Until I moved to Alaska, the only thing I knew about ice fishing was a scene in the movie, “Grumpy Old Men.” I never thought I would do it. Who would? It seemed like the sort of thing women made their husbands do to get them out of the house on long winter days. Vendors are complicit by selling all sorts of paraphernalia so men would feel that squatting on a frozen lake is more desirable than sitting by the fire in a warm and cozy home.
But now, I have not only been ice fishing (a grand total of two times), but I actually enjoyed it and look forward to going again (as long as ithe weather is sunny and still).
The first time, I went with a group of ladies I've met by virtue of their annual women-only weekend at a cabin in the vicinity. They had mentioned this invitation before and I had hoped it would come to pass, so when I saw them whiz past my property toward their lodging the night before, I gathered together three layers of socks, two layers of pants, three layers of tops, gloves with liners, and a cap I could wear under my snow machine helmet.
The next day, at noon, I heard them snow machining across the lake and toward my cabin so I scurried into my clothes and followed them in my snow machine. Our destination was not far, as the crow flies, but we took a 45 minute route shaped like a giant “U” in order to stay on flat trails rather than hazard crossing a creek with steep sides and boulders perched in the middle of the frozen stream. We arrived at a hammer shaped lake that I never would have found otherwise. Despite no marked trail, three men and a woman were already set up, monitoring several holes. They watched as we four women unloaded a trailer of supplies.
First one woman picked a spot and shoveled the surface snow down to the lake ice. Next, two tall, strong women yanked the string pull of the heavy, four foot gas powered ice augur and muscled it downward through the ice – 2, 3, 4 feet down. Still no water. The exertion was such that they opened their jackets when they had to stop to attach the extension rod to the cutting blade. Finally they punched through the last layer of ice. With the “lid” off, the water rushed up through the icy pipe, looking and sounding like a toilet overflowing. As the women yanked the ungainly equipment up out of the hole, the water flushed out onto their waterproof boots and pants. Then I moved in with a perforated metal dipper that reminded me of a lacrosse catcher, to strain the ice particles out of the hole.
We repeated the process in order to open up two more holes. Then one woman cut up frozen herring for bait, another laid out miniature fishing poles, and two of us laid out our our picnic on a snow machine seat, complimented by beer and wine shoved in the snow to chill. Unlike pictures I've seen of wooden outhouses set over an ice fishing hole, complete with generator powered TV and heater, we had no warming structure. We just waddled around in our warm layered clothes, turning away from the wind when it blew, peering into the fishing holes, munching on sandwiches. The afternoon passed quickly.
The setting was very pretty. Across the lake, two little cabins, complete with elevated food storage caches, were tucked amidst the trees, both looking empty this time of year. Beyond the lake to the west we could see some of my favorite mountains near here. They are 10,000 – 15,000 feet high, and glacially carved into wonderful shapes that seem to shift as the sun moves past them. Aside from our group of chatty fisherladies, the lake was mostly silent, except for two eagles calling to each other as they anticipated a fishy picnic of their own.
I didn't catch a fish myself, but I didn't do anything too stupid either, and I was pleased that my clothes were well suited to the temperature. This was definitely a “when in Rome...” sort of experience for me, and I was delighted by the outing and the cameraderie.
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A few weeks later, my husband and I planned to go ice fishing as soon as a multi-day snowstorm ceased and allowed a reprieve from cabin fever. I packed a light picnic that included some homemade bread wrapped in tin foil to warm in a little metal “oven”, called a “hotdogger” in the engine compartment of my snow machine. (Isn't that clever?) Meanwhile, Bryan assembled new tip ups for us. These are a great invention. Instead of holding a pole over a hole (how boring), one lays these light weight plastic structures over the 6-8 inch hole in the ice. Each of our tip-ups is a flat, hollow, 16 “ x 3” rectangle. From the middle of the bottom, the hook and reel dangle down the ice tube into the water. On top, lies a little 15 “ flag pole, gently tucked under a short “finger.” When the fish grabs the hook and runs, the flag pops up. Even active picnickers and oblivious conversationalists can't ignore the bright orange flag waving jauntily in a black and white winter landscape.
Because I had seen how thick the ice was from my prior outing, and since we didn't even have a power augur, just a manual one, we followed tracks on a nearby lake to find recent fishing holes, where any subsequent ice formation would be thin. Prior fishermen had marked several holes with branches, but I dangerously misinterpreted one. We should have known better. Crossed sticks are a warning sign of open water. Stupidly, we noted three prior holes in close proximity to crossed sticks and applied our augur to one of them. First Bryan's boot broke through the ice and then mine! I fell through far enough that the just-above-freezing water flowed into my boot and saturated my socks. Not good. Fortunately, each of us has an emergency backpack on our machines, complete with a change of clothes (as well as tools, several ways to start a fire, three days worth of food, a tarp, a flare, and even two paperbacks to read while stranded). I changed socks quickly and laid out the wet socks over the still warm engine. Then I carefully reinstalled the warning sticks, and looked for other fishing holes nearby. When we found a few, we lightly tapped through the window-like pane of ice and lay out our tip ups over the open water. Very easy. Then we enjoyed some warm bread and cold cheese. How satisfying it is to suddenly see that flag jump up like a chipper little cheerleader, “Hello! You caught something!” while you are multi-tasking with other holes (or eating and drinking, or just enjoying the view.
Once we caught a fish, we packed up and went home. Next time, I'll bring canvas chairs and a table we can shove into the snow, a better picnic, and a camera, for a longer, leisurely winter afternoon.