There are two groups of people in Northern Minnesota – those that hunt, fish, and own snow-mobiles, and those that do not. The ones that belong to the first camp wear winter jackets designed by Carhart, Polaris, or Arctic Cat. The other camp buys jackets at J.C. Penneys. I am, without question, of the J.C. Penneys faction. But this winter, I joined the other side. I went ice-fishing.
The men in my wife’s family go fishing every Christmas. It’s a tradition that I have, until now, avoided because they are usually gone for more days than I am willing to give up on my Christmas vacation. But this year, with only a one and a half day trip planned, I had no excuse and I signed on.
My dad once took my brother and me fishing at Lake of the Woods when I was a kid. I remember that riding in the boat was fun, but I also remember having a bit of anxiety when it came to doing anything bait related. And I had a lot of anxiety about the possibility of ever actually catching a fish. This would mean that after several excited and graceless minutes, I would have to meet this fish face to face. I anticipated the wet, grey body twisting and writhing in my hands, coating me with fish slime, cutting with sharp fins, biting with razor sea-monster teeth, and finally turning to slap me contemptuously several times with its tail, all before flipping itself back into the water, leaving me stunned, covered in slime and smell, and bleeding in several places around my face and hands. Of course, these fears have long evaporated as I’ve grown into adulthood. I’m a man now and it’s time I earned the right to wear the “Women Love Me, Fish Fear Me” t-shirt.
Our fishing spot was a three hour drive north to the Canadian border. Six of us wedged ourselves into an extended cab pickup truck along with two pop-up ice-houses, warm clothes, and a boat-load of gear (though the use of a boat is apparently considered bad form for ice fishermen, which disappointed me).
I had been told that driving too fast on a frozen body of water creates a wave underneath the ice that could potentially break up the only solid thing between vacationing fishermen and their cold, wet death. This was not a comforting thought in the morning when we first drove out onto the lake. We found a spot amidst the array of shacks, and much to the amusement of my companions, I promptly fell down the moment I set foot outside the truck and onto the ice.
These guys all seem to have stories to tell of past fishing trips. The better stories involve some form of danger. And the best stories have to include potential death or grotesque injury. “Do you remember last year, when we drove out on the lake and the ice almost broke because of the three days of warm weather and we nearly drowned?” one would say. “That was a great trip.” And another would answer, “Yeah. And two years ago was the time the auger caught my pants and ripped all the flesh off my leg. That was some good fishin’.” I was eager to add to my own meager collection of fishing stories which now consisted of the time I refused to bait my own hook and the time I fell down on the ice.
There is also the genre of fishing story that involves the bizarre. Chad told us a story about a guy who brought his poodle ice-fishing. (A man ice-fishing with a poodle is begging for trouble to begin with if you ask me. It’s obvious that he was entrenched in the sort of mid-life crisis that forces a man to choose between purchasing his winter jacket at Ace Hardware or J.C. Penneys.) The guy went outside the shack and the poodle, of course, disappeared down the hole in the ice. Another man in a shack not far away, suffered a heart-attack when his ice hole turned dark and a small dog swam out of it.
In spite of a curious deficiency from my fishing hole, we began to accumulate a number of fish in the bucket. During my slow periods (approximately 7:30 AM to 5:15 pm), I would glance over at the fish bodies piled on top of each other. I wondered if they knew what was going on. I wondered if they had been told by their friends, “Never, never, never eat the slippery minnow that swims in circles from a leash!”
They flopped around every so often. I couldn’t tell if they were trying to escape, or if they were just trying to find a more comfortable position in the bucket. Like any non-fisherman, I began to feel sorry for them. To compensate for any discomfort or inconvenience I may have caused them, I made sure to quietly and secretly apologize to each fish before yanking the metal hook out from its lip. “This hurts me more than it hurts you,” I whispered. I made every effort to offer what comfort I could as my nervous hands fumbled their slippery fish body after pulling it out of its life-sustaining water environment. I felt the delicate scales dry up and stick to my poisoned fingers. In an effort to quiet one panicky fish, I managed to literally squeeze the crap out of it. This was not easy to explain to the friend who had loaned me his snow-pants.
At the end of the day, we broke down our ice-house and headed off to a dimly lit shack to clean our fish. Other men were recounting the day’s new stories around the cleaning table with their catches in various stages of disembowelment around them when we entered. It took a great deal of determination to avoid passing out when the smell of the room hit me. But I quickly resolved to hide the nausea that was taking over my sense of balance and curtail my sympathy for the fish on the table who, without the benefit of eyelids, could not even shut their eyes to their doom. I laughed at the other men’s stories and exaggerated my own because today, I am a fisherman and I am not a sissy.
By: Mark Leonard
10630 Mountain View Ave. #L
Redlands, CA 92373
Social Security #: 477-90-4784