My late father, a proud Irishman with blue-collar sensibilities, had one prerequisite for ice fishing: Copious amounts of brown liquor. He said he had to be “half in the bag” to tolerate it.
For the first time this winter in many years, I’m going to tolerate a day or two of fishing the hard water, because I want some crappies and bluegills for the frying pan. Don’t get me wrong: I love to fish. If I had one day to live and one outdoor wish, I’d fly-fish for trout on some picturesque western river. A pod of rising brown trout would be gorging themselves on mayflies or caddisflies. Wading in thigh-deep moving water as clear as moonshine, I’d cast dry flies to those ravenous browns until I developed a repetitive-stress injury.
That’s my idea of really fishing, not plumbing the hard water with a two-foot pole as I stare through a Frisbee-sized hole in a contained and claustrophobic environment (see: fish house, a variation on the man cave). I don’t hate ice fishing like my father, but I certainly don’t idealize the pastime. Which, quite honestly, doesn’t sit well with some. Let me explain.
Here in the Land of Sky-Blue Waters, some of my lifelong fishing buddies, those self-appointed culture warriors of Minnesota fishing, have told me repeatedly that anyone worth his or her salt fishes through the ice. And if you don’t (or if you do and don’t love it), there’s something seriously wrong with you.
What they’re really saying is that I can’t call myself a true-blue, bona fide fisherman unless I regularly and enthusiastically fish through the ice. In fact, one of my buddies told me that “you’re really not an angler unless you own an ice auger.”
“Really?” I said. I own 10 fly rods and hundreds of flies, and have been known (in years past) to fish four days a week during spring and summer. Yet I’m not a real fisherman unless I own an auger?
“That’s a pretty flimsy standard, don’t you think?” I asked him.
“Not at all,” he said. “You know I’m right.”
Let’s be clear about this particular friend: He’s a spectacular fanatic. A great, great guy, but he is positively nuts. He would sleep next to his ice auger if his wife allowed it in their bedroom. He pampers it (and all of ice-fishing accoutrements, truth be told) like it’s his firstborn. He loves the activity that much.
Which got me to thinking: Why do we fish the hard water? What’s the allure? Greg Breining, a freelance writer from St. Paul, wrote a book a few years back on the subject. “A Hard-water World: Ice Fishing and Why We Do It” (Minnesota Historical Society Press) chronicles the motivations of ice anglers from Minnesota to Moscow.
Breining, an avid fly fisherman who fishes the hard water occasionally, said ice fishing is deeply embedded in Minnesota culture. “It’s more than just a pastime, although many people do it just to pass the time or get outdoors in the dead of winter,” he said. “Some like to be with friends and enjoy the party aspect of ice fishing. Others just love to fish. It’s a mixed bag.
“All the things that I love and thrill me about fly-fishing — the moving, the casting, the paddling — are absent from ice fishing,” he added. “But at the same time, ice fishing has its charms and is occasionally thrilling, too.”
In researching the book, Breining learned how much ice fishing has evolved from the sedentary and simple sport he grew up with. “The real revolution in ice fishing is mobility and the use of electronics,” he said.
Today’s modern ice anglers use gas-operated augers to cut multiple holes on a point and at different depths, he said, after which they drop in underwater cameras and fish finders to explore the watery netherworld. If they don’t have any luck, they move.
“I don’t like screwing with all that electronics stuff, but for the guys who do, they catch a lot of fish,” Breining said. “In the end, it’s all about personal taste.”
I come from the auger-and-hope school of ice fishing. I like to keep it simple. A bucket to sit on. No portable or permanent icehouse. A few teardrop jigs and a cache of wax worms. The occasional adult beverage. A manual ice auger (which I have to borrow from a friend). A blue sky and a 20-degree winter day. To me, that’s ice fishing.
“You need to get out of the Stone Age,” said Dave Genz, of St. Cloud. Genz is considered the godfather of modern ice fishing. Through trial and error over 30-plus years, he has developed a system (davegenz.com) that employs electronics and modern equipment and strategy that he — and the countless disciples — said is the foundation for success.
“Let me you ask you a question: Do you want to catch fish or not?” said Genz, who is so enthusiastic and persuasive that he could convince a Key West native to ice-fish in Embarrass in late January.
It’s hard to argue with his logic. I have to admit that all my ice-fishing prejudices melt away like a spring thaw when I have a fish on. It’s just me and the fish and the fishing gods deciding our fate. Catching fish is a universal language among all anglers that never gets lost in translation.
I’d just rather be wading the moonshine-clear water of a western river and not standing on a foot of ice when it happens. My late old man taught me well.
Tori J. McCormick is a freelance outdoors writer from Prior Lake. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.