The Highs and the Lows

It seems like full-fledged winter has finally arrived! With a low of seven degrees today, and a high of eighteen, we may actually see some decent ice cover on our local ponds within a few days. Luckily, I’ve had already had a couple chances to get out on some ice this year, although I’m excited to get to the point where I’m not constantly concerned about going through. Much like the weather, there have been some highs and lows of these trips, especially on a recent one.

The ice locally finally froze enough to do some ice fishing.

This past Wednesday, I went out with a few friends, including one that had never ice fished before. He had been asking to get out on the hard water with us for a while, so it felt good to finally fulfill his wishes.

Ice fishing is a great way to get beginners into the sport because there are very few moving pieces to it. When you are fishing normally in open water, casting is obviously necessary to reach the fish. This opens up the possibility for lost lures, frustrating tangles, and mind-boggling snags. When fishing through the ice, all that is necessary is to drop a jig or shiner through the hole, and wait for a bite. Sure, there are still opportunities to screw up, but they are limited to a small number of situations.

The beginner, Austin, showed up surprisingly cheery for the early wake-up call. Even though we didn’t have school, that didn’t mean our activities later that afternoon were canceled as well. All of us agreed to get on the water early to maximize our time spent fishing. While my friends Ben, Ryan, and I set up the tip-ups, we squinted across through the falling snow to watch Austin make his way towards us along the bank. Unsure of what his next move would be, Ryan sprinted across the ice to ensure Austin didn’t step on a patch of spongy ice when getting on the pond, like we had earlier. He screamed at Austin to stay where he was, and Austin, with no intention of getting on the ice yet, simply looked at him like he was a chicken with its head cut off. We all had a good laugh at that one.

To be fair, Ryan’s actions were based on a scary experience we had earlier that morning. As we first got to our spot, a jogger came by and began crossing the pond. We already knew that the snow we had got the night before and throughout the morning had weakened the ice significantly. About half the pond was dark gray, a sign of unsafe ice incapable of supporting the weight of the snow. We watched as the man walked closer and closer to a large gray patch on the western shore, surrounded by swamp and marsh. We muttered amongst ourselves that he was surely going to hurt himself, until Ben worked up the courage to call him out.

“Excuse me! I wouldn’t go over there. That ice really isn’t safe,” he shouted.

“It’s fine, I was out here yesterday,” the man replied. We all began shuffling our feet towards him, ready to help in the event he needed it.

“No, really. Don’t go over there,” Ben plead. No response from the man. He began inching his way further and further towards the dangerous section, like he was in third grade and his buddies had triple-dog-dared him. Shuffle by shuffle, he put himself closer to a terrible experience, until the ice beneath him started cracking with vengance.

No, the jogger didn’t fall through, perhaps inspiring some of his future actions. Instead, he turned swiftly around and made his way back to shore, not acknowledging us in any way. We were pleased that he had finally made the right decision, but not so thrilled that it had taken him a near-death experience to realize it.

We went back to popping holes and setting traps, until Ryan pointed to another section of the pond, hidden by a peninsula and a stand of trees. In actuality, it isn’t really a pond, but rather a large, deep marsh formed by an oxbow in a river. Lo and behold, there the guy was, once again venturing out onto the sketchiest ice he could find. It’s as if he had a death wish! We knew the ice in that area wasn’t safe because there was a small amount of current flowing beneath it. Mixed with the fact that it was entirely a grayish color, and had some small patches of open water, there is no doubt he was pushing it by even taking a step off shore.

This time, Ben was far out of shouting distance to discourage the man. Instead, he made the smart decision to call someone far more experienced in the matter, his dad. Ben wanted to call the police (or really, the fire department), in case things went south quickly, but Ben’s dad let us know not to dial 911. Instead, we should call the local police department, which would cut out the middle man and save us crucial seconds in keeping the guy alive. We were grateful for his help, but hopeful that we wouldn’t have to use the number.

Again, the guy walked across the unsafe ice, pushing the limits of what should be holding him. He went until he reached the opposite bank, then disappeared into the woods, never to be seen by us again that day. Maybe he didn’t want to face us. Maybe his car was parked on the other side. Whatever the case, this was definitely a low for us, and a lesson to always listen to those warning you about unsafe ice conditions.

Later that day, the ice the man walked across was open water.

