Early Tuesday morning, Roy and Judy Holmquist drove onto the frozen St. Croix River hoping to put a few crappies in a bucket. These are lifelong anglers, the two of them, Judy having grown up in Litchfield, Minn., not far west of the Twin Cities, where as a kid she cast a line into Lake Ripley. Roy, meanwhile, lived as a boy in West Lakeland, hard by the shores of the St. Croix, whose siren call he hears in summer as well as winter.
A handy guy, Roy builds his own fishing shacks, and the shack he entered amid Tuesday morning’s gathering light was one of four he keeps on the St. Croix.
“If fish aren’t biting in one, I might try another,” he said.
Selecting for this outing a four-holer, his biggest shack, Roy in short order set up a portable heater and augered the icy cylinders that connected him to the dark netherworld below. Baiting a couple of small glow-in-the-dark jigs with crappie minnows, he dropped the rigs into the water and settled in.
For her part, meanwhile, Judy was perhaps 30 yards away, in her own shack. They like it that way, fishing together, alone on the St. Croix in winter.
“I love my fish shack,” Judy said. “I can sit on my chair and everything is within reach: the heater, the three holes, my little table.” Also, unlike Roy, while fishing Judy wears headphones whose built-in radio is always tuned to the “Good Neighbor,” WCCO.
“It’s hard to find headphones anymore that will pick up AM radio,” she said.
Good with numbers, Roy, 68, will tell you he dangles his baits 6 to 8 feet off the bottom, because that is often where crappies suspend in winter. Also Tuesday, he knew exactly how long he has been retired: 15 years, 10 months and five days.
“June ’73 was my seniority date at the [St. Paul] Ford plant,” he said. “That was the year the [United Auto Workers] got ‘30-and-out’ in our contract. I remember one guy on the line told me, ‘The way you live, you ain’t going to make it.’ Most guys didn’t. Half quit the first few weeks. Others got fired or died.”
Waiting for bobbers to disappear beneath the frozen surface of lakes or rivers can induce Zen-like contemplation that helps winter fly by. Occasional periods of frenzied fish-catching are the sport’s bonus, and the reason more anglers than ever are investing time and money in winter fishing.
“I had my first shack on the St. Croix in 1973,” Roy said. “It was 6 foot-by-8 foot. But I made it too tall to go out the garage door. So I had to take it apart and build it again outside the garage.
“This was before I put eye hooks on shacks for pulling. So when I took that shack off the ice, I ran a chain through two of the holes and connected it to my car. This worked fine until the shack started tumbling behind my car like dice. The whole thing ended up in the fire pit.”
Married 25 years, Roy and Judy honeymooned at Lake of the Woods, where, biding her time one day in their boat, Judy rearranged the lures in Roy’s tackle box. She realizes now that in some Minnesota jurisdictions this single action is grounds for annulment.
But Roy is an understanding guy, and anyway he’s primarily a bait fisherman who rarely uses hard baits. So he let the infraction slide.
“Roy’s the one who taught me how to fish,” Judy said. “Every summer we go to northern Minnesota to fish near Orr. I love walleye fishing, and one summer on that trip I caught my biggest walleye ever, a 31½-incher. I caught it on a plain #6 hook with a red bead and a ’crawler. That’s all we ever fish with, night crawlers.”
During his days at Ford, Roy made a lot of friends. Some liked to fish in winter, and occasionally on cold nights after work they’d head to one of Roy’s St. Croix River shacks to play Yahtzee and share a beverage or two.
They also fished, kind of.
“Fish in the St. Croix don’t bite after dark, and after a while we stopped drilling holes altogether,” he said. “We found out we caught the same number of fish whether we drilled them or not.”
Though the St. Croix’s crappie bite generally has been good this winter, especially in December and early January, action was slow on the big river Tuesday morning.
Hope blossomed for Wednesday, however.
By then, Roy would be retired 15 years, 10 months and six days, which would be reason enough to auger a few holes in the St. Croix and fish one more time together, and alone, with Judy.