-up old chair and open my thermos. I pour the wine from the green thermos into the thermos cap which today serves as a impromptu wine glass. The white wine is cold. At this moment it tastes like the best wine that I’ve ever had although I realize that this is not possible given it originally came out of a black box. It’s amazing how doing anything outdoors seems better.
I think back to my childhood. My buddy Jeff and I frequently played in the swamps in the winter. We wandered between irregular rows of blueberries raised on tussocks. We created a maze amongst the mounds leaving a trail in the snow that lay on the ice that only we could interpret. In our fantasy world we envisioned ourselves escaping from the Redcoats. We were the swamp fox of the north.
It’s too bad Jeff doesn’t enjoy ice fishing. There are still games to be created and played.
I hear some chatting in the distance. A dog barks loudly. I look up and notice that the two young men across the ice are jubilant. They wave there arms and jump up and down. One of them holds up a huge fish. When they put the fish back down on the ice the dog barks again. He joins in the excitement so as to feel like it is part of the pack.
My time here is short today. I have only a few hours to spend on the ice. Still, I’d rather be doing this than almost any other winter activity. The tip-ups continue to trip. The flags stand up frequently and I end up catching 31 fish and keeping a half a dozen.
As I take down the equipment I scan the northern horizon. The skies are almost dark. Silhouettes of clouds skate quickly across a blackened sky. I stand here alone. I am witnessing the near end of a good day. One good day of many in a wonderful life.
And still I wish I had more time.
Written for www.wildramblings.com in January of 2013.