My Intro to Ice Fishing: Part 1

I’m a Minnesota-raised, winter-loving outdoorsman and angler, and I never ice fished. I mean it: never, ever. The closest I got was taking a turn hand-augering a hole through the ice on a frozen pond during a third-grade field trip. (Thanks, Minnesota public schools).  

I’ve actually used that tidbit in real-life conversation by the way. Like: “Do you ice fish?” “No, but I did help auger a hole one time in third grade.” It’s not impressive. Anyway, I digress. 

Up until last week, I had never ice fished. Here’s why:

        1. I didn’t have friends who ice fished.

        2. I didn’t have the gear or the know-how to do it alone.

        3. I didn’t consider it “real” fishing, and therefore I did not seek it out. 

The first two points are pretty self-explanatory. The third, I feel like I should explain a little:

I like fishing that pushes me, physically and mentally. Fishing that requires dedication, commitment, skill, and a little bit of crazy. Fishing that offers no guarantee, where the odds are stacked against me. My first regular exposure to fishing was casting for musky - up there with the most difficult and most rewarding freshwater fishing around. As someone who draws pleasure from being challenged, I naturally went bonkers for it. I soon got introduced to sight-fishing for tarpon and bonefish in the Florida Keys, and my idea of “fishing” was officially defined as ultra-challenging, patience-testing, skill-requiring, high-intensity, back-breaking, catch-and-release sport fishing.  

Sitting on your bum in an ice house, sipping on beers while holding a miniature stick that looks more like a Harry Potter wand than a fishing pole as you wait for a little crappie or walleye to come nibbling - that didn’t sound like real fishing to me. But, over the last few months, something about ice fishing started to intrigue me. Snow, ice, layering up, battling the elements, catching fish - I thought maybe I could get into it. So I decided to give it a try. 

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I officially ice fished for the first time last Thursday after work. The sun had set by the time I parked my car next to my friend Mav’s at a public launch. His trailer was empty, the sled of gear trailing behind his snowmobile as he zipped over the ice to set up our spot. I quickly scouted my surroundings and began the awkward maneuvers of disrobing in the front seat of a small SUV. I peeled off my work clothes in exchange for layer upon layer of Smartwool, fleece and down. Stiff beneath all that fabric, I wondered if I’d be warm enough.

I stepped out of my car into the biting wind and started down the dark pathway that led to the lake. Just visible in the darkness, tall pines heavy with snow flanked my path. Mav met me partway, and I rode the back of his snowmobile across the lake to the ice house he had already set up.  

“You can go inside,” he said. “It’s heated.”

Heated? I thought to myself.

Second Harry Potter reference of the post: At that moment, I honestly felt like I was stepping into the Weasley’s magical tent at the Quidditch World Cup. What was a small sled moments before had transformed into a fully-functional ice house in minutes. I unzipped the door and marveled at the space, the padded chairs, the windows, the lights, the warmth!  

Mav followed me in and quickly augered three holes. Noted: powered augers work a lot faster than the hand-cranking I had tried in my childhood.

“Why so many holes?” I asked. “What if we break through?”

“You’ve really never done this before, huh?” he said.

Noted: when you auger holes through eight inches of ice, it doesn’t collapse the entire lake. 

Warmth radiated from the glowing orange heater adjacent to me. I quickly grew sweaty and began peeling off layers, which now in the heat of the ice house appeared to me excessive.

Mav handed me the kind of stunted little ice fishing pole I’d always poked fun at, and I began gently jigging wax worms.  I studied the colors dancing about on the bright screen of the Lowrance fish finder, deciphering their meanings. The bouncing blob was my bait. The red was the bottom. The blue bubble peaking on and off the bottom was a crappie. The diagonal line stretching downward from the ice surface to the lake floor was the chickpea that had fallen from my salad fork, rolled down my leg and landed perfectly in the hole. Oops.

The hunt could not have been more different than what I was used to. I wasn’t analyzing baits, planning a drift, or casting repeatedly as I grew fatigued and sore. I was comfy and still, content to zone in and out as I stared at the fish finder. An onlooker could have mistaken our fishing for video gaming: us sitting there, bouncing our poles, watching a screen.

“There, he’s coming,” Mav said as the blue bubble crept once again from the bottom of the screen and neared my bait.

After a little cat-and-mouse, I could see the fish closing in. I stared at the slender tip of my pole with anticipation as I bounced it ever so slightly, like the needle on a seismograph.

“Get ready.”

Bounce, bounce, bounce. Suddenly, the rhythm changed, the tip fell immobile.

“Now!”

I pulled the rod straight up into the air to set the hook and delighted as it doubled over. I gently reeled and with almost no effort at all, a little silver crappie leapt through the hole and joined us in the ice house. I’m pretty sure I giggled. It was the sweetest little fish I’d ever caught, it’s smooth fins and delicate paper mouth. I took a quick iPhone photo (it was my first ice fish after all) and released it back through the icy hole. 

We were only on the ice for something like 90 minutes, but we were able to pull a handful more crappies each. As we climbed onto the snowmobile to head back to our cars, I felt content. I tried something new, tasted crisp air, and caught fish for the first time in five weeks - all on a work night.

But I wasn’t really sure I was into ice fishing. Something was missing.  There was a part of me that felt a lack of being pushed, that craved the challenge. I missed relying on my own strength and knowledge and know-how. It felt…easy. 

As I thought about it, it became quickly evident that on this night, I wasn’t really an ice fisherman. I had been a passenger, a tag-along who didn’t really pull my weight. I had arrived at a warm ice house, had been handed a pre-baited pole, and had been instructed on exactly what I’d need to do to land fish. There was a lot that did go into this night - lugging the gear, choosing the spot, knowing the right bait, setting everything up and taking everything down. My fishing partner had just handled it all. I was the novice, and that was okay. That’s where you start, how you begin to learn something new.

Back at the launch, I started my car and began the short drive home where I’d unpack, do some chores, and rest up for another day of work. On my way, I started to feel excited for “next time.” I looked forward to more time on the ice and to bigger fish. I was excited to really learn ice fishing - to become an active participant now that I had a small idea of what this was about. Next time I’d really be ice fishing. Next time I'd be able to know if ice fishing was for me. Lucky for me, next time was just two days away. We were headed to Mille Lacs.  

Natalie Dillon2 Comments