Cold Hands, Warm Spirit

100_3411Nothing is more symbolic of cold than ice.  Using the hand auger to slice through these 16 inches of frozen water indicates that the weather has been nippy.  This day is no different.  The skies are brilliant blue, the snow covered ice reflects what little sun that peeks over the horizon, and the twenty mile an hour wind blows snow into our auger hole as we toil away.   On this January day my oldest son and I have met at a half way point, about an hour and a half drive for each of us, to go ice fishing on this beautiful lake.  The lake is the result of an U.S. Army Corps of Engineers flood control project originally established 61 years ago.  The lake receives water primarily from one major stream and several feeder streams.  The dam was constructed in a location that could hold all of the watersheds run off in a predicted one hundred year storm.  It is built in a high valley.  The shadows or rocky outcrop hills surround the view.  The perimeter of the lake is most irregular in shape.  Long peninsulas, deep coves, and steep sandy banks grace the shore line.  High spots in the center of the lake form islands.  Both shore line and islands are covered with trees with white pined being dominating the landscape.  The lake feels abandoned in this high valley and on this day that feeling of isolation is enhanced by the fact that we are the only ones ice fishing on this lake of several hundred acres; a surprising notion on this weekend day.

We are both dressed in layers and layers of warm clothes.  Brendan is wearing an Alaskan-style anorak with a fur-lined snorkel hood. The long walk across the lake to an area that might hold fish has us sweating beneath these many warm layers.  This flies in the face of the whole theory behind layers.  One is supposed to take off a few layers when exercising and put them back on when at rest.  We would have needed a second ice sled to carry that many clothes.  Our one ice sled is burdened by tip-ups, an ice auger, shovels, bait, tackle, and our food.  The plastic sled would not easily be carried but slides effortlessly across the frozen lake.  Brendan is manning the auger; boring through layers of ice made over the last six weeks or so.  The ice texture is not consistent but rather made up of layers of black ice, snow, refrozen melted waters, frozen precipitation, more snow, and frozen slush.  Brendan turns the handle in circles over and over again.  Ice shavings pile up as the auger deposits them on the surface of the ice as the razor sharp cutting heads cuts through the ice below.  It takes about a two minutes and a good deal of work to bore each hole on this day when each breath leaves a miniature cloud hovering in front of your face only to be blown away by the brisk winds.  Brendan locates each hole about 75 feet apart.  He is trying to follow a sinuous channel that lies at the bottom of the lake below the 16 inches of ice.  The location of this channel is a complete mystery, but occasionally testing the water depth with a weighted line keeps him on track.  My job is to clear the holes with a slotted ladle, set up the tip-ups, bait the hook with a shiner, and get an adequate amount of line in the water to areas where the fish my be tempted.  Ladling the slush and ice out of the water in the ice hole is critical.  Every last drop of snow and ice has to be removed.  If any remains it will prevent the minnow and line from sinking into the dark waters below.  Setting up the tip-ups consists of unfolding a wooden contraption, unreeling some line off the reel, putting a minnow on the hook, submerging the reel below the water line in the auger hole, and setting a trip flag that will tell you when a fish is on the line.  This job requires concentration and adequate fine motor skills.  In other words it is a job that has to be done without the comfort of gloves.  The real kicker is that your hands get wet.  Wet hands, air temperatures well below freezing, and water is a combination that results in numb, almost frozen fingers that must be warmed occasionally on the inside of a nice pair of insulated gloves.

The wind blows at a steady clip as we set up the equipment.  Amongst the tip-ups already established wind tripped flags yield false alarms that slows our progress as we stop our work to check the lines which are graced with little but the minnow that serves as bait.

After an hour or so we are completely set up.  We take a few minutes to replenish a few calories into our stomachs.  Frozen peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are quite crunchy and the frozen granola bars are a good chaser for such a nutritious meal.  Alas, luke warm coffee is the highlight of the repast.  Next time we will bring a better thermos.

The wind blows snow into some of the auger holes.  This actually keeps the water in the hole from freezing.  In other holes which are protected from the wind by deeper, wind driven, snow ice forms quickly.   The ice must be cleared every fifteen minutes or so to keep the equipment operational and in good working order.