On a different note, one of the highs was obviously the fish we caught. It was a slow day, but we still managed a few. The first one was caught by one of our friend’s brothers, Drew, who arrived a little after Austin. We waited about two fruitless hours before Drew decided it was time to head home. It was really cold, snowy, and honestly, a little boring, so no disrespect to him. Still, as he was packing up to head off the ice, Ben calmly pointed out a bright-orange flag sticking straight in the sky like an arrow. Everyone agreed Drew should take the fish, and we all ran/glided over to the hole.

When we got there, we saw the spool spinning enough to indicate a fish on the line, but not so fast that it was a giant. After receiving a quick five-second lecture on how to set the hook and fight the fish, Drew expertly pulled the line in until a small pickerel flopped up onto the ice.

Drew’s first fish through the ice. Photo credit: Ryan Zannoni

It wasn’t huge, but it sure put a smile on all of our faces. Drew had never caught a fish through the ice before, so it felt great to give him a chance to experience the fun. Plus, I don’t know of many fish more indicative of ice fishing than a chain pickerel. The beautiful native was released cleanly to swim another day to hopefully carry on the sport for years to come.

The next fish came just after we set up the tent to escape from the snow and wind. Everyone was inside, enjoying a bite to eat, but I just wanted to quickly check the lines to ensure there weren’t any fish on without setting off the flags. We had one rod rigged with a marabou jig I tied, tipped with a small shiner, which seemed as if it was bouncing lightly. When I moved closer to take a closer look, I saw the rod bend over deeply. Fish on!

“Austin!” I yelled. “We got one!” I yanked the rod from its holder, and set the hook, not wanting the fish to get away or swallow the bait too deep. Austin came bolting out of the tent, and soon the fight was his. We could tell this fish was a little larger by the hard runs and heavy head shakes. After a strong battle, we once again had a pickerel on the ice.

Another fish, another first, this time for Austin. There are no words to describe the feeling you get when getting someone on their first fish, whether it be ice fishing, fly fishing, or even worm dunking. The smile on their face makes you feel thankful for all the opportunities you’ve had to experience the same euphoria. It can be a royal pain in the butt to show someone the ropes, keep them from ruining your gear, and ensure their safety, but it’s all worth it in the end. Not only that, but it also gives you a chance to reconnect with old friends that you may not have spent time with for a while.

The final fish was caught when we were once again checking the tip-ups to make sure we didn’t have any “false negatives”. Ben noticed the line on one of the traps angled sideways, a telltale sign of a fish on the line. He pulled it in, and our third fish emerged from the hole. Again, a pickerel, but a little less exciting for an experienced angler to catch. After a little bit of forcep work, the fish was on its merry way.

Another low would have to have been the skaters that took over the pond in the afternoon. Nothing against hockey players, but they tend to spread further than they really need to. One of our tip-ups that had been set all morning was soon completely surrounded by a cleared rink. Worried that the trap may be broken or tangled, we scrambled to move it. But still, really!? There was an entire pond, and they had to go right where we were fishing. I’m all for sharing the ice, but I find it a little rude when the hockey players clear off four rinks to use, then leave piles of garbage for those trying to enjoy the outdoors to pick up.

Of course, I really enjoyed talking to my friends, a rare occurrence in the period of Covid. When the fishing was slow, and the wind a little too nippy, we had a great time setting down our rods and just spending some time chatting. It’s not often we have a chance to do this, what with our insanely busy schedules and online lifestyles, but when we do, its always fun. All of us have known each other since elementary school, so its great to catch up with some old friends. Although we didn’t always agree on everything (no Austin, the Titans are not going to make it to the Super Bowl anytime soon, no matter how much young talent they might have), we certainly shared some good times.

I would say about 15 percent of ice fishing is actually about catching fish, and the rest is dedicated to having a good time. There’s a reason older anglers drink when they’re on hard water: it’s a great time to be social and enjoy yourself. While catching fish is always fun, it isn’t entirely the reason we hit the ice.

When the fishing got tough, we found other ways to have fun.

I hope everyone has a chance to do some ice fishing this winter and experience the highs and lows that make it such an addicting hobby. Regardless of global warming that makes thick ice harder to come by, be sure to always use caution when venturing out, especially alone. There is no reason to be like the guy we saw early in the day. Listen to others, and heed their advice, not the voice in your head egging you on.

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