Among souvenir T-shirts hawked in Alaska to tourists are those that say, “There are old pilots. And bold pilots. But no old, bold pilots.” Meaning flyers who take risks eventually run out of luck and perish in a ball of fire.
The same is true for ... everyone. A driver, for example, can only run a red light at a busy intersection so many times before he experiences firsthand the second law of physics, namely that two objects can’t occupy the same space at the same time.
Risk-taking can also be a losing game for ice anglers, most of whom pass lifetimes of winters without so much as wetting a boot.
Then again, some push their luck and push their luck until one day ... they break through.
The subject arose last week when I walked into Frankie’s Live Bait in Chisago. The date was Dec. 14, and in another year, the place would have been hopping, with customers lined three deep with cash in one hand and suckers, shiners and waxies in the other.
Not this time. The word was out among anglers in the greater metro that good ice has been late in forming this winter. As a result, most were staying on hard ground, awaiting a few more ice making days before venturing out.
The only customer in Frankie’s when I swung open the door was Griz, or Dick Grzywinski, my fishing pal.
Griz is 75 years of age this year, an old ice angler by some measures. But not an old, bold ice angler.
“I think we should change plans,” Griz said.
Griz already had scoped out a honey-hole lake we had planned to fish for bluegills. The lake, he said, was unoccupied, a sea of white with no portable fish shanties dotting its landscape, nor even a single angler propped on a bucket.
The lake’s access was also devoid of tracks, Griz said.
“The ice might be OK, and probably is,” he said. “But from what I can tell, no one has been out there yet. It’s not worth risking.”
I had been fantasizing a few long days about jigging up a mess of bluegills, the sweetest of sweet tasting fish, and arranging their surgically excised fillets on a dinner plate.
Some old-timers gut these fish and de-scale them before plopping them whole into a cast-iron skillet sizzling with hot oil, or even lard. The fish are then devoured morsel by morsel, their delicate meat picked from the skeletal remains like carrion.
I prefer instead to season my bluegill fillets lightly before sautéing them in butter and serving them alongside ... anything. Or nothing.
“So what’s Plan B?” I asked, worrying now that my fantasy bluegill feast would remain just that.
“We could try Chisago,” Griz offered.
Reports to Frankie’s from anglers who had been on the south end of Chisago Lake in recent days indicated it was blanketed with at least 6 inches of ice, maybe a little more. Assuming the ice was solid, and reports indicated it was, a half-foot of the hard stuff would be sufficient for walking, and would mark a positive turning point for ice fishing this season.
Statewide, the news for anglers also improved last week, especially in the north. Some walk-ons and even some ATVs could be seen on Mille Lacs bays, where early fishing was reported to be good. And on Upper Red Lake, for the first time this winter, half-ton pickups were allowed onto the ice from some accesses.
Yet conditions vary considerably from lake to lake, and even on different parts of the same lakes. A week ago, an angler on foot went through the ice on Shagawa Lake, which abuts Ely.
Ice mishaps occurring that far north speak volumes about the uncertainties of early winter fishing.
At Frankie’s, Griz picked out a dozen shiners, along with some waxies, and in short order we were hard by Chisago’s shoreline, where, workmanlike, we loaded separate sleds and angled onto the frozen lake, the sleds in tow.
As we did, snow fell lightly from a leaden sky, creating an ambient grayness that in other circles is blamed for seasonal affective disorder. Yet the fresh air felt good, and the cold silence that is winter fishing’s primary attribute enveloped us as we plodded along, our pace deliberate, like that of a chain gang en route to a gulag.
Offshore a few hundred yards, we stood over 7 feet of water, on top of 7 inches of good ice. Forgoing an auger, we had brought only spuds — in Griz’s case, the one his dad used back in the day — and soon we sent their pointed ends crashing into the ice.
“That’s all we had when I was a kid, a chisel,” I said. “When the ice was a couple feet thick, it was slow going.”
Not far away, two fellas were parked on 5-gallon buckets, staring into icy cylinders. Griz and I had spotted the men from shore, and their presence, along with the ice reports we had picked up at Frankie’s, buoyed our confidence that this part of Chisago Lake could be traveled safely on foot.
Bundled against the cold in heavy coats, one of the anglers was Dean Bergdahl of North Branch. The other was Carl Bierman of nearby Wyoming. Both reported they were retired from the workforce, and happily so.
A handful of bluegills covered the bottom of one of their buckets, an afternoon’s bounty.
“It’s been slow,” Bergdahl said, his smile suggesting a good time was being had nonetheless.
As Bergdahl spoke, not far away, Griz impaled a couple of shiners on hooks descending from tip-ups in an attempt to pull a northern or perhaps a largemouth bass through the ice.
I chose instead to lower a tiny, waxie-baited jig to the lake bottom, a simple undertaking that is romance-deficient compared to casting a fly to a rising rainbow trout or chucking an oversize bucktail to a muskie, but is satiating nonetheless.
We sat on buckets talking, and fishing, until darkness gathered along the shore and across the frozen lake. One nice bluegill was fooled by the waxie, and an even nicer crappie.
If we had fished more boldly, perhaps my bluegill fantasy would have been fulfilled. But, at day’s end, we had lived to fish another day.
Which is always the point.