While it might be true that in the spring a young man’s fancy turns to love, for us older guys it turns to more practical things: like ice fishing. Or, is that just me? Contrary to what you might have heard it is ice fishing, and not polo, which is the true Sport of Kings and manly men.
My friend Doug Cheng told me “Roll down your window” as we crept his three-ton Toyota Tundra out onto the frozen surface of Lake Fairlee in Fairlee, Vermont. “Why?” I asked, having never done this before in my life. “Because if we break through the ice, you can swim out the window,” he explained. This made perfect sense and I couldn’t get it down fast enough as I felt the slick surface of the lake crunching under the wheels. Knowing exactly when to drive onto the ice is very important. There are no safety reports posted anywhere, and local knowledge is critical. Doug, who is an expert at these things, mainly because he has been dunked before, told me that “when other vehicles are out here it’s usually okay.” Usually? I look around trying desperately to find something larger than the massive truck. Nothing. Only Subarus, snowmobiles, and little jeeps. I roll the back window down also.
Angling from the quaint little shacks which you see on Dewey’s Pond, and throughout New England, reminds me a lot of sitting in a Port-A-Potti waiting for a fish to pop out of the hole. It’s really not my way of fishing. I like boats. Granted, some of the shanties have wonderful amenities such as heat and music and mini-bars, but all we had was a truck. I was glad for that at first, but as the wind continued to blow across the barren lake, I thought seriously of renting a structure from an occupant and tossing him out.
Now, I’m not bragging, but I have fished for Arctic Char in the raging waters of the Riverie Poleman in Nunavut where the Inuit guide anchors in the rocks of the torrent and you nearly drown as you throw colorful silver and gold spoons for the strong fish. I pulled two-hundred-pound halibut up three hundred feet from the bottom of Cook Inlet in Alaska, laboring until my arms felt they would burst. I almost died of hyperthermia in Wyoming and couldn’t even haul in a twenty-inch rainbow from the sleet covered Green River. I pulled in catfish the size of dogs while being eaten alive by nuclear-powered mosquitos in the swamps of Louisiana. But I have never been so miserable as ice fishing in Vermont for eight-inch perch. Never.
“Here’s our spot,” Doug declared as he pulled into a small cove. “Nobody’s here.” Now, in my logical mind, there might be a reason for this. The ice was populated with numerous VT/NH plated vehicles and burly men sporting wool hats, heavy beards, and wearing full camo clothing. If this is such a great spot, then why weren’t they here already? Maybe the ice is too thin here? Maybe that’s why all those mountain men are someplace else, like over there?
This whining didn’t seem to bother Doug, and once we parked on our spot, he instructed me to take the gas-powered auger and drill the holes in a straight line. “Why a straight line?” I ask. “If we need to have ten holes wouldn’t it be more efficient as a circle with us in the middle?” This made sense to me until Doug explained that if we weaken the circumference of a circle, then it would be like setting a trap for the next truck that drives through the area. Doug is an engineer. I did as I was told and drilled the ten holes in a straight line through two feet of ice all the while wondering if the last guys here were as smart as Doug. If not, then I would soon be witnessing his Toyota crashing through the ice. I must admit, the thought gave me a certain amount of satisfaction. I’m a Ford guy.
Once the holes were completed, we rigged a very small rod called a “tip-up” over the hole and set a spring so that when a fish bites a little red flag pops up. This would be the signal to put down our nice whiskey and run from the warm truck to pull in our massive trophy perch. This is only in theory. In reality, you must:
#1. Constantly use a scoop to bail out the ten holes from ice since they are continually freezing over. There is no getting back into the truck.
#2. You bait each hook with a lively shiner minnow which you cannot catch in the bait bucket without removing your gloves. The minnow does not want to be on the hook. He has heard bad things about it, and so he fights like a reluctant marlin.
#3. Before you can toss Mister Minnow into the hole, you realize that the line, now resembling stiff copper wire, has frozen to the surface of the lake and must be pried free using your wet, ice-covered and naked hands.
#4. Proceed to bait all ten rods. This is not possible because sometime before you are finished a little red flag pops up, and you go running, skidding, and sliding to a hole to pull in a frozen perch, which is only slightly bigger than the minnow it just ate.
Note: the fish cannot be removed and the hook re-baited without taking your gloves off (again). Attempt to repeat steps #1 through #4 as another stupid, annoying red flag pops up somewhere down the line. Some might erroneously conclude, “Well, that sounds like some darn exciting fishing.” I guess, but only in a way similar to having electrodes attached to your body.
Hours later, covered in fish slime and ice, shaking and numb we thankfully crawled the truck onto the lovely firm dirt of the shoreline. We had filled a five-gallon bucket of perch, and I must admit once I thawed out a few days later they were delicious to eat. Doug asked me, “So, how did you like ice fishing?” I admitted to him that I’d rather spend the day surf casting for big Redfish or drowning in the sea. I rolled up the windows trying to get warm. Doug and I never went ice fishing again. Good.
See you on the lake!