Sleeping With the Fishes
I thought ice fishing would be cold, uncomfortable, and a little bit dangerous. How wrong I was.
Preparing for my first ice-fishing expedition—a February trip to a frozen Minnesota lake—I read through the advice offered by the U.S. Army Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory about the "precautionary measures" that were a "matter of life or death" when one is "working or playing on the frozen surface of a river or lake." Since ice fishing has a faintly comic air, it was bracing to know that Defense Department researchers viewed this sport as having a potential for calamity somewhere between race-car driving and vacationing with the vice president.
But after three hours of jiggling my bait, the fish ignoring it, and the propane heater in the fish house making things so toasty my guide was stripped down to his T-shirt, the greatest danger seemed not that a fissure in the ice would swallow us, but that I would nod off and tumble, Alice in Wonderland-like, into the hole. Fortunately, our fish house had a bunk bed, so instead of falling into the water, I curled up on the bottom bunk and took a nap.
At that moment I realized that any sport that comes with its own bed is meant for me.
My guide, Denny Ryan, had taken me to Lyback's Ice Fishing resort, on the shore of Mille Lacs, a 200-square-mile lake about two hours north of Minneapolis. Denny is a 52-year-old Minnesota native, a mail carrier who has been ice fishing since he was 4 years old. (He remembers the first occasion because he stepped into the hole and had to wear his mother's figure skate on his wet foot the rest of the day.) We drove in Denny's van to the door of the fish house, which was located on Mille Lacs, about two miles from the shore. As his tires touched the frozen lake he advised me to unbuckle my seatbelt. "We're not going through the ice, but my dad always said if you do, you don't want your seatbelt on." We heard an occasional low rumbling sound. "That's the ice cracking," Denny explained, before reassuring me that it was 20 inches thick. I was not comforted. I imagined becoming part of Al Gore's global-warming slide show: a picture of Denny and me in the van at the bottom of the lake, as Gore described how Minnesota became the latest outpost of Club Med.
Before it became a sport, ice fishing was an ancient means of survival for northern people. The Wisconsin State Historical Museum, in an exhibit on Native American fishing traditions, described how after chiseling a hole in the ice, the fisherman would lie down on a bed of balsam branches to hide his reflection, and cover himself with a tepee. He would lower hand-carved decoys into the water, and when a fish approached, impale it on a spear. You can see this skill demonstrated if you rent the magnificent 1922 documentary Nanook of the North.
Ice fishing has since evolved (degenerated?) from balsam and tepees to brews and TVs. Compare the scenes of Nanook triumphantly pulling up fish and killing them with his teeth to the portrayal of ice fishing in Grumpy Old Men, with Walter Matthau sitting on an easy chair in his fishing hut, a six-pack chilling in the ice hole.
We had gotten up at 4:15 a.m. for our expedition. At dawn, before we reached the lake, we stopped at Meleens Sports Center in the town of Onamia. All sports have their equipment and vernacular, but fishing seems to have more than its share. Fishing "jigs" are colorful lures you jiggle in the water. (If Minnesotans ever decide to become rappers, they should name themselves after brands of fishing jigs: BOOYAH Boo Bug, Techni Glo Fat Boys, Power Wiggler, Rattling Varmit.) We bought a bunch of wax worms, called "waxies," moth larvae, $2.09 for 30, and several scoops of large flathead chubs, a small fish, for $3.50 a scoop. Denny warned me he would be putting the heads of chub on hooks because, he explained, "Since the dawn of time man has used little fish to catch big fish."
Then he said we needed to buy a bunch of Swedish Pimples and directed me to a wall of them—they are small oval metal lures. (When I got back home I tried to do some research on the origin of the term. I discovered "Swedish pimples" are also called "Swedish nipples." Looking up Swedish pimples sent me to Web sites on fishing or acne. Looking up Swedish nipples delivered me to I Am Curious—Yellow territory.)
We checked in at the resort, and I picked up a copy of Fifty Thousand Holes, the memoir of Phyllis Lyback, the co-founder of the resort. I flipped the book open and landed on Chapter 13, the story of her husband's near death after falling through the ice and his futile attempts to rescue himself until passing fishermen scooped him out. "The lake never seemed quite the same to him after that experience," she wrote. Her son, Eddy, who with his wife, Cindy, now runs the place, escorted us to our house, one of 20 of theirs scattered around the lake. Before we drove off, Denny, curious about what had been the most successful method of fishing lately, asked Eddy, "What are they doing—jigging pimples with chub heads?"
The red-painted VIP fish house was almost ridiculously luxurious, with two sets of bunk beds, a picture window, a toilet, a heater, a stove, and a dining room table. There were eight ice-fishing holes cut in the wall-to-wall carpet, each 10 inches across. Renting the deluxe house cost $125 for the day; we could have it for the week for $425. I loved the idea of being in my own cozy home and simply pulling dinner up through a hole in the floor. I was not sure about the carpeting, however. I could imagine if I lived there I would be constantly nagging, "How many times have I told you to get your crappie off the rug!"