Wednesday, February 15, 2012

"I Think I got One!"

Ice fishing for me is almost always a solitary endeavor.  I like it that way.  Not that I'm a misanthropic hermit, guarding my spots with crazed eyes and a maniacal grin.  It's just one of the few things that I do well truly alone.  Most all of my favorite outdoor pursuits are done better with partners.  Bird hunting, coyotes, foraging for mushrooms and food, all are more efficient and pleasurable with partners.  You can deer hunt very successfully alone, but that's only nine days out of the year for me.

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

Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Curse of the First Cast Fish

It was an unseasonably warm and sunny morning on Lake Delavan.  Right around the middle of April, I believe.  Too many fishing seasons have passed to be sure now.  What I do remember is that I had to strip down to my skivvies in the bow of Brian's jon boat to get my long underwear off as we were motoring out.  While I had my bibs and union suit tangled around my boots, struggling to get re-dressed, he goosed the throttle over and over, sending me sprawling to the deck more than once.   Laughing and threatening to tumble me into the frigid spring water, he was having a grand time of it already, and we weren't even fishing yet.

We set up in area known to be good for crappies that time of year.  Minnows on gold Aberdeen #8 hooks below a slip float, a step or two up from the old cane pole on the bank, but not exactly highly technical fishing.  I fiddled with my set-up a bit, making sure the bobber stop was set where I wanted it, giving the split shot an extra scrunch, and finally, letting a minnow fly to plumb the depths in search of my dinner.

It was a thing of beauty, exactly what you want to see.  The bait hit the water, and the float barely had time to right itself before it slumped over again -- the signal that a crappie had risen to hit the minnow as it was falling.  Using the longer rod I prefer for this application, I swept up the slack line I'd not yet had a chance to mend or retrieve, and gave it that little pop of a hookset you use on papermouths.  The light rod bent into a deep arc, and soon enough, a gorgeous foot-long slabber with nice shoulders was brought to hand.  I try not to see them as only meat, but my mouth may have been watering as I tossed him on ice in anticipation of a fish fry that evening.

Then, as often happens when you count your grouse before you hit them, we experienced just about the worst morning of fishing you can have.  Not horrifically bad.  There were no gale force winds, the boat didn't capsize, and nobody died, but you know what I mean.  No more fish.  We fished under floats, we drifted, we tried every color and flavor of live and plastic bait in the boat.  It simply was not happening.  We could mark them, but the sun was high and the wind was low, and they weren't in the mood to play.  The end of our collective rope came around noon as we watched a kid no more than 12, standing on the dock at the launch, pull crappie after crappie after we'd taken the boat out.  The Curse of the First Cast Fish.

We fishermen are a notoriously superstitious bunch.  I do have a trinket or two that I enjoy using or having with me while I fish and hunt, but I'd thought myself fairly immune the mental games of The Curse... until it kept striking.

While I haven't chased them a lot in the past couple years, I do enjoy the freight train pull of the channel cat.  They dig and swirl, and when big enough, threaten to break line and bust tackle.  They always have one more run in them just when you think they're ready for the net..  A commendable attribute in any fish.  They're ugly and spiny and a little tough to handle when they thrash and twist in your hands.  I like that too.  This ain't casting tiny dry flies over timorous golden trout in an idyllic glade.  It's muddy and stinky, and everybody's probably gonna end up bleeding a little by the time it's all said and done.

The place I normally fish for them can be a real riot at the right time of year.  The fish winter in the lake.  At some point they decide to run back up to their summer haunts in the river.  I don't know if it's water temperature, day length, the angle of the sun or the season premier of Biggest Loser that sets them off on their journey against the current, but when the spring rains come, and they bunch up in the lowest reaches of the river to make their run, it can be outstanding for those of us lying in wait with cut bait and baitcasters.

 Moderation is a good thing.  Sometimes two rods are all I can manage in that spot.

We're allowed to use up to three separate lines here, but when they are in the river in spring, I seldom get more than two rods in the water.  The bite is too fast, and the third rod just ends up taunting me.  As if somehow, if I could only get that third line in the water, the catching would be that much greater, when in reality, it would most likely lead only to tangled lines, missed fish, and creative cussing.

On the other hand, more than a couple times in that very spot, the hammer of God has fallen after that first cast fish, and rendered me with a nearly empty cooler (and belly).  I remember a fine April morning that appeared perfectly nasty for the cats in my spot.  A warm wind barreled in from the west, churning the little backwater nearly to whitecaps, beating the last remnants of busted shore ice into submission.  The sun shone, but not too brightly, and the water level was very high.  All excellent conditions for chasing the bewhiskered torpedoes of bone and muscle.

