The sun found its way above the southeastern horizon about an hour ago. The pale sunlight hasn’t been able to budge the thermometer yet. Although not bitterly cold the ten degree temperatures seem even more frigid with the 10 mile per hour breeze. My surroundings are wide open. I am surrounded by white. And save the trees on the shore line some 200 yards away there is nothing to keep a frosty gust of wind from slapping me right in the face.
Anyone who knows me will tell you that I am a cold weather guy. And although my advancing years have softened me a bit I still like to think I can hold my own in cold temperatures with the best of them. I will say, in all honesty, that my love for frigid conditions has been aided by technology. Gone are the days of me hanging out in zero degrees in a thick woolen shirt, down vest, stocking cap, mittens, and hiking boots. These days I have to approach winter a little differently. The causes are many the most dramatic of which is a botched back surgery that cut a couple of nerves along my spine and left me with neuropathy in both feet. I’m not complaining because I know that it could have been a lot worse. Still, the result is my lower extremities are cold sensitive, have a constant fuzzy feeling, and are sensitive to pain. I have the best wife on the planet and she proved it when she added to my winter wardrobe by buying a pair of pac boots that are supposed to keep my feet warm to negative 153 degrees. Yup, you’ve read that right. One hundred and fifty three degrees less than the number zero on the thermometer. Now I’ve not yet tested them to this temperature but they do work pretty good. I will admit that when its twenty below I also use a nifty pair of heated inner soles that have the battery built right into the sole insert and they can be turned on and off and from low to high with a tiny remote control unit that is about the size of a silver dollar. Given that my feet are directly on the ice for 8 hours or more when I’m ice angling I’m not taking any chances.
My extreme boots aren’t the only improvement in the ice fishing wardrobe department! My youngest son has adorned me with some cold weather Carhart duds, namely a pair of ice fishing overalls and a cold weather vest. My daughter in law has gotten into the act by buying me a Carhart cold weather hooded jacket. Add to that my LL Bean 100% virgin wool watch cap, my insulated rubber gloves to be worn when handling wet equipment, and my triple knitted virgin wool mittens that would have kept Captain Cook’s hands from freezing when he tried to find the North Pole. Considering all of thiscold weather gear I would say I’m in pretty good shape when if come to weathering the cold circumstances of ice fishing. Oh! Did I mention my handy dandy high technology long underwear? Supposedly it was invented for the astronauts for work in the depths of outer space but somehow ended up covering my butt while I’m out pursuing cold water fish during the winter.
The problem with all of this is that when I wear all of this gear I resemble a Goodyear Blimp version of the Michelin Man. My pac boots, so well insulated that they are larger than most people’s snow shoes, do provide for a steady platform and make me relatively light on a pounds per square inch basis even though I’m wearing an extra 30 pounds of clothes over an already large 260 pound human frame. One can get pretty sweated up in all this gear when setting up all of the tip-ups. My solution is to go out on the ice with a moderate clothing layer and add more as I get less busy. When I see a flag raised on a tip-up indicating a fish is on the line I don’t have to run over to the action because I can simply roll over which is significantly faster.
For years and years I carefully drilled each ice hole with a hand auger. The old age stuff started setting in and so now I use a nifty gasoline driven auger. While it is about five times faster than augering by hand the noise produced by the machine shatters the perfection of quiet of a frozen lake. It’s not so bad because the drilling is over quickly and I’ve likely saved myself from a full blown heart attack.
I still use traditional tip ups or occasionally a jigging rod. On some days I spend my time running from tip-up to tip-up pulling in fish, resetting the lines, and starting all over again. On other days I quietly sit in a lawn chair on the ice while the flags on the tip-ups stay put in a limp state indicating that the fish have no interest in what I am offering. While I often fish alone it is not unusual for me to be seen with one or both of my sons, and/or a couple of hearty friends who are as cold weather friendly as I am. My sister used to go ice fishing with me when she came to visit from the D.C. area. She is now ice fishing on the great frozen pond in the heavens with some of our indigenous ancestors.
Fishing alone is more of a pensive experience. On a slow day, after an hour or so of setting up, there is much time to enjoy watching the sun skate across the southern horizon. I often also can catch a glimpse of a raven or two, simply watch the clouds roll by, or stare at the patterns in the ice. On a busy day there is not enough time between pulling fish in to think about much of anything except for maybe when a break from the action might occur.
At the beginning of each season the setting up work is short. It is a whole lot quicker boring through 6 inches of ice and cleaning the slush out of the hole than towards the end of a cold year when your are cutting through four feet of ice and dredging slush out of the hole for about 10 minutes with each auger hole. In fact, two winters ago when it was so darned cold my deepest holes were about fifty-four inches deeop on a remote Vermont lake.
The sun is now higher in the sky and the temperature has risen to perhaps 26 degrees. My arctic clothes, save my gigantic pac boots, are sitting in a pile in the lawn chair I have brought with me. My ice fishing sled sitting in front of me is packed with a bucket of bait, a cooler, an Adirondack black ash basket full of tip-ups and a jigging rod, an old ice chisel that I never use, and some emergency equipment. I’m about to start boring holes and realize I’ve forgot to put gas in the gasoline driven ice auger. I stand on the ice and ponder my situation. At first I’m slightly irritated. Here I am with a ton of gear that I’ve dragged a half a mile over the ice to a great fishing spot and no gasoline. But the I realize it’s pretty nice just feeling the cool wind blow across my face. After all how more lucky could I be? I’m alive, outside, and enjoying the gift of nature.
In only a few minutes I remember the seldom used ice auger. It hasn’t been sharpened but I know I can cut a nice hole right through the frozen lake. And so I do. One smashing cut at a time. When I’ve cut through the ice and clean the slush out I retrieve a jigging rod. I put a minnow on a hook, drop the line through the hole, and pull up the lawn chair in front of my fishing location. If I don’t like this spot I can move on and chip out a new hole. The hardest part will be moving all of the gear I brought with me.
As I move the tip of the short rod up and down jigging the minnow in the cold water I look across the ice. There are blue, blue skies, white frothy clouds, evergreen white pines along the shoreline, beautiful ice covered with white snow and I have the entire lake and its peaceful solitude to myself.
And I think to myself “What could be better?”\
In memory of my wonderful sister Cheryl who loved to be out on the ice with me and who I miss every single day.