Easy does it: A sport to make your blood run slow

  • Ice fishing at night drawing

    Diane Sylvain
  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 home.

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 by.

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 having.

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.

No, 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 fishing techniques.

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 cats.

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.

Frodo, my 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 hooks.

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 lake.

"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 recklessly.

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 ice.

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

Writer Linda Hasselstrom lives and works on a cattle ranch in western South Dakota.

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