Ice fishing in weather that is right around the freezing mark is much more relaxing.  On a slow day one has time to sit in a folding beach chair and bask in the sun.  On a day like this the ice fisherman is in constant motion, cleaning holes, checking bait, removing extra slush, and checking false alarm flags.  Finally after about an hour and a half Brendan checks a flag and reels in a small bass.  The bass appears to be just large enough to keep.  We would have likely slipped him back through the ice but he swallowed the hook and it was unlikely that his return to the water would result in his survival.  We tried measuring him to be sure he was of legal length.  He appeared to be just long enough, but it was close.  Rather than waste the fish we chose to keep him.  Perhaps this will start a run of good luck, a common occurrence when ice fishing.  Several more flags go off, and we discover that the bait is missing.  This is a good sign.  We take off our gloves, rebait the hooks, set them to a different depth and force feed the frozen line into the ever narrowing auger hole that is shrinking in diameter due to the accumulation of ice around the perimeter of the auger hole.

At one point during the afternoon we look across the lake to see a man walking directly towards us across the ice.  From a distance it appears he was wearing all brown, perhaps a uniform.  I quickly deduce that it must be a game warden and thought about the bass.  Was it long enough? If it wasn’t we might have some trouble.  Perhaps in a slight moment of panic I ask Brendan to take the ice sled with the bass over to the furthest tip up several hundred feet away.  I suggest it might be a good idea to hide the bass in case this guy was inquisitive.  I tell him Brendan I will clean the auger holes on this side of our fishing area and try to distract the officer with my gift of gab.

It is a long walk for the fellow on the ice and I can see he is determined to come and visit us.  As he gets closer I realized he isn’t a game warden because he is not wearing the tell-tale uniform.  Brendan is quite some distance away and there is no way of notifying him that the coast is clear. 

Brendan has an idea that the best way to hide the bass is to put him back on the tip-up line and drop him into the auger hole.  He is quickly reminded that dead fish don’t sink as he stuffs the fish below the water line only to see it float to the surface and lies on top of the water like it is wearing water-wings.  He tells me later that several scenarios crossed his mind during these brief moments.  He pictured telling a game warden that the fish must have died under water because we had not checked the line in a long time and he quickly realized that this story would not ring true to even a fourth grade child.  Then he thought he might explain that he had been trying to revive the fish for the longest time only to find out that he could not bring it back to life.  He dropped this fantasy when he realized that the fish was frozen solid and unless he had been trying to revive it for a heroic hour and a half this story would likely not be believed either.  In the end he simply stuck the bass into some stuff in the ice sled and hoped for the best.

Meanwhile I was feeling no pressure talking to this fellow after he crossed half a mile of ice just to talk to us.  He works for the Army Corps of Engineers and states he actually wantes to look into the faces of the only two people on the lake that were crazy enough to be ice fishing on this cold, cold day.  As I go from hole to hole he follows me chatting about all the crazy ice fishing stories that he had encountered in his 15 years of working at this facility.  After about 20 minutes he gets too cold and heads back to shore.  A little later in the afternoon Brendan walks back to the truck and retrieves a tape measure.  As it turns out the fish was a legal length all along and our momentary panic proves to be hilarious. We both have a really good laugh about the whole event.

The wind continues to blow, the sun is now starting to fall below the tree line, and the skies are still blue but are not as brilliant as they were when the sun was a little higher on the horizon.

Brendan and I do our rounds.  We check each tip-up and add a new minnow to each one as we wait for the late afternoon run.  This is our last round of the day and we hope it would yield fish for future meals.

Brendan and I move to the last sunny spot in our fishing territory.  Our faces are turned towards the wind so that we can see our tip-ups and any flags that have been tripped. My beard is now a frozen mass of ice and Brendan has frost on his eyebrows.  We talk a little, not about anything in particular, mostly chit-chat about how lucky we are to be outside enjoying this winter day.  We wait and wait for the late afternoon run but it is apparent there will not be one on this day.

As the sun dips below the horizon and darkness starts to shroud the icy lake we begin to take down our equipment.  We pull the tip-ups from each auger hole, rewind the line back onto the reel by hand, remove the bait, fold up the tip ups and placed them in the equipment bucket in the ice sled.  We are done in about twenty minutes and begin our trek back to the shore on the opposite site of the lake.

Darkness settles over the ice.  We march along pulling the ice sled.  The only noise is the sound of the sled sliding across the ice.  We are two men content glad to have spent the day in each others company.  The weather may be been bitter but we are not.  Our minds are clear and are hearts are full of life like the wide open sky and the brisk day we have enjoyed.


Written for in January of 2010.

  • Ratty

    Some things can make the cold feel as if it doesn’t exist at times. I always thought ice fishing would be fun, but I’m much too afraid to go out on the ice. I never quite trust its strength, despite seeing it hold several people much bigger than me.

  • Brendan

    Explaining why a dead frozen fish was hooked and floating in my tip up hole would have been a challenge…

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