I leaned hard into the wind as I walked down to my favorite shore fishing spot, having decided it was slightly less idiotic to fish the gale out in the cover of willows than in a boat.  I was thrilled to be out in perfect conditions for the spot, battered by gusts and vernal hormones.  I cast hard into the teeth of the gale, my cut-up sucker falling well short of the intended target, but it did not matter.  Before I could get the second line in the water, I heard a bait clicker screaming over the howling wind and looked to see the first rod bent over nearly double.  Perfect, I thought.  This day is going to be spectacular if we don't end up getting blown to Kansas.

But that was it.  The only fish of a long day watching clouds whip by at a very impressive clip.  The Curse was at work again.  It's to the point that I almost dread catching a fish on the first cast now.

So it was last weekend at camp.  Most of us arrived Friday for Drink Beer Burn Wood 2012.  Handshakes abounded, venison made it's way to the grill, and glasses were raised between friends.  Saturday morning, a handful of us headed down to the tiny lake at the end of the road to assess the mood of the panfish under the ice.  On the advice of a friend who had seen a solitary ice fisherman out there for part of the week, we drifted out to his spot, and popped a half dozen holes.  I may have marked a fish or two on the Vexilar, but it was pretty barren so we packed up the gear, and headed to a bigger lake down the road.

We trudged out on snow gone soft and mushy in the sun.  I know this lake much better.  A hole was drilled in a likely spot, I knelt in the snow and lowered down a miniscule teardrop jig tipped with a sliver of scented plastic, my first try on that water for the day.  I saw him racing up from the bottom on the Vexilar, and almost before I could react felt the distinctive pop.  I hoisted my smallish perch to the topside of the ice, and that was it for me.  Hours later, after many holes and every combination of jig and bait I could think of, every drop speed and jigging motion I could muster, my count held steady at one perch.  And that single fish did not even have the common courtesy to call up a pike as he struggled below my tip-up the rest of the fishing day.  We marked fish most of the morning, but could not get them to bite, which may be a topic for an entirely new post on outdoor frustrations that make you want to punch yourself in the face

I did, however, manage to accomplish my singular goal for the trip.  Richard, a native boy of the south transplanted to the land of hard water fishing by marriage, was along for the trip.  While I promised nothing, it was my secret hope to get him his first fish through the ice.  Not long after I landed my behemoth, he was able to pull an equally impressive ringback from the grassy depths.  And then, just as I had shown him, he succumbed to the Curse of the First Cast Fish.  

Sorry, bro.  I promise not to catch one on the first drop next time.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Karmic Currency

There is a place I go where the water rushes over cobble.  Riffle to pool to run, it snakes its way through verdant fields and woodlots, a shimmering ribbon through emerald summer expanse.  The water is cool and raucous, in a hurry, yet easily distracted.  It alternately pulls at your legs and lulls to a snail's pace.  There are fish here, and big.  They do not show themselves often, but with patience and the willingness to learn they can be fooled into thrashing a fly.  More often, they choose to remain hidden, content to dodge the fool stumbling around the river flailing a stick.

There is a place I go where the snow falls on hemlock and spruce.  A spring burbles forth from the sand, it's pool wearing a crown of watercress.  The water runs away, to a place I have never followed.  I'm content to sit there, and watch through gin-clear water as miniscule grains of sand gurgle and churn.  I saw a bull frog there one time when I was a kid, and always somehow expect him to be sitting there again, awaiting my return, but he never is.  When the snow rests on claret branches of red osier dogwood, above the chatoyant pool ringed in deep winter green, I think it is one of the most beautiful places in the world.

There is place I go where the quartzite and shale jut and tumble jaggedly from the ground.  Pine and spruce cling bravely to seemingly impossible haunts.  I marvel at their toughness -- life just want to be.  Blackberry brush can make short work of light pants and pale legs there, but when I summit the ridge the view dulls the pain.  A vista like that could drive a man to write poetry.  Not this guy, but some guy.  The wind often whips and the river far below peeks from the trees on the bends.  At the right time of year, you can look down at the turkey vultures sailing effortlessly on thermals.

I live and work in the city.  In a great city that I love, no less.  Madison is a place with a thriving downtown, wonderful entertainment venues, and a gorgeous campus.  Lord knows, I've sipped or guzzled my fair share of beer at the terrace or in parking lots before a football game.  There are outstanding restaurants everywhere, the Dane County Farmers Market is an absolute jewel on the Capitol Square, and the people are almost always genuinely happy to see you.

