Fishing the ‘frozen tundra’

Jan. 05, 2013 @ 05:55 AM

Winter can be a dreaded time up north: a time to bundle up to go outside, a time to plug in the car at night and a time to experience high heating bills.

Dread always was tossed aside when news rumbled through the community of the first ice.

I was lucky enough to experience the “first ice” before making my trek south. All you need is a bucket to sit on, a tiny ultralight spinning rod and reel and someone with an auger to drill the hole in the ice. Oh ... and really warm boots and clothes because it can get a wee bit cold sitting out on the frozen lake. I’m not a lover of sonar, because it takes away the element of surprise.

When you live near a “frozen tundra” you learn to take advantage of what you have for winter recreation. During my northern tenure I learned to cross country ski, hunt and fish. But my favorite winter recreation was ice fishing.

In some ways, ice fishing is a bit like gambling. It’s kind of an addiction, that keeps one going. Some days are better than others. You have both good and bad days and I think that what keeps you going.

Right now the ice is thick enough that one can walk on it. I like to refer to this time as my “walking on water” days. Later when the temperatures drop to minus zero, the best ice-making occurs. Natives will say several cold days in succession made for thicker ice, which allows one to drive their vehicle out on the ice roads to their fish house. 

Imagine little cities built out on the lake out of fish houses. Yes, it’s a scene similar to the movie, “Grumpy Old Men” minus Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, Ann-Margret and Burgess Meredith. Believe it or not, some of these fish houses (also known as shacks) have all the comforts of home: refrigerators, bunk beds, couches, recliners, satellite TV, mini kitchens complete with a gas stove. 

Ice fishing is a way of life for many small northern rural communities, many who boast its town triples its population during the winter months when the town experiences a population explosion of shacks on the lake. One small Minnesota town kicks off the ice fishing season the day after Thanksgiving with its annual Fish House parade. Area residents decorate their shacks to parade them down Main Street. No bands or commercial floats are allowed — only shacks pulled by behind a truck or four-wheeler. At the end of the parade, the shacks align the community’s lake readying for the day the ice is thick enough to be placed on the Mother Nature’s frozen mass. Bait shops tend to have the best knowledge of lake ice conditions, thus ice shack cities form around where the fish are biting.

Although the ice is thicker on the inland lakes, once still has to use caution. My neighbors would take their small children out to the ice shack, each one of them was joined at the waist by a rope to an adult. I thought this was rather odd, until I learned a child loves to look down the ice hole to see the fishing coming into to take the bait.

As a former reporter and an editor, the worst stories I had to write were about ice fishing tragedies. Almost all the deaths were because the individuals didn’t take the necessary precautions while out on the ice nor follow the signs warning of thin ice. 

One can’t forget about the ice fishing contests either. Our local Rotary Club used to conduct an annual ice fishing contest. During the early morning hours of 4 and 5 a.m., we would drill more than 500 ice holes. By 6 a.m., anglers would pay their $10 entry fee and venture out to see if they could lure in the largest catch of the day. 

One year our publisher decided the newspaper should get a team together for team competition. Our publisher was an avid angler, thus he thought everyone else was too. I wasn’t much an angler at the time, but he convinced me to give it a whirl. As a team, we finished the day in second place, with yours truly pulling in the largest fish for our group. After that day, I was pretty much hooked on ice fishing. When my neighbors went ice fishing I tagged along to their massive ice shack.

Though my days of “walking on water” are gone, I still love to fish. So, if you happened to see a few fishing rods and reels in the back of my vehicle, you need not be alarmed. I’m just on the lookout for a good old fishing hole to wet my line.