PART 1: GO WITH THE FLOE
Howdy, thrill-seekers! How would you like to combine the slam-bang titillations of fishing with the palpable danger of freezing to death?
Well, look no further! Ice fishing is here. This year, I’ve heard dozens of folks in the Colorado area talk about it – this distinctly Northern pastime has really caught on out West recently.
For those of us without the syrupy blood of native-born Michiganers, Minnesotans or Wisconsonians, this perilous enterprise has got some explaining to do.
Evidently this sport began as a desperate survival tactic. The breathtaking nonchalance of the ice fisherman, or person, suspended above the abyss by an unknown thickness of cracking, groaning temporary solidified from of water, while making a play for dinner is inspiring.
No wonder they drink.
My friend Joe started me out by cluing me in that the last people you want to ask “How well are they biting?” are the people who run the bait shops next to the lake. “Of course, they’re biting! Here, let me ring up that beef jerky for you.”
Joe spoke movingly of the quiet simplicity of the experience. He lovingly described augering a special second hole in the ice for the beers, watching them float – “sort of like watching a campfire burn on the beach during a summer night.” Damn!
Then he compared ice fishing to women – “you never know what you’re going to get.” Well, we were deep into Hemingway territory now. My manhood was at stake -- I had to try it.
I recruited two very close friends to accompany me, who I thought frankly would hold up a lot better under the strain. Now that we’re out of urgent care, I have time to sit back, relax and reflect.
Needless to say, always check on ice conditions. ALWAYS CHECK ON ICE CONDITIONS. Don’t make me say it again. A great resource in Colorado is the state Division of Wildlife – their ice fishing Web page is at http://wildlife.state.co.us/Fishing/Reports/IceFishing. Trust them. Budgets are tight, and no one has the money to send a diving crew to collect your remains.
Good rules of thumb are: 4-6 inches of ice thickness to walk on, 7 inches to drive a car or snowmobile out on and 10 inches to drive a truck out on. “Inches?” I enquired. “How about feet?” Nope – too tough to cut through, and no room for the fish below.
You are fishing for, depending on your location and time of year, panfish such as bluegill, crappie, yellow perch, sunfish, and pumpkinseeds; also, northern pike, walleye, lake trout, burbot and bass. Please note: feeding times in the winter largely adhere to the dawn/dusk patterns of fish during the summer, so you still have to get up when it’s dark and cold and stay out until same if you want results.
To make it, you need to dress in layers. Polypropylene first, then wool, then Gore-Tex. Get the order straight. I did this backwards, contracted hypothermia . . . and parts of me shriveled up as well.
You should have a shelter to crouch within while fishing, hopefully with a gas heater by your side. These “ice houses” come from the most simple to the fanciest, complete with bunks and satellite TV. What they all have in common, though, is the capacity to asphyxiate you via carbon monoxide poisoning – the same way Emile Zola died, although he was not ice fishing at the time. Zut alors!
A hole between 6 and 8 inches in diameter will be cut in the ice – hopefully, not by you. Tools for this task include an ice saw, ice chisel and auger. Whew! Let the drinking begin. Most ice fisherfolk use the ubiquitous “tip-up” pole, which is positioned on a frame over the ice and signals a nibble by the raising of a small flag, after which the prey can be hooked, gaffed and stacked over in a corner until the haul is complete or the game warden is gone.
Alternatively, you can use a short jigging rod, with which the wielder is compelled to shimmy and bounce around incessantly in an effort to attract the attention of some sluggish, recalcitrant future filets. This second approach is more for nervous types who are out for results, not simply hiding out from their spouses, work or the law.
Bait: some swear by live minnows, chubs, shiners, wax worms, fly larvae. Others count on chunks of raw meat, cake and uncooked oatmeal. Still more rely on lures with cool names such as spoons, jigs, teardrops, glows and fry. What they all have in common is that NONE OF THEM WORK. This is fishing, remember!
Oh, here are a few more recommended items: an ice skimmer, chairs, compass, map, flashlight, GPS, depth gauge . . . and the stuff with weird monikers! I love those the most, as they constitute the terms you will sling about widely and inaccurately after your adventure. Flasher – gaff hook – spud bar --- creepers – awesome.
Here’s my favorite pair of must-have items – the ones that pushed the big, hooting alarm in my head. Ice pick, 50 feet of rope and personal flotation device!
I should have known the other pescadores del hielo would laugh at me as I shuffled out onto the frozen surface of Dead Bastard Lake clad in a life jacket. Too bad, suckers! While you will be swept away under the ice, I will bob to the surface, unscathed and praising my creator.
The ice pick clutched in my hand? What’s that used for? Well, when the ice breaks, you stab frantically at the edges of the frozen mass with it in an attempt to keep yourself from full immersion.
And the 50 feet of rope wound about my middle? That’s in case the ice pick doesn’t work. Evidently you can calmly pass one end to your companions as you rapidly subside into that sleepy-bye Jack London “To Build a Fire” hypothermic coma, so they can drag your carcass out at leisure.
And beer. And whiskey. And schnapps. And some food, if there’s room.
(Three men wander in a forlorn skirmish line across the surface of a high-altitude frozen Colorado lake. Blizzard conditions make their exact coordinates doubtful. Each carries an absurdly heavy and large bundle of equipment. MUSIC: Symphonia Antarctica, Movement 3 by Vaughan Williams.)
CASEY: Hey, guys, this looks like a great place!
ME: This is the worst idea you ever had.
CASEY: This was your idea!
ME: Shut up.
OAKLAND: I’m cold.
ME: Shut up.
CASEY: I brought a spear!
CASEY: You can spear them through the hole.
CASEY: I guess they come up to check it out.
OAKLAND: My parts are cold.
(CASEY grinds hole in ice, stands watchfully crouched over hole, spear in hand. The others try and fail to construct a shelter around him, using broken-off car aerials and Saran wrap.)
CASEY: This is fun! I’m having fun.
OAKLAND: (Lays down ceremoniously, preparing for death) This is the last of earth; I am content.
ME: Move over, I want to try this flip-up contraption.
CASEY: I can’t. I can’t move, really. I’m frozen.
(I pour whiskey on Casey’s lips until he can form his mouth into a spout. He thaws.)
OAKLAND: (Mumbling) Thomas Jefferson still lives.
ME: (Addressing sky in grand fit of hysteria) Nothing works. My hands can’t flex to put the lure on. I can’t see the car. We’re all going to die.
CASEY: We’re not licked yet!
(CASEY fires flare gun into sky. It strikes a hovering rescue helicopter, the sudden presence of which requires a serious continuity revision. The helicopter explodes, crashing in flames upon our three protagonists, and burning through to the icy waters below. Finis.)
OAKLAND: Pretty . . . fishie . . .