Sleeping With the Fishes
I thought ice fishing would be cold, uncomfortable, and a little bit dangerous. How wrong I was.
As Denny moved our equipment in—bait, lures, rods, waxies, chubs, pimples, hemostats for removing hooks from fish, and an amazing underwater camera—I was feeling distinctly unNanookian. Denny dropped the camera viewfinder down the 30 feet to the bottom of the lake, and suddenly we could see on the screen the fish swimming below. Most of them were young yellow perch, but occasionally a foot-long adult would amble by. Denny pierced a chub with my hook, tore off its body, and I lowered the head into the hole.
I could not only feel the perch nipping at the head, I could watch them on what I came to think of as the Fishing Channel. Denny advised me to keep the head moving. "The fluttering triggers the fish. They're like cats playing with string." When I saw my bobber—the piece of plastic attached to my line that floats on the surface of the water—get tugged, I should give the rod a sharp snap, impaling the fish.
After 45 minutes of fishing, I snapped my rod in response to a tug, then felt resistance on the line. I slowly reeled in my one catch of the morning, a 4-inch yellow perch. Denny carefully unhooked it and handed the fish to me. It was silky and thrashing and after I put it back in the frigid water, it quickly circled its way down to the dark. There are rules governing the size of the fish and the number you can keep. Since we planned to eat the fish someone else caught at a restaurant that night, Denny released all of ours.
Denny put some waxies on his line and started pulling in fish after fish—then unhooking them and plunging them back in the hole. Occasionally, we saw on the screen, as the little ones congregated around our bait, a big fish would sail by, giving our lines a condescending look, as if to say, "I'm not falling for this no matter what nationality your pimple is."
The Fishing Channel was mesmerizing, but it didn't seem quite fair, either.
"Isn't it cheating to watch the fish?" I asked him.
"Yes!" he replied, but we couldn't bring ourselves to turn the thing off.
After I got up from my nap at 1:15 p.m., the fish seemed like they were on a break, so we went out to talk to a couple of guys who had just driven up and drilled their own hole in the ice with an auger. (Since it was a Tuesday, the lake was almost deserted.) They were Tom and Jeremy, who lived nearby. Garrison Keillor has observed that, for men, walking onto a frozen lake, cutting a hole in the ice, and fishing is an alternative to both therapy and divorce, and a way to experience transcendence. "The moment you leave the shore, you are gripped by a sense of grandeur," Keillor writes. I asked Tom and Jeremy to describe the allure of ice fishing, but they didn't quite take Keillor's lyrical tone.
"It's something to do," said Tom.
"Yeah, it's something to do," agreed Jeremy.
Then Tom told us his favorite recent ice-fishing story. On a warmish day a young father was sitting by an open hole, pulling up dinner while his 3-year-old son played nearby on the ice. The father was hitting fish after fish, and he would unhook them and toss them behind him. As each one landed, the little boy carefully picked it up, walked to the next open hole, and put it back. "Finally the guy finished, turned around, and saw he had no fish," said Tom. "I never laughed so hard."