Winter Special

Within an hour I had eaten both my sandwiches, roast beef with thick slices of onion. I had also begun drinking my apple wine. After the second bottle I felt quite happy. I was probably cold but I couldn't feel it. The ice had become a mattress against which I snuggled prone, still chugging. No nibbles. Then Richard's tip-up flag went up and we ran over to the hole. He let the spool run freely for a minute to make sure the fish swallowed the minnow, somewhat similar to the way you hook a sail or a marlin. But not too similar. Pat contended that the fish was large, as only a large fish made a long run. I watched the red plastic spool steadily unwind until Richard picked it up and lightly reefed the line. Then he began to slowly draw it in had over hand as if he were retrieving an anchor or a used kite. I was jealous. Why didn't my flag go up? Perhaps I wasn't "living right," as they say. Richard was gaining steadily on the fish. He announced laconically that it wasn't large. We stood peering down the twelve-inch hole until, shockingly, a trout popped out with the tail of a minnow sticking out of its mouth. Then, horrors! It flopped on the ice and gave off a prolonged Belch!, a sort of berserk flatulence. I was deeply shocked.

"That pressure sure gets to them," said Pat sagely.

"You're not just a ---," replied Richard.

The point was that the fish had been pulled up precipitously from 170 feet and the variance in pressure was explosive in a minor sense, somewhat like the gas released by a semi-impacted bucking bronco at a rodeo. The trout weighed about three pounds, a good eating size. His eyes bulged and quivered in utter defeat, the ultimate tummyache and bends. I went back to my chugging hole after breaking up the thin ice that had gathered in the cold around my tip-up. I wanted to catch a fish and bring it home so that my daughter wouldn't peer over the top of her Wonder Woman comic and say, "You didn't catch any!" and my wife wouldn't ponder, "Did he go to a bar and play pool or did he really go fishing?" To no avail did I chug until I got tennis elbow. I grew bored and cold and began playfully throwing chunks of ice at Pat and Richard. They were not amused.

We finally quit by mid-afternoon and drove to a restaurant where the waitress giggled extravagantly over my balloon boots.

"Are your feet that big?" she asked.

"I'm an American Ice Fisherman, bring me a drink," I shouted wittily. The jukebox was playing a merry polka.

When she brought the drinks she rolled her eyes again at my feet. I told here then that I was a veteran of many polar expeditions and had tracked the wily seal to his air-conditioned lair. She asked if seal meat was good and I said yes if they take the ball off their noses har har har. Richard and Pat were sullen as the pretty waitress wasn't interested in them but in my feet. Tuff, I said. So it goes, this sport of the north, fit mostly for the hardy unemployed, those who dare thin ice with their snowmobiles and often plunge (eight last year) to a gurgly death amidst the very fishes they sought with pimples and corn borers, red worms and dead smelt (two for a quarter).

A few days later I got a call from Richard saying that a group of locals were going out the next morning and I could meet them on Route 22 about 300 yards south of Chervenko's Rung & Bung Works (coopers to the fruit-orchard trade). I was several hours late due to sloth and invented errands. I spotted them with my binoculars a mile or so out on the ice. But farther up the bay a Coast Guard icebreaker was leading in a tanker with a rather eerie succession of resounding crashes, like hearing a battle from a distance. The ships were well beyond the fishermen, but I decided that the ice looked a trifle soft. Definitely unsafe. Perhaps I would go home and treat myself to an extended nap.

I began to think of ice fishing in the old days. It is, after all, no modern invention. I have a Currier and Ives print of some pilgrim types hauling shad from the ice. In the 1930s great cities of ice shanties were erected on large northern lakes. Even electricity was available. Recently I was in Minnesota, a state that along with Wisconsin can readily be confused with Michigan, chauvinists notwithstanding. In St. Paul an old-timer told me many yarns. He said that entire cottages especially built for the purpose on skids are pulled onto the ice by diesel tractors. From the comfort of kitchen, bedroom and the living room the fabled walleye is fished for. Imagine your own living room with a big hole in the floor. You're lolling in an easy chair fishing through the hole, with a couple of lunker walleyes on the floor beside you. Maybe you have the TV on, and Jack Nicklaus is grinning his Ohio grin on the eighteenth green somewhere. You will cook the walleyes for dinner. They taste better than any fish I've eaten, better than mountain cutthroat, Dover sole, swordfish, lake trout or pompano or lungfish. Perhaps Myrna in her tattersal negligee is bringing you a cold one or just plain Mom is across the room knitting. It is imperative for obvious reasons to have your cottage dragged off the ice before it thaws. I might add that the "walleye" got its name from its particularly weird stare, but then you don't have to eat the eyes.

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