During my weekly check of local ice-fishing conditions I was struck by how dramatically that sport has changed over the years. As fishermen zoomed past me on snowmobiles towing trailers filled with shelters, power augers, sonar gear and the latest in tackle and tip-ups I had one of those, “Boy, am I old!” moments. As one group of modern-era ice-anglers disappeared into the icy mist I realized that I was a dinosaur with my home-made traps, chisel and pack basket. No one, it seems, walks onto the ice anymore, and that’s just the beginning. Sleek, insulated snowmobile suits have taken the place of the traditional layers of wool and flannel. Cold is one thing but out there on the ice it’s the wind that will cut through you like a knife. Old-school ice-fishermen know that one must keep moving in order to keep warm during a long day of waiting for a flag to fly, but these modern outfits allow anglers to sit on the ice for hours without feeling the bitter winds of winter.
I started ice-fishing in the early 1960s and I learned the basics of the sport from old WWII vets who relied on their army surplus clothing and simple ingenuity to catch their limits. Holes in the ice were cut with axes, spuds (a sort of chisel) and, for those who could afford it, chainsaws. Skimmers were homemade devices with wood handles and a sieve-like plate that more or less cleared the hole of the bigger chunks of ice.
The first “tip-ups” I ever saw were actually short lengths of hemlock boughs broken off of trees that grew along the shore. My job was to gather a few dozen boughs 2 feet in length, needles still attached, and trudge back onto the ice where the old-timers were preparing the holes they had just cut.
A mount of ice chips formed the base for a bough. The fat end of the stick was driven into the ice chips and allowed to freeze there (which didn’t take long). Several yards of old-fashioned braided line was attached to the base of the bough, with about 10 feet of slack line left on the ice. A loop was tied over the tip of the bough and then a lively minnow was attached to a hook and dropped into the water, left to dangle just off the bottom and above the weeds below. The bough was then pushed to the level of the ice and released, imparting a slow, throbbing motion to the suspended bait. My other job was to keep the boughs “bowing,” which served to keep me warm while we waited for a fish to take the bait.
When a bough suddenly shivered and then nose-dived into the hole we knew we had a fish on, and the entire crew would run to the spot and offer jovial advice as the lucky angler pulled in his prize. In those days we targeted pickerel, bass and perch, but when we headed “up north” to cold-water lakes our catch would consist of lake trout, salmon or cusk.
On slow days we’d build a small fire on the ice and toast our sandwiches, heat water in a tin can for coffee and cocoa, and the old-timers would sip their beers while the younger fishermen would run themselves ragged checking for lost baits and phantom strikes. The day would end when the bait ran out or when we had a bucket full of fish to take home for a tasty winter chowder.
These days my techniques and equipment have not changed much. I still use an old three-piece spud for cutting holes in the ice and my traps are homemade, cobbled out of pieces of 1x2 pine, some hinges and cup hooks. Not the most elegant of contraptions but the fish don’t seem to know the difference. I’ve had these traps for more than 40 years and except for some occasional maintenance and parts replacements they work just fine. The other day I thought about buying some new, modern ice-fishing equipment but when I saw the price tag for some of these items ($50 and up per trap!) I decided to stick with my old reliables. A good power auger will set you back $300 or more and a snowmobile . . . well, my old wooden snowshoes suit me just fine.
For me, ice-fishing is not necessarily about catching fish. It’s more an opportunity to be outdoors during a most beautiful time of year, sitting and gazing at a world covered with ice and snow, listening to the rumble of ice underfoot and the echoing calls of ravens, crows and blue jays in the distance. At dawn it is deathly quiet out there, so quiet you can hear the blood rushing past your ear drums. The snapping and popping of newly forming ice are the only sounds till the world wakes up and natural and unnatural noises fill the air.
I am also a gazer, one who can sit and stare into the distance for hours without moving, allowing random thoughts to slip through my mind, losing all sense of time and urgency. Half the day may go by before I realize I have not seen a flag fly among my tip-ups. I’ll go around the loop with a skimmer, clear my holes and check my baits, and then go back and sit on my bait bucket and return to my winter reverie. One can easily pass the entire day while under the ice-fisherman’s trance. Even when the fish don’t cooperate the day can be a successful one, restoring serenity and contentment by virtue of merely being out there. I find that a day on the ice is far more relaxing than a day at the mall, a great source of solitude in a world that’s getting busier and more complicated every day. It’s the perfect winter escape – and it’s free!