Winter Special

In my own "old days" we knew none of these sybaritic pleasures. I suspect my father thought if comfort were involved it wasn't sporting. So we would get up before dawn, drive out through the snowdrifts along a logging road and fish all day long in the bitterest cold for a mess of bluegills and perch. Nothing sentimental here. It appeared fun because it was supposed to be fun. Kids are doggish, and if you say, "Come kids, let's pick the dump," they will jump at the chance.

Earlier in January I sat with Richard for three days in his shanty on Lake Leelanau looking down through a hole at a foot-long live sucker minnow dangling from a line. The shanty is kept totally dark. The hole in the ice for spearing is usually about three feet square. The visibility is amazing--a window on the freshwater netherworld, which, though the life doesn't compete with the multitudinous saltwater variety, is nonetheless a lot better than staying home and waiting for winter to go away. Anyway, the sucker minnow was supposed to attract the great northern pike, or Mister Big Teeth as he is known in some quarters. When the imaginary pike drifted into our rectangle of vision for a sucker supper, the spear would be thrown at him. The spear was somewhat larger and certainly more cumbersome than the tuna harpoons used off Gloucester and Block Island. Poor pike. But only one appeared in the three days and we were caught unawares, and when Richard lunged with the spear the pike was driven against the bottom and squiggled out between the spear tines. So much for pike spearing, which is in danger of being outlawed. But it was pleasant sitting there in the dark shanty, warm with a propane stove and copious supplies of food and drink.

We would occasionally chug for perch with small minnows while we watched our decoy. In addition to the meat of the fish, perch roe lightly fried in butter is delicious. I suspect that it is healthy, too, though I have no evidence. But some I know who eat it are huge, a trifle fat, in fact, and can drink fifty glasses of draft beer in an evening. It's never boring in an ice shanty. You talk idly while your head sweats and your feet freeze. There is all the husky camaraderie of the locker room. A sample:

"Do you know that girl in Sutton's Bay? You know the one I mean."

"Yup."

"Well I would ---- ---- -----."

"She's built like a rain barrel."

"Pass the wine."

I would like to make an elementary contention here about expediency and sport. In this locale, winter begins in October and runs unremittingly until the end of March. My friends in warmer climes won't believe we had sixteen and a half feet of snow this year. After a while you no longer believe there's any earth left under the snow. The ground is a fib. It was still possible to fish on the part of the bay nearest Traverse City in early April. In fact, a large school of young coho salmon running between two and three pounds were discovered in the shoal water near the power plant. A healthy adult with an interest in the outdoors has to do something during these five months. The snow is almost immediately too deep for rabbit hunting--the beagles flounder on their short legs. Even an instinctively arch and lazy whiner like myself doesn't want to spend the entire wither looking out the window dreaming of Cozumel, Cabeza de Vaca, Belize. And you worry too much: a night when it is below zero and the wind off Lake Michigan is at forty knots and the car is buried in snow, and you count and time the weird thunks and squealings from the furnace, which inevitably breaks down. The weather seems to lose its threat when you spend time out in it and if you're not geared temperamentally to skiing or snowmobiling, you're left with nothing to do but fish.

The true force behind ice fishing is that it is better than no fishing at all. In extremes, an addictive fisherman will shoot carp with bow and arrow, set up trotlines for carp and suckers, spear dogfish on Pig Trotter Creek, chum nurse sharks within rifle range. He will surround the crudest equipment with a mystique and will maintain to the uninitiated that there's no sport quite like fishing rainbows with bobber and marshmallows.

And ice fishing has its strenuous converts. Pat told me that a year ago in April, just before the ice broke up, he was chugging out on the bay when a Coast Guard helicopter came over low and motioned him off the ice. He stayed until he got three fish and the helicopter returned. Then he noticed that the ice beneath his feet was sinking a bit. He grabbed his fish and ran and the ice for a mile around began wavering and rippling and heaving. The groans made in this situation convince one that there are prehistoric monsters under the ice trying to get out. It is chilling.

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