Earlier this week on a Chisago-area lake, we had the portable shack set up and the fish were biting. Not a lot of fish. Some fish. Meanwhile, a gray sky overhead suggested those who suffer from seasonal affective disorder might be having a tough day. If so, they should have been with us, meditating coolly as we were, staring through holes into 7 feet of very cold water.
These were not exotic species we sought, my two sons, Trevor and Cole, and I.
Bluegills, more commonly known as sunnies, were the primary target. Also we pulled up the odd crappie. But the real excitement was reserved for our tip-ups and the upward springing of their flags, indicating a northern pike or perhaps a largemouth bass had attacked one of our sucker minnows.
When this occurred, we ran pell-mell to the tip-up in hopes of hand-over-handing one of these larger specimens into daylight from the watery netherworld below.
Within sight of our shack were perhaps a half-dozen other anglers, most, like us, in portables, while beneath us were about 8 inches of hard water, enough to support our four-wheeler, whereas a few days previously, over thinner ice, we were reduced to pulling the shack onto the lake by hand, labor undertaken happily but labor nonetheless.
Unbelievable as it sounds, some people in this state don’t “get into” ice fishing. The irony, and irony seems now to footnote everything, is that some of these disbelievers otherwise consider themselves to be true Minnesotans, an assertion that is highly suspect.
So it is that even in this state a cultural divide exists over the merits of passing a winter’s day on the ice.
Which is unfortunate. Because no place in Minnesota during its coldest months is more peaceful or more invigorating than a large sheet of lake or river ice safely traveled.
Trevor, the older son, is home from Montana, where he lives, having finished college there recently. The bluegill he just set a hook on wasn’t a wall-hanger. Rather, it was hand-sized. Nonetheless, if we were keeping fish (which we weren’t on this day), this one would have been tossed into a 5-gallon bucket and from there, in time, into a frying pan.
Cole and I, meanwhile, facing opposite of Trevor in the shack, watched intently a couple of electronic ice fishing gadgets he had purchased a couple years back, while in high school.
Trevor worked at a bait shop at the time, and was also its best customer, laying down, over some months, his hard-earned cash for a flasher, or depth finder, and also an underwater camera.
Using the former the other day, we watched as fish, appearing as colored electronic “bars,” approached our baits. Meanwhile, the latter showed on a screen inside the shack a live image of a pike minnow that swam beneath a tip-up placed some 20 feet away.
The television-like broadcast regularly showed bluegills swimming lazily by the pike minnow, curious but not predatory. The appearance of a northern pike, however, unnerved the minnow, which would furiously seek its escape, sometimes with success, sometimes not.
So it is that most modern winter fishing shacks, whether portable or hard-sided, are wired for entertainment and productivity in ways the state’s ice-angling forebears — dating to the Chippewa with their spears — never could imagine.
Yet unlike actual television, whose broadcasts often dull the senses, these devices, particularly the underwater camera, enliven the ice-fishing experience by providing insights into the behaviors of finned species whose habits otherwise could only be imagined.
Time passed, and soon, shadows from trees on the nearby shore grew longer and longer still until darkness finally enveloped the lake entirely. As it did, yellow light cast by portable lanterns framed the windows of nearby shacks, as anglers hoping for a good evening bite settled in for another hour or two.
Not far away, freeways bore the headlights of commuters frazzled by their work-a-day worlds, everyone in a hurry.
By contrast, the world turned slowly on our frozen lake, 8 inches of good ice beneath us.