It think it's partly because when I decided I was going to become an ice fisherman in high school, there was nobody around to show me. Dad had little interest in stinging hands, snotsicles, and bucket back. I don't think he'd ever even been ice fishing. Working outside, he was more interested in a hot meal and a cold drink in front of the fire on the weekends. And he'd probably earned them.
So I struck out on my own, making more mistakes and learning less in a couple seasons that I would have in a couple hours with a little instruction. The tackle and baits I was using at the time are comical to me now. But with a little determination, a lot of chemical hand warmers, and the latest copy of the In-Fisherman ice fishing edition under my arm, I made progress. I eventually grew weary of freezing on my bucket, and attempted to build a portable pop-up shack out of some old plywood and tarps in Dad's shop. I found a discarded storm door in his mountains of construction site refuse, and installed that on the front, a gleam of satisfaction in my eyes.
Then I tried to pull the monstrosity out on the ice. I think it made three or four fishing trips. Initially, pride of ownership and the swagger of youth prevented me from admitting that it was too heavy to use on anything but glare ice. I heaved and sweated, cursed and panted, and that was before I had load it on top of my car after fishing. It ended up being relegated to the back yard on Lathrop Street in college. With eight guys and two bathrooms in that house, it made a perfect place to relieve oneself of excess beer during parties, complete with a hole cut in the floor. From ice fishing glory to makeshift outhouse, a precipitous fall indeed.
Back in the present, I have at my disposal piles of ice fishing tackle and equipment. Specialized clothing and electronics, rods and reels, jigs and baits. While I am no true expert on the ice, two decades of experience under one's belt goes a long way to improve the odds of putting a fish fry on the table.
I'd been planning to hit a convenient bluegill spot for a while, and was pleased when Roady called me early last week to tell me that his son was dying to go on his first ice fishing excursion. Surely, ice fishing in a group can be a blast at times, especially when getting a kid involved is the point of the whole thing. We set the time and place, and I was secretly thrilled when Roady and his son Cody braved chilly single-digit temperatures and an intense southwest wind to join me fishing for bluegills last Saturday morning.
It was with a little trepidation that I'd set up in the dark about an hour before they arrived. The fishing had been reported as slow, the ice a little iffy in some spots because of our warm winter, and the weather was pretty brutal, at least for a kid. I didn't know how long a six-year-old's fishing passion would withstand the conditions.
I'd considered bringing the power auger because it might have been necessary to pop bunch of holes searching for fish, and because I was a little boy once -- big noisy power tools are cool in the mind of a tike. I stood taken aback then, when after drilling the first hole, I discovered that there were only about six inches of ice in this little bay. Plenty of ice to be safe, mind you, but scarcely a third of what I am accustomed to this time of year. Another reminder to take internet reports with a grain of salt. No need for the power auger.
The wind picked up as the sun slowly made it's pale wintry presence known, chasing shadows to the far shore and lending little warmth. As darkness gave way, I found the gills on my Vexilar (a sonar device used in ice fishing).
For those of you not in the know, the broad orange bar represents the bottom of the lake. The thinner green lines above the bottom are fish.
This is my home game in winter. These are fish I know well, having been taught by them over the last 15 years. They are city fish, as wary as city people can be when either are forced to be. The spot is well known, and often produces well, but it gets fished hard. To have any chance of success in this slightly cloudy shallow water, you have to play the finesse game. Using ultra-light rods armed with 1lb. test line and miniscule #14 jigs, you deliberately, achingly slowly, lower your bait to them. Make them watch it. Make them want it, need it. Like restaurant patrons waiting at the bar while waitresses glide by, gorgeous platters of succulent food going to somebody else, these fish need to be made ravenous before they will be fooled by your presentation. You're half fisherman and half burlesque girl in this spot. It's all about the tease.
You can slam a heavy jig slobbed with a wax worm or thick plastic to the bottom and catch a few fish here, but you won't catch many, and they will be relatively small. Concentrating hard on whisper-thin, fragile line, I slowly teased and taunted them until one finally committed to my offering.
Roady arrived shortly after that first fish was iced, a hyper, North Face-clad munchkin in tow. Cody was plainly thrilled to be there, firing questions at machine gun pace, barely able to sit still, not a care given to the cold. I gave him a rod rigged with one of those heavy jigs that are much easier to fish, and set him to fishing as quickly as I could. There was little chance he would be able to concentrate enough to fish a tiny jig slowly on line barely thicker than his young blond hair, so I went with the less productive, much easier-to-fish bait, and prayed.
Stifling a laugh as he shook the living hell out of that rod like he was strangling a cat, I tried to explain to him that he should jig a little less rambunctiously, while attempting to show him how to use the Vexilar. I had my doubts, thinking the mysterious looking ring of rainbow lights would be too complex and boring. How wrong I was. The computer age has blessed his young mind with an understanding of electronics that would've baffled me at his age. He was soon reading the screen with the ease of a seasoned ice man. It was a hit, and I don't think he would've been nearly as interested without the whirring glow of the sonar to keep him occupied. I know the feeling.
I freely admit this ice fisherman's heart went a little soft when clambered up into my lap, without announcement or pretense, in order to get a better angle on the hole. He jigged and jigged, mesmerized by the screen and the image of his bait going up and down in the water column. He asked a question after question about the fish and the water. He wanted to know if there were sharks there. Then, while Roady and I were talking to each other, not even paying attention to Cody, he was all over one.
"I think I got one!" Are there any sweeter words to the fishing teacher? I looked over, and sure enough, there was the rod tip, arced over and dancing.
Soon enough a little bluegill was wrapped in little hands, and the smiling would not stop. His first fish through the ice. We marveled over his catch, and took pictures. We congratulated him and his mighty fish catching abilities. We high-fived.
A bluegill a piece and smiles all around...
Cody fished basically on his own for quite a while after that, sitting in dad's lap for warmth and comfort. Flush with success, he wanted badly to catch more fish. I wanted it badly too, but it wasn't in the cards. He eventually grew bored of staring at the screen and shaking the rod way too hard, and as Road and I sat in my shack, we glanced up to see him go rocketing by on his belly. He'd had enough sitting still, and was tearing around the ice, flopping on his belly and sliding it out, Slip-n-Slide style. It looked like a blast, but Roady and I agreed we'd probably end up going for stitches in the chin if we tried it. We aren't young and rubber anymore.
There was a little drama and some crocodile tears getting him out of there. He wanted to stay, of course, and he was seriously pissed that we'd thrown his fish back, no trouble accusing his dad of being the single worst fishing guide in history. He wanted to eat his like I was going to mine, and he was making that very clear. All of which I took as wonderful signs pointing to our fishing adventures together in the future.
I watched them all the way back to shore, doing the ice fisherman's shuffle you do to prevent falling. Then I got back to the business of actual finesse fishing. I caught a few more fish, but it was approaching mid-day, not the best time to be in this fishing hole, and my heart wasn't in it.
It was with Cody. His vibrating excitement when he got there, his vociferous protestations while leaving, and most of all, the screech and smile that accompanied his first fish through the ice. I remember my first fish vividly, through the same heady, sentimental lens I recall my first kiss (Hi, Kim - sorry, but it's true, swaying to Stand By Me on that deck not withstanding). The fish was a rock bass in about 15 feet of very clear water off the end of the Country Club Pier in Fontana, and I watched him inhale my night crawler against the pale background of his spawning bed far below my feet. To this day, I have no idea why, but I cried when Dad thwacked him on the head with the handle of his pocket knife to stop the flopping around so he could clean him.
I was older then than Cody is now, but I hope he remembers his first fish through the ice with some of the fondness that I do mine.
Father and Son