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
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.
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."
like a rain barrel."