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"I'm an American ice fisherman. Bring me drink," I shouted wittily. The jukebox was playing a merry polka.
When she brought the drinks she rolled her eyes again at my feet. I told her then that I was a veteran of many polar expeditions and had tracked the wily seal to his air-conditioned lair. Richard and Pat were sullen, as the pretty waitress wasn't interested in them but in my feet. Tuff, I said. So it goes, this spoil of the North, fit mostly for the hardy unemployed, those who dare thin ice with their snowmobiles and often plunge (three last year) to a gurgly death amidst the very fishes they sought with Pimples and corn borers, red worms and dead smelt (two for a quarter).
A few days later I got a call from Richard saying that a group of locals were going out the next morning and I could meet them on Route 22 about 300 yards south of Chervenka's Rung & Bung Works. Several hours late due to sloth and invented errands, I spotted them with my binoculars a mile or so out on the ice. But farther up the bay a Coast Guard icebreaker was leading in a tanker with a rather eerie succession of resounding crashes. It was like hearing a battle from a distance. The ships were well beyond the fishermen, but the ice looked a trifle soft. Definitely unsafe. Perhaps I would go home and treat myself to an extended nap.
I began to think of ice fishing in the old days. It is, after all, no modern invention. I have a Currier & Ives print of some Pilgrim types hauling fish from the ice. In the 1930s great cities of ice shanties were erected on large Northern lakes. Even electricity was available. Recently I was in Minnesota, a state that along with Wisconsin can readily be confused with Michigan, chauvinists notwithstanding. In St. Paul an old-timer told many yarns. He said that entire cottages especially built for the purpose on skids are pulled onto the ice by diesel tractors. From the comfort of kitchen, bedroom and living room, the fabled walleye is fished for. Imagine your own living room with a big hole in the floor. You're lolling in an easy chair, fishing through the hole with a couple of lunker walleyes on the floor beside you. Maybe you have the TV on and Oscar Robertson is tossing a high feed to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or Agnew is lacing into the naysayers or Nicklaus is grinning his Ohio grin on an 18th green somewhere. You will cook the walleyes for dinner. They taste better than any fish I've eaten, better than mountain cutthroat, Dover sole, swordfish, lake trout, or pompano. Perhaps Myrna in her tattersall negligee is bringing you a cold one or just plain mom is across the room knitting. It is imperative for obvious reasons to have your cottage dragged off the ice before it thaws. I might add that the walleye got its name from its particularly weird stare, but then you don't have to eat their eyes.
In my own old days, we knew one of these sybaritic pleasures. I suspect my father thought that if comfort were involved it wasn't sporting. So we would get up before dawn, drive out through the woods to a small lake where we summered, walk two miles through the snowdrifts along a log road and fish all day in the bitterest cold for a mess of blue-gills and perch. Nothing sentimental here. It appeared fun because it was supposed to be fun. Kids are doggish, and if you say, "Come, kids, let's pick the dump," they will jump at the chance.
Earlier in January I sat with Richard for three days in his shanty on Lake Leelanau looking down through a hole at a foot-long, live sucker minnow dangling from a line. The shanty is kept totally dark. The hole in the ice for spearing is usually about three feet square. The visibility is amazing—-a window on the freshwater netherworld, which though the life doesn't compete with the multitudinous saltwater variety is nonetheless a lot better than staying home and wailing for winter to go away. Anyway, the sucker minnow was supposed to attract the great northern pike, Mister Big Teeth, as he is known in some quarters. When the imaginary pike drifted into our rectangle of vision for a sucker supper, the spear would be thrown at him. The spear was somewhat larger and certainly more cumbersome than the tuna harpoons used off Gloucester and Block Island. Poor pike. But only one appeared in the three days and we were caught unawares, and when Richard lunged with the spear the pike was driven against the bottom and squiggled out between the spear tines. So much for pike spearing, a pastime that is in danger of being outlawed.
But it was pleasant sitting there in the dark shanty, warm with a propane stove and copious supplies of food and drink. We would occasionally chug for perch with small minnows while m watched our decoy. In addition to the meat of the fish, perch roe lightly fried in butter is delicious. I suspect that it is healthy, too, though I have no evidence. But some I know who eat it are huge, a trifle fat, in fact, and can drink 50 glasses of draft beer in an evening. It's never boring in an ice shanty. You talk idly while your head sweats and your feet freeze. There is all the husky camaraderie of the locker room. A sample: "Do you know that girl in Suttons Bay? You know the one I mean."
"Well I would——."
"She's built like a rain barrel."