Just about everyone I know has been enjoying the beautiful autumn weather except, of course, for the ice fishermen. You can see them, standing out by the lake, waiting for that first skin to form, and reminiscing about the good old days, like last winter. For those of you who chickened out and went south with the other snow birds, in January the temperatures broke all records since the last Ice Age, although after eight days of highs at ten below zero I can state confidently that the Ice Age was warmer.
It was the kind of weather that convinces you to start a glacier patrol, unless you ice fish, in which case you move out on to the lake, right in the path of any oncoming blizzard, glacier, or woolly mammoth. They were still there when it thawed. Long after it thawed. It was nuts, but then, being crazy is one of the chief requirements for ice fishing. My mother says it’s right there on the fishing license, in the small print along with this year’s limit. “Must be over 18, willing to sink brand-new two-ton four-wheel-drive vehicle in lake for two fish under six inches, and/or risk frostbite to all important bodily extremities in pursuit of same.” And they are.
Your average ice fisherman, trudging out on the ice in the standard issue uniform of army green body suit, cap, and gloves, with only his nose exposed directly to the howling winds and ferocious cold, is a harmless individual who simply doesn’t like his nose as much as the rest of us do ours. He says he has come to fish, which is sometimes true. Mostly, though, he comes for that strange meditative state that comes only when he is crouched over a small hole in the ice. “Om,” might be running through his mind, or “Uff-da,” or “There’s a big one right under me, I know it,” or “My nose is about to fall off.” But no matter what, he stays put on his little patch of holy ground, er, ice.
Now to most of us, ice is something we either put on our drinks or slip on and bust our fannies. (There is also the infamous “black ice” where the entire car slips and you’re lucky if all you get is a busted fanny.) But to the ice fisherman, as to the Eskimo, ice is a mystic thing, coming in innumerable grades and variations, from “frozen solid” to “just drive on out, she’ll be fine.” Their only problem is in telling the difference, especially if they’re driving someone else’s car.
As I say the average ice fisherman is shy, retiring, and mostly harmless. But you put this same man into a vehicle, preferably a big pick-up with a dozen concrete blocks in the back, and that meditative state flies right out the window along with his brain. Suddenly he’s zipping up one end of the lake and down the other, doing figure eights and “controlled spins” (it’s controlled as long as the truck doesn’t flip or go through the ice.) Any slush simply means a larger, better spray as he does a perfect 360 degree circle. If he can scare up some wildlife, all the better, and if they happen to be ice fishermen, well, they needed to get their circulation going anyway. And no one is more surprised that he when that last whoosh of spray comes from his front end going through the ice.
“But it was frozen solid when I went by on my way to work!” he will explain, ignoring the fact that he went by three days ago. Since then there has been a major thaw, and what we now have is ice floes buoyed by running water.
I once saw a pick-up sitting on an ice floe. The driver was sitting in the cab, gazing at the landscape while the motor idled. I admired his calm, especially since the exhaust was busily shrinking the floe. What I couldn’t figure out was how he got out there in the first place. He must have driven out there the night before, when there was still a thin skin of ice on the water, planning to get an early start. (Fishermen always want to get an early start, which is why they’re always back so late.)
Just then he saw me and waved.
“You’d better just try to wade, I mean walk your way out!” I yelled across at him.
He looked around and shook his head. “Nah,” he said, “I can just drive on out, she’ll be fine.” He backed the truck up a little, almost to the edge of the floe, and then gunned it. Icy slush flew up and sprayed the surrounding area, including two roosting ice fishermen. The ice floe was shaking, then it was dissolving, and then the truck was hidden by walls of water and ice. I closed my eyes.
When I looked back up, he had just waded out of the lake and was standing next to me, a puzzled look on his face.
“Lake was frozen solid when I went by Wednesday,” he mentioned.
“It’s Saturday, Dad,” I said.
He shook his head in disbelief. Then he broken into a smile. “At least I’m bringing home dinner.” He held up two six-inch fish. Like Mom said, ice fishermen are crazy.