I’m one of probably eight people I know who genuinely likes winter. After the first snow
flies, my minivan becomes a rolling locker room with ice skates, sleds, snowshoes and all manner of skis – which inadvertently provide seasonal vehicle ballast. And it’s not like I’m some coordinated athlete; rather, I’ve found playing outside in the cold months makes northern life bearable, if not downright celebratory.
But I’ve never been tempted by ice fishing. “I mean, just sitting outside … what’s the fun in that?” I laugh in casual conversation with my editor. Of course, now he wants the answer to that question, and who better to find the answer than me, a skeptic?
Phoning It In
First I call my friend Matt Nielsen, a suit-wearing director-type at the swanky Weisman Art Museum in Minneapolis – and a secret ice fisherman. He let it slip once when I called him for some advice on what color to paint my kitchen. “What?” I exclaimed, “You leave your sweet little designer cabin to go sit on frozen ice? On purpose?”
When I reminded him of this past revelation, he tried to explain. “Being out there is strangely beautiful in its bleakness. Sitting on my orange bucket and drinking hot chocolate and Baileys from my grandpa’s old thermos … I don’t know, I just get pleasantly lost.”
“It’s mentally relaxing, and in a way I become part of the landscape
, get to observe wildlife, feel the wind, watch how fast the hole is freezing over,” says Matt. “It’s fun if the fish are hitting, but really, it’s not about the fish.”
I thanked Matt for his patient explanation and hung up. I still didn’t get it, which meant I was going to have to hang out my own “Gone Fishing” sign. (Dang it.)
The First Wave of Doubt
Through the magic of social networking, I find myself sitting in a late model truck on a day with temps in the negative double-digits. My hosts, Andrea and Mark Bakk, are professionals in their late 20s, and they have graciously allowed me to crash their ice fishing day.
We make pleasant talk until we reach the shore. Mark slows the truck considerably as he drives onto the frozen lake. “I don’t want to go too fast and create a wave that could become a crack,” he explains. “Not to scare you, but you should unbuckle your seat belt now.”
It takes me 10 seconds to realize this precaution is needed in case the truck plunges through the ice. I act like this is totally cool and as though I’m not envisioning my watery death.
Nature, Meet Technology
Then Mark whips out his iPhone and convinces me that there really is an app for everything. He’s reading water
depths from his smartphone and using this information, along with what he’s been reading on local blogs, to help choose the perfect spot.
Selection made, the truck is parked among other icehouses, and Mark and Andrea swing into practiced action. He clears off an area while Andrea starts unloading bags of gear from the truck. Next, the auger appears and Mark quickly cranks out three perfect holes, which are skimmed out using what looks like a large slotted spoon. I move stuff around and pretend to be helpful.
The portable icehouse pops open like a deployed vehicle airbag. Poof, it’s up in seconds, and we’re suddenly playing house with chairs, bucket tables and music. A generator is hooked up to a small heater and before long there is a 50-degree difference between inside and outside. Big cartoon hearts come out of my head and float in the general direction of this device. Rods, reels, holders, an electronic fish finder and an underwater camera are all unpacked. Apparently the fish viewer isn’t working right, leading Mark to spend portions of the day hinting that a new one would make “the perfect Groundhog Day gift.” This is from a man who gave his wife all pink fishing lures for Christmas. “He bought me a hunting rifle one Valentine’s Day,” laughs Andrea.
Hours pass, and the fish aren’t biting. Andrea and I play cards, make brats and slip chemical heating packs into our thick winter boots. She knits and reads while I take a walk around the other icehouses and marvel at their ingenuity. Cobbled together from castoff materials, these shacks clearly give their owners opportunities to re-purpose and tinker.
Back inside, there is a lot of fiddling. Mark is changing out all the lures to “Swedish Pimples,” and spraying them with a garlic substance to attract fish. Nothing seems to be working, but Mark is whistling and singing 80s songs while going at it. He strikes me as a man far from the responsibilities of work and home life. “When I’m out here, the TV’s not on, I’m not checking e-mail, my house phone isn’t ringing” he says.
The Moment of Clarity
Just as my friend Matt had said, none of this really seems to be about the fish – which is good, as there were no fish. While Matt has about $50 into the sport and the Bakks have accumulated about $1,500 worth of gear over the years, it seems to boil down to the same thing: Escape.
Andrea sums it up, “This is nice time we can spend together, for each other. The house can get clean later.”
Returning home, my head is clear from my 10-plus hours out on the lake. I regale my family with my adventure, eat my body weight in pasta, take a scalding bath and then sleep the sleep of the dead. In short, I feel like I did some real living … and that, I get.