Last week on the St. Croix, Blong Xiong and Chang Xiong were passing the good time.
Cousins, the Xiongs fish in summer and winter and had just returned from Lake of the Woods, where they dangled lines through sturdy ice while sitting in portable shelters.
Walleyes and saugers hit their baits frequently on the big lake, and now, on the St. Croix, they were fishing again.
Strange winter that this has been, Christmas came and went with open water still flowing beneath the Stillwater Bridge. If you’re accustomed to traveling on this stretch of river at that time, as I am, usually by four-wheeler or, in years past, by snowmobile, water flowing beneath the Stillwater Bridge at Christmas warrants serious consideration.
Even last week, on Wednesday, Blong and Chang had ice thickness on their minds.
So much so that rather than commute to the Wisconsin side of the St. Croix on the “ice road” that connects Bayport to Hudson, they vectored their vehicle across the I-94 bridge. Then they accessed the river from Hudson and soon hung a right, angling atop the hard water toward the village of shacks that each winter pops up more or less in the same place, between Bayport and North Hudson.
Now, sitting on buckets over 30 feet of water, jigging minnows and peering into icy holes, waiting for crappies to nibble their baits, the Xiongs were too far apart to talk and were deeply entranced. This being the St. Croix, instead of a crappie, a sturgeon might sucker for their jigs, or perhaps a catfish, a smallmouth or largemouth bass, or, if they were lucky, a walleye.
Usually, however, it’s crappies on this river that bite in winter, and some big ones, even 12- or 14-inchers — keepers.
Last weekend, when temperatures rose into the high 30s, many St. Croix anglers pulled their shacks off the ice.
Valued as shelters against harsh elements, the structures serve equally as portable time machines that transport their occupants to otherworldly places. With the onset of warmer weather, their owners fretted the little houses might become immersed in snowmelt before freezing into the river altogether.
And no one who ever has done it forgets the exertion required to chip and pry a shack out of 6 inches or more of ice.
So: This is a good time?
The late Steve Jobs, a smart guy despite not being an ice fisherman, once said, “Why join the Navy when you can be a pirate?”
Whittle it all away, the job, the mortgage, the hopes and disappointments, and that’s the point, isn’t it: doing what you want, when you can, in the time available?
Winter anglers seem to understand this more clearly than most, especially when they auger holes through otherwise impenetrable ice to reach a place where mystery and adventure commingle seductively with their boldest intentions.
Such has long been the province of free men. And pirates.
• • •
Not far from Blong and Chang, Jorde Aarthun, 23, of Cottage Grove and his pal Ryan McDonough, 24, of South St. Paul passed their time fishing “old school” style, with no flasher, or depth finder.
Familiar with the river, they knew sans electronics they were over a 40-foot hole, and knew as well they were sitting on 13 inches of good ice.
Like a lot of metro winter anglers, Jorde and Ryan travel light and a lot, fishing in a tent-like structure warmed by an LP-fueled heater.
“We haven’t fished the same place twice this winter,” Ryan said.
Their biggest catch so far was a 30-inch walleye caught in Lake Waconia.
Now on the St. Croix, they were settled in comfortably, a single tip-up poised and ready outside their shanty, while inside, baits swung far below, tempting crappies.
Meanwhile, Larry Schlais, 63, of Minneapolis, wasn’t far away. He had been on the St. Croix since dawn, four or more hours earlier, also fishing in a well-heated portable.
Once a week in winter he’s on the river, usually picking up three or four crappies for his efforts.
“It’s slow, but it’s fun,” Schlais said, holding up a couple of chunky specimens.
While he spoke, a brisk, largely directionless wind swirled outside, atop the ice. Upriver, the new St. Croix River bridge was taking shape, and the King plant smokestack rose against a hazy sky, electricity produced at its base lighting homes and driving commerce near and far.
Kyler Drews of East St. Paul took it all in as he hitched his portable shelter to his four-wheeler.
A snowplow driver in winter, he fishes the river as many as five times a week when the white stuff isn’t falling.
“What I like about the St. Croix,” he said, “is the variety of fish I catch. I fish here in summer also, for walleyes. But in winter, it’s crappies. Most are smaller, but I’ve caught a few 15-inchers.”
Unlike many winter anglers, Drews foregoes live bait in favor of Wedegees, an artificial bait developed by his pal, Dave Christenson. Produced in a variety of colors and available in most Twin Cities bait shops, Wedegees are small plastics that in winter on the St. Croix fool their share, and perhaps more, of crappies.
“I hook them on tungsten jigs, that’s what produces for me,” Drews said.
Then he, his four-wheeler and sled angled toward shore.
• • •
Climbing into my truck, I drove downriver. I had time on my hands and a friend’s shanty awaited, hard-sided and warm. The idea of hooking a fish seemed a good one.
So it came to pass Wednesday afternoon that I stared intently a long while at a foam stick bobber lying atop icy water.
Finally the tiny float disappeared into the dark netherworld far below.
A crappie, this was the day’s reward, highlight, both or neither.
As memorably, the sun slanted ever lower in the February sky while, occasionally, the St. Croix’s thick ice creaked, radiating its winter music in all directions, surround-sound, naturally.
Re-baiting my hook, I watched it disappear below, and waited, happily.