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As the weather got colder last fall I started to look for opportunities to go ice fishing. I didn’t know what kinds of things I would need to go ice fishing, but I did know that I did not own the things I would need. I also didn’t know anything about where to go, when to go, or how to go! I was fairly clueless, so I asked my training officer at work for tips on how to go. He didn’t think it was a good idea to show up at a frozen lake with worms and expect for some random fisherman to let me fish in his ice house. Rather, he suggested that I just ask one of our coworkers to let me go with him. I thought that asking a coworker was a second class idea to just showing up, but the coworker he suggested also happened to be super adorable, so I settled.
I’m not the most discreet human, but I tried to do that thing where you say what you want to do without directly asking.
I started with a casual, “You go ice fishing, eh?” Without pausing for him to answer because I already knew he did I continued, “Nice! Yeah, it’s one of the things that I really want to do now that I’m living up here.” Still no pause, “Do you take people with you when you go? You know, for fun and stuff?”
As I took a breath he caught a moment to answer, “Yeah.”
“‘Yeah’ you go ice fishing, or ‘yeah’ you take people with you for fun and stuff?” He smiled, and I wasn’t sure if it was because he was about to say he takes people with him, or if he thought I was crazy and was about to walk away, so I didn’t let him answer and just kept talking, “I mean if you’re going anyway, I would totally go with.”
I imagine in that moment the only thing wider than my excited eyes was my mouth hanging to the floor as I eagerly questioned, “You’d take me with?!”
Mostly expressionless, with just the slightest of slight smiles his monotone man reply was simply, “Yeah.”
Adding in arm gestures of disbelief to my wide eyes and gaped mouth I exclaimed “No way?! You’re telling the truth?! You’ll actually let me go ice fishing with you?” I gasped for air, “Oh my gosh, this is gonna be great!” Realizing that I was shouting I took a breath and made a game plan, “I’ll look at my schedule and compare the amount of homework I have with my days off. Then I’ll pick out good days for me that coincide with days you have off too. I’ll send you a list and you can let me know what works for you. Is that good? That’s a good plan, right? I think it’s good.”
The day before we went out I was panicking, as one does, because I had no idea what to expect. I google searched for pictures of ice fishing and read different articles on ice fishing etiquette, but I felt exceptionally unprepared. I figured, however, it would be a safe bet to pack snacks! A friend reported that peppered beef jerky was most appropriate for any “dignified fisherman”. I do not consider myself to be much of a dignified anything, so I also brought chocolate ice cream for!
I figured that it was going to be cold outside in general and even colder standing on a frozen lake, so I filled a backpack with extra socks, gloves, a scarf, and even an extra coat just in case I got too cold. I threw a book in there too just in case I got bored. Now, I know you’re probably thinking, “Jeez Fred, there’s no way you needed all of that”, and you’d be right!
We drove out to the lake and loaded a sled with all the things he said we needed: an auger, rods, little maggot things, a sonar machine to see fish, and scoops to clear the holes.
The first few steps onto the ice was surreal. Growing up next to the Yellowstone River I was taught never to walk on the ice because you will die, but there I was about to walk onto the ice!
“Wait, are you sure we’re not going to die?”
“Yeah, I’m perty sure we won’t die.”
“Ahhh!” I hesitated on the shore, “You go first and then.. And then I-I-I’ll go too.”
“No. See”, he jumped up and down carelessly a few time to prove that it was safe, “let’s go.” He looked at my face, which was obviously still unconvinced, and groaned playfully, “Come on! You’re gon’a be fine.” His mouth curved into a smug little grin, “I can drive the work truck out there if you don’t want to walk.”
“No!” I took a step, then subtly tip-toed another twenty feet. Eventually it settled in that the ice was not going to break and I was probably not going to die. With a tinge of spite I assured him, “See, I’m fine.”
After we walked for a bit he drilled a hole and wondered aloud, “I don’t know if it’s deep enough yet.”
“The ice or the snow?” I asked quickly.
We laughed and kept walking. We walked,and walked, and walked through snow as deep as my knees, and eventually we got to a point where whether the water was deep enough or not, we were not walking any further.
He started kicking snow to clear off a spot to set up. He drilled a hole, and then he let me drill one too! He said that it was the best hole he’s ever seen, and I don’t even care he didn’t mean it because it was definitely best hole I’d ever seen. He showed me how to scoop the slush out the hole, and as I did that he unfolded his ice house. The ice house is like the big boy equivalence of those little folding tents that children use as playhouses. He snapped it into formation and packed snow around the bottom to keep the cold air out. He climbed in and I helpfully handed him things through the zipper door before climbing in myself.
There were three holes, some rods, a cozy propane heater, and us! It was a dream. He taught me what a fish would look like on the little sonar machine and that “jigging” was our best bet at catching fish. We sat for awhile with no luck, and after a while longer I decided to bust into my chocolate ice cream. Even though it was super cold outside the playhouse, it was completely melted and looked more like chunky chocolate-milk than ice cream; but if you can’t eat ice cream while ice fishing, you might as well drink chunky chocolate-milk!
A few hours passed and we still hadn’t caught a fish, but I was hopeful. I kept watching the little sonar machine as my fishing partner pulled up pictures of fish he had caught with his brother and best friends. As we got lost telling stories, I realized that he didn’t even have his rod in the water.
“Hey! Did you give up?”
Chuckling he told me, “Well, there’s no fish here.”
In disbelief I ask, “What? You just give up?”
With raised eyebrows and a hint of pity he said, “You can fish as long as you want, but I’m giving up.”
So, we gave up. It was a valiant effort and he assured me that we would catch a fish someday. Once we went out on the ice of Lake Superior, which I thought would be the perfect time to cross "catch a fish on Lake Superior" off my bucket list, but no luck. One day we went out and it was so cold that one of my toes got a bit of frostnip. Even now, almost a year later, it still goes numb when it gets cold! It’s not so bad though, it's kind of like a forever memory of the one winter I learned how to ice fish and never actually caught a fish.
After a long winter of what seemed like endless snow and cold, the sun started to shine and the ice melted away. One of the cool things about Wisconsin is all the lakes. I probably could have fished on a different lake everyday for all of summer and still had lakes leftover for next summer. I mostly stuck to the same three or four different places, though, with the idea of catching a Lake Superior fish always in the back of my mind.
I didn’t have a boat and I wasn’t willing to pay a charter to do all the work just so I could reel whatever they caught in. (For the record, charter boats are probably a lot of fun for a lot of people, I just didn’t see it being an option that I would have enjoyed.) My chance of catching a Lake Superior fish was staggeringly low, and by the time August came around I accepted the fact that it just wasn’t going to happen. However, I hadn’t given up the idea of going sailing.
The first day I ever visited Duluth there were sailors sailing on Lake Superior and I decided right then that I wanted to go too. There’s something about sailboats that make me pause and remember how small I am. Just think, sailboats literally catch the earth’s breath and glide atop her waters. I yearned all year to experience the peaceful bliss that I imagined sailing would be. Kind of like flying, I envisioned sailing to be magical. I would talk about sailing with coworkers and people I met at church in hopes of someone knowing someway to somehow go sailing. No luck.
Sailboat charters, like fishing charters, just don’t feel right to me. They’re also expensive and I didn’t really want to sacrifice months worth of ice cream allowance on just four hours of life changing magic, you know? The morning fog started to return and I knew that nice days in the Twin Ports were limited. I was running out of time and I didn’t want to give up, so a couple of my coworkers and I picked a day and planned to go charter sailing.