But they aren't always "my people."  As an outdoorsman in the city, I'm often reminded that I don't quite fit the mold.  When people here learn that I enjoy being outside, they love to talk about camping, snowshoeing, and bird watching.  All things I enjoy doing on a regular basis.  But when the subjects of hunting and fishing come up they can sometimes drift away to the the next conversation at the cocktail party, a sidelong glance of disdain shared with their vegan doula life partner in the dreads.  Being a gun owner in this progressive town can sometimes feel a bit like being a leper.

Yes, I kill things and eat them.  So does everyone else, even if it's just broccoli.  I'm simply taking out the middle man.  I can see the line between taking in the beauty of a deer and eating it.  Deer hunters watch deer without touching a gun or bow for the sheer enjoyment of it more than anybody else.  I simply don't have a problem stepping up to the plate, and getting a little blood and guts on my hands.  You cannot get more free range organic than that.

But people have prejudices and preconceived notions about hunters and fishermen.  They range from the bloodthirsty killer, stalking the woods to maim, wound, torture and kill anything that crosses his path to the bumbling Bubba, too dumb to get a job and check to spend down at the food co-op.  I am decidedly neither of these.  I am consistently stilled by wonder and awe outside, and dedicated to learning about what I see and feel.

My father was an expert in the woods without being much of a hunter.  I seldom saw him stumped on the identification of a tree, flower, or bird.  And when he was, a point was made to go home to the sagging shelf of field guides, and look it up together.  This often lead to informal lessons in anything from evolution to forest succession to the carbon cycle.  No rods and guns needed.  I still carry much of that knowledge with me whether I'm carrying a creel or binoculars and bird book.  It opens an entire world of beauty and understanding to me every time I step off the path.

His brother, my uncle, is an amateur astronomer, among many other brainy and impressive things.  I remember him pulling out into the frigid Michigan night as a boy for a chance to view Halley's Comet through his telescope.  I don't think we ever saw it that night, but I went back to school so enthralled with it, that I did my 5th grade science fair project on the comet.  While I'm nothing more than a debutant star gazer now, I did take with me enough to learn many of the constellations visible in my part of the world, and I can find my way out of a navigational pickle if needed on a clear night in the woods or on a stream.

Growing up near the Kettle Moraine, we were inundated with glacial geomorphology in school as youngsters, and I can happily recognize some formations while afield, often boring my hunting companions with soliloquies on kame, eskers, and erratics.  Thanks to Brian, Woody, and a host of great cooks I know, I enjoy foraging.  Mushrooms, ramps, wild asparagus, and many others all find their way across my table.  This year, I want to pickle milkweed pods.  What?  They look delicious.  And when it really comes down to it, I enjoy nothing more than a good long strenuous hike or paddle. Work up a nice little froth and get the joints all loose and bendy.  No other gear required.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying that most of us out there in the glades and valleys are not simply killers blinded by the thirst for bloody meat or knuckleheads fueled by Pabst and beef jerky.  It's not a Disney flick out there, but neither is it Saw 5.

So, how do we, as active participants, carnivores armed with modern weapons and ancient incisors, fit into the web?  With forethought and respect.

If we wish to exist out there, it is our duty to learn.  You don't have to be a walking taxonomic key, channeling Linnaeus at every turn.  There is pleasure to be had and knowledge to be gained without learning every name of every flower and bug.  In fact, I think some people (I'm looking at you, fly fishermen) can fall back on book learning and Latin a little too much.  I can remember asking my mother the name of a certain iridescent beetle on a leaf in the sunlight.  She replied, "I have no idea, but just look at how beautiful it is."  Genius.

As hunters and fishermen, our most important objective, our singular duty, has to be making a clean kill.  We're taking a life to enjoy the meat.  That also means the respect has to extend to the campfire and kitchen.

Sometimes a dinner bombs.  We overcook things, forget ingredients, or fail to learn proper technique.  Personally, I view this shortfall in the same light as poor marksmanship.  Practice in the kitchen is, for me at least, just as important as practice on the shooting range.  Without it, we are cheating that animal terribly in the exchange of karmic currency.  Not only do we owe it to the animal to bring the end as painlessly and quickly as possible, but we owe the respect needed to prepare it well, and enjoy it in good company.

Blue rare venison, fairly chased and respectfully prepared

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