Even a pudgy mammal like myself knows better than to hibernate all winter, but choosing a winter sport is tricky.
Downhill skiing is out; standing at the
top of a steep hill with slippery little boards strapped to my feet
gives me the fantods. This spell-checker doesn't know that word,
but I do.
Cross-country skiing is safer and more
interesting, but I might get seven miles from home here in South
Dakota and decide I'd rather take a nap; I'd still have to ski
Snowmobiling's noise and speed is an
offense against nature, at least mine. I loved ice skating when I
was 12; at 49, I bought a pair of used ice skates and was surprised
at my ability to move over the ice. But I visualized a fall, and
how my knee bones might crack and shatter. And I remembered making
a quick turn once that knocked out a friend's tooth; these days, I
can't afford tooth loss.
Ice fishing is the
perfect winter sport for people who like enjoyment without risk,
expense, or discomfort. It can provide hours of enjoyment for those
- like me - with no noticeable athletic skills, and requires little
equipment or preparation. The primary danger, aside from freezing
useful extremities, lies in driving a vehicle onto the ice. Every
year, along about March, Western newspapers decorate front pages
with photos of a pickup or two sagging gently into the middle of a
lake. I would rather pick a spot with good parking close
Most enthusiasts build an ice fishing shack.
Entire neighborhoods - shanty towns no city would tolerate -
flourish on the ice.
After making a hole in ice
with an iron spud or drilling with an ice auger, all that's needed
is bait and a couple of short sticks with fishing line on the ends.
A weight or two is useful in dropping the bait to the bottom, and
bobbers help in watching lines and retrieving fish. Most folks wear
warm clothes and take a thermos of hot coffee to make sitting in
the sun watching the bobbers more fattening; snacks produce the
right modicum of guilt for all the fun they're
Ice fishing is peaceful, unlike some
variations on the sport. In a sunny spot on a snow-covered lake,
all you hear is the snow sifted by the wind and scraps of
conversation from nearby fishermen. Once in a while a dog barks at
a flopping fish. Hawks may drop by looking for leftovers if you
accidentally catch fish.
Because, in my opinion,
the main point of ice fishing is not hauling fish out of the water.
Dead fish have to be cleaned for storage or eating - a messy job
that can take the edge off a nice afternoon.
the best part is sitting in the sun on a piece of firewood that
just happened to be in the pickup, warming cold hands on a cup of
coffee. The energetic among us may debate the merits of bait and
Lawrence, for example, baits
with minnows. An experienced ice fisher with gray hair, he uses a
weight to find the lake bottom and hang the hooks a couple of feet
above it. His bobbers will plunge into the hole when a fish takes
the bait, and he's hoping for trout. He caught three yesterday, not
quite enough for a meal, but too many to feed to the
Orange - not a nickname but his real,
Swedish name - is younger and more energetic; he brought "tip-ups,"
poles with flags that flip into the air when he has a bite, and
he's threatening to catch "a big old Northern pike, about eight
pounds' for supper. He's envious of a homemade rig nearby with a
bell that jingles happily when a fish strikes. He invests a
half-hour in wandering over, hands in his overall pockets, to
compliment the old man on his invention, and find out how well it
works. The old man offers him a chair, and they bridge the
generation gap with fish stories.
Westie, is hooked to the truck on a long leash; he dashes in
snow-spraying confusion toward each rising flag, and each jingling
bell. For recreation, he growls at a young husky at the next hole.
The husky is pampered, sitting in dignified comfort on an
overturned box. Frodo doesn't realize he's deprived when he crosses
his paws to lie down in the snow; he watches for more action with
bright brown eyes.
I don't have a fishing
license, so I clean ice out of the holes Orange augers. I'm
fascinated by the layers; each weather change of the past three
months exposes itself in thick and thin slices of ice growing bluer
as the hole deepens.
Lawrence asks me to sweep
back the flaky ice crystals in a wide circle around each hole, on
the theory that fish are attracted to light. I drink coffee,
develop a sunburn I'll discover tomorrow morning, and wonder if
anyone truly believes the fish in the deep water of this large lake
will find one or two minnows dangling on
When we get hungry, I unwrap several
blankets from a pan of apple crisp I baked just before leaving
home. It's still hot, and we enjoy the tart flavor of autumn while
watching the wind rearrange snow crystals. As shadows grow long and
blue, Lawrence announces that fish only bite when the sun goes off
the lake. I cite his earlier theory that fish are attracted to
light, and the discrepancy between these notions. He shrugs; ice
fishermen shrug often and well.
Orange hears a
jingle and goes to help the old man, but the fish has escaped.
Energized, he trots to the other side of the inlet and drills
another hole, giving his hypothetical big Northern a choice of
locations and hooks.
Lawrence sprinkles corn into
his holes to encourage the fish he knows are circling, unseen,
below. A faint shout drifts from the other end of the
"Oh, that's where the fish are," Lawrence
says. "Let's try up there."
Orange, who has done
most of the drilling, flatly refuses, and they trade compliments on
their respective ages and fishing abilities, sloshing coffee
Just as my feet begin to chill,
Lawrence declares fishing over. We spend 15 minutes wrapping line,
putting fresh water in the bucket of minnows and tucking them in
for the night, packing gear into the pickup. The old man arranges
his gear neatly on a well-built sled and tows it off the
Some of the hardy fishermen, or those who
don't want to go home, will build fires in ice shanties or on the
ice, and stay. I passed this lake once at midnight, and saw a
snow-covered plain of flickering golden lights: solemn, warm
circles of people watching the stars, enjoying the night and the
undemanding sport. n
Linda Hasselstrom lives and works on a cattle ranch in western