Crappie Days

One Week in an Ice-Fishing Shack in the Middle of the Middle of Nowhere

And hard-water fishing can be dangerous. Rare is the Minnesota winter that passes without a few ice-fishing-related fatalities. It is one of the perversities of ice fishing that fish generally bite best early and late in winter, when the ice is at its thinnest. But even in the dead of winter, when the ice is four feet thick and you can drive a cement mixer across it, ice fishermen succumb, typically to carbon-monoxide poisoning brought on by portable propane heaters in overinsulated shelters.

Beyond its hazards, ice fishing seemed to me the most uncouth form of fishing, occupying the opposite end of the spectrum from, say, fly fishing for trout on a Montana stream. The latter is the stuff of literature, the subject of masterful ruminations like Norman Maclean's elegiac A River Runs Through It, in which the narrator famously observes, "[I]n our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing." Ice fishing has no Norman Maclean to celebrate its virtues. Or, for that matter, no Hemingway or Thomas McGuane or any of the other first-rate writers who have celebrated fishing's sublime aspect.

Ice fishing does, however, have a lot of jokes. Most revolve around the stereotype of ice angler as imbiber and buffoon. After having a few too many drinks, one such joke goes, an ice fisherman sets out to drill a hole with his auger. As he commences cranking, he hears a booming voice: "There are no fish under the ice!" Looking around, the drunk sees no one and continues drilling. The disembodied voice repeats: "There are no fish under the ice!" Finally, the unnerved drunk asks, "Who are you? And why are you telling me there are no fish under the ice? Are you God?" The voice responds, "No, I'm the manager of this hockey rink."

Boozing is hardly the only decadence of which ice fishermen have been accused. Some stories are plucked straight from the headlines, such as the one about the three Wright County men who were arrested in 1999 after a conservation officer discovered they'd converted their fish house into a meth lab. Others are legends, the most pervasive of which has enterprising prostitutes making their way to one ice-fishing flat or another each winter to take up temporary residence and ply their trade. The tellers of this particular yarn never seem to have much specific information. But more than one person I've asked about it insists it's true, in a sort of Yes-Virginia-there-really-is-an-Ice-House-Hooker tone. "Wherever you got lonely men and booze," one salty character told me, "somebody's gonna be selling pussy." When I ask Hudec, he says the sex industry hasn't made its way to the crappie flats of Upper Red as far as he knows.

It's late afternoon by the time I get my first fish. It is a yellow perch, about four inches long. There is a peculiar pleasure in watching a fish emerge from a hole in the ice, even a pitiably tiny fish like my perch. It feels like pulling a rabbit from a hat. I mark the occasion by jotting down a note on my pad: "First fish. 4:45 p.m. Little perch."

Within a day I'll stop bothering to record perch. Red Lake is brimming with perch, almost all of them tiny. Some fishermen, irritated by the constant loss of minnows to the perch, throw the little pests on the ice to freeze to death. Under the state's "wanton waste" law, that method of disposal is illegal. (Minnesota Statute 97A, subsection 31: "Unless expressly allowed, a person may not wantonly waste or destroy a useable part of a protected animal.") But I'll soon discover that those perch aren't going entirely to waste. Each morning I see ravens flying low over the clusters of ice houses. When I note the phenomenon at Hudec's bar, one local tells me the ravens are not the only scavengers to make the rounds of the ice houses. Earlier this year a lone wolf had come scampering out on the lake, zigzagging between the ice houses, snagging discarded perch.

Just as it gets dark, my bobber sinks deep into the hole. I don't feel anything. With crappies, I'm about to learn, you often don't feel the bite. It is as if the fish is floating motionlessly and mouthing the minnow like a lollipop. But I yank up and there's a discernible weight on the line, and up the hole comes my first crappie. It is a handsome, well-proportioned fish, about ten inches long, a little under a pound, beautifully iridescent.

I'd planned to keep some fish to eat but decide to let this first one go as a sacramental gesture. Like baseball and bowling, fishing is an activity that lends itself to the construction of elaborate superstitions. As evening turns to night, I'm catching crappies at a modest clip, maybe one every 20 minutes. It's not spectacular--unless I compare it to my previous ice-fishing outings. Five fish feels impressive.

I peer out my windows and notice it's starting to snow. When I step outside, the wind is blowing and the temperature is dropping. A line of headlights is making its way toward shore. Maybe the bite is slowing. Maybe they've run out of beer. Or maybe they're worried about getting stuck. My automobile, a 1977 rear-wheel-drive Oldsmobile, is a prime candidate for getting bogged down if the snow piles up. Discretion, as they say, is the better part of valor: I head in and spend the night in Hudec's motel. The next morning I emerge from my room to find that the snow has piled up four or five inches, with a fierce wind blasting from the northwest. Parked next to my car is the conveyance of a fellow fisherman, a pickup packed with ice-fishing paraphernalia. Sticking out from one of the five-gallon buckets is a copy of Playboy's Nude Celebrities.

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