Ice fishing is most comfortably undertaken by people who are prepared to meet their maker at a moment's notice. However unlikely, the possibility of entombing oneself beneath lake or river ice always exists, and is a disquieting footnote to an otherwise bucolic experience. Yet to worry is to miss the meditative point of the sport, which ultimately is more akin to Zen than to fishing. Live simply. Focus. Smile. Fear nothing. Hereabouts in our long cold winter, this is how you become one with fish, and fishing.
I was thinking about this on Wednesday, and the Wednesday before that, and the one a week earlier still. Our sons were home from college in late December and early January, and the St. Croix, not far from our house, beckoned with its frozen backwaters and its white midstream laced with snowmobile tracks.
Walleyes inhabit the river's frozen understory, as do bluegills, crappies, large- and smallmouth bass and northern pike, among others. It was pike that we sought a couple of weeks back, Cole, the younger boy and I, and pike also that Griz, or Dick Grzywinski, and I sought on Wednesday, this more recent time on Little Green Lake in Chisago County.
It's said sometimes by otherwise intelligent observers that ice fishing is boring, or can be, an assertion that often earns the rejoinder "Not if you have enough beer!'' But this is old-school thinking. Instead, the mindfulness, relaxed breathing and clearheadedness familiar to, say, American snipers places the participant angler in a mental state both calm and predatory, the kind necessary to whack the really big ones.
Which, when monster fishing, is the point.
As Confucius said, "No one who catches big fish takes alley on way home.''
Dude had it about right.
Unique to winter fishing, and virtually required to hook big fish in winter, tip-ups are constructed differently, one manufacturer to the next.
Yet regardless of a model's specific design, its point is to connect spooled line to a flag or other mechanism that alerts an angler when the flag pops up that a fish has taken a presented bait and is running with it.
Contrast this with a "jig stick'' or its modern, more expensive rendition, a graphite rod and reel that is a miniature version of the same rig used in summer.
These — the shorter models — are deployed by winter anglers as they hover over ice holes and jerk the rods quickly (though fluidly) up and down, usually with tiny jigs and waxworms or other baits attached to the end of leaders.
Often this exercise is aided by a sonar "flasher'' that displays not only water depth but fish location, assuming their presence, the whole shebang constructed to trick sunfish, bluegills or crappies into striking.
This is plenty o' fun, especially when the fillets or de-scaled slabs of these panfish are bubbled to perfection in hot oil, hash browns and a long neck or two on the side.
Yet the cool tranquillity of tip-up fishing, this is not.
"I've got our tip-up holes spread out,'' Cole said, "from water 3 feet deep to 6 feet.''
Our old-time ice auger combusts gas and oil into fumes that envelop the operator in vaporous clouds, and it was through these that Cole spoke.
"Let's drop 'em down,'' I said.
Which we did, one by one, after piercing the backs of large shiner minnows with the treble hooks tied to our tip-up lines.
When I was a kid, we used Beaver Dam tip-ups, wooden ones, and these were and still are great fish-catchers. But the models Cole and I employed the other day were plastic, and unlike the early Beaver Dams, they covered the holes entirely, preventing the openings from freezing.
Importantly, these modern varieties also have proven to be correctly calibrated, so that they neither spool too easily when a fish strikes, or are too resistant.
Both can result in lost fish or, equally disturbing to the moonbeam psyches of tip-up buffs, false flags.
Fast forward now to this past Wednesday, when, just as Cole and I had done a while back, Griz and I drilled holes in ice and dropped shiners into chilled water; baits that were connected to our tip-ups via a treble hook, leader, line and spool.
Griz uses Polar tip-ups with magnets, a different style than the ones Cole and I used. But no matter. Once positioned, they produced the same calming effect on Griz and me that Cole and I experienced, and indeed all tip-up anglers experience.
On Wednesday, Griz and I in our collective mind's eye could readily envision fish swimming beneath the ice and gobbling our baits with a vengeance. Some degree of self-deception was necessary here, we understood that. But one man's deception is another's confidence, and tip-up anglers by temperament and experience possess the latter in spades.
Live simply. Focus. Smile. Fear Nothing.
On the day Cole and I fished, he pulled a 15-pound northern through the ice, also a second northern and three largemouth bass, each weighing in excess of 2 pounds.
Griz and I caught that many fish and more.
Two days of good fishing.
Two days of waiting for the next flag.
Dennis Anderson firstname.lastname@example.org