SI Vault
Jim Harrison
February 07, 1972
Sadly, the author was one of those fishermen outside on the ice, blue to his boots as he heard tales of others enjoying winter sport in the lap of luxury
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February 07, 1972

To Each His Own Chills And Thrills

Sadly, the author was one of those fishermen outside on the ice, blue to his boots as he heard tales of others enjoying winter sport in the lap of luxury

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"Pass the wine."

I would like to make an elementary contention here about expediency and sport. In this locale winter begins in late October and runs unremittingly until the end of March. My friends in warmer climes won't believe we had 16� feet of snow last year. After a while you no longer believe there's any earth left under the snow. The ground is a fib. It was still possible to fish on the part of the bay nearest Traverse City in early April. In fact, a large school of young coho salmon running between two and three pounds was discovered in the shoal water near the power plant. A healthy adult with an interest in the outdoors had to do something during these five months. The snow was almost immediately too deep for rabbit hunting—the beagles floundered on their short legs. Even an instinctively arch and lazy whiner like myself doesn't want to spend the entire winter looking out the window dreaming of Cozumel and Belize. And you worry too much: a night when it is below zero and the wind off Lake Michigan is at 40 knots and the car is buried in snow and you count and time the weird thunks and squealings from the furnace that inevitably breaks down. The weather seems to lose its threat when you spend time out in it, and if you're not geared temperamentally to skiing or snowmobiling you're left with nothing to do but fish.

The true force behind ice fishing is that it is better than no fishing at all. In extremis, an addictive fisherman will shoot carp with bow and arrow, set up trotlines for carp and suckers, spear dogfish on Pig Trotter Creek, chum nurse sharks within rifle range. He will surround the crudest equipment with a mystique and ritual and will maintain to the uninitiated that there's no sport quite like fishing rainbows with bobber and marshmallows.

Ice fishing has its strenuous converts. Pat told me that a year ago in April, just before the ice broke up, he was chugging out on the bay when a Coast Guard helicopter came over low and motioned him off the ice. He stayed until he got three fish and the helicopter returned. Then he noticed that the ice beneath his feet was sinking a bit. He grabbed his fish and ran, and the ice for a mile around began wavering and rippling and heaving. The groans made in this situation convince one that there are prehistoric monsters under the ice trying to get out. It is chilling.

One day I drove up along the water through Peshawbestown, a small enclave of Chippewa Indians who are much the worse for wear. Naturally at one time they owned all the land around here. Now there is little or no running water, few indoor toilets, a ghetto shabbiness if it weren't for the fact that there is space to roam. Most of them are kept busy in the winter cutting wood for their stoves. An uninsulated shack can use an astounding amount of wood. I glassed a small cluster of fishermen about a mile out. In the tavern the night before someone had claimed he had taken 17 lake trout with a combined weight of over 100 pounds in just a few hours. This is well over the legal limit, but there is simply too much ice for the game warden to cover adequately. Concern is minimal, however, as the lake-trout population is approaching the vastness of earlier in the century through concerted plantings, lamprey control and stringent, and perhaps unfair, regulation of commercial fishing.

I cut across the peninsula to Leland, a beautiful little harbor town. People here are upset over the Government acquiring 70,000 acres of local land for a National Seashore. Of only slightly less concern is Bill Carlson's attempt to regain some of the commercial fishing waters taken away by the Department of Natural Resources for sport fishing. An additional severe irritant is the state and federal DDT regulation: lake trout and salmon of the Great Lakes have close to 10 parts to the million, which is above the legal allowable limit for selling. I eat all the fish anyway because I am young and fat and reckless and love the forms of danger connected with eating. I feel sad though when I watch the magnificent steelhead leaping against the dam in Leland: all subtly poisoned, though expensive equipment is needed to determine the fact. They still look like steel-head. The breakwater is mountainously covered with ice, but still some waves break over the ice pushed by our third gale of the season. Bill Carlson is a fourth-generation fisherman. The nets around his shack remind me of Cape Ann. But far out beyond Cape Ann the swordfish are gobbling mercury below waves dotted, according to Thor Heyerdahl, with eraser-sized gobbets of oil. And then above them a storm petrel or sooty shearwater or plain old herring gull wheels in ordinary gyres carrying a special freight of poison. There is a certain boredom in anger.

I was down on Good Harbor Bay when the ice was breaking up. The bay is about 10 miles wide and the equal of any tourist photo bay I know of. A few days before I had walked out two miles on the ice to see Richard and his father and Bruce Price. I followed Bruce's footprints, as he weighs nearly 300 and I wanted to feel safe. I stepped over a two-foot-wide crack and peeked for a moment down into the dark clear water. They hadn't had any luck. And Richard was mad. He had dropped a $12 augur while spudding a hole, and there it would rest permanently 100 feet below us. I said that I had stepped over a crack, and they said the crack hadn't been there in the morning. But there was no offshore wind that would drive the ice out toward South Manitou Island. I felt edgy and got the creeps, as if Lon Chaney were under the bed turning into a man-wolf hybrid. I neatly tiptoed back to the car, listening for any rumbles or giant sighs that would announce my death by cold water, POET DROWNS would be the headline in the local paper. Or probably MAN DROWNS, as there is a prevalent notion in the upper Midwest that poets are invariably "dead people."

I drove to the tavern in the evening, and Richard said he had called the Traverse City Chamber of Commerce and asked about a petition that would attempt to keep the oil freighters out of the harbor during the prime fishing months of February and March. An unnamed party suggested that the malcontents should be out looking for work. Bumpkin vigilante action was talked about—say a string of snowmobiles in a freighter's path. Count me out. The ice fisherman is low on the economic totem ratings for logical reasons. One can equip oneself for five bucks. And ice fishermen aren't big spenders in the tourist operations. A $5 frozen steak is for Detroiters.

I got up at five a.m. to go steelhead fishing, but my rod guides kept icing up and the line wouldn't move freely. A week before I had stood on the discouragingly thick ice and cast my fly, a mylar dace, and lost it to a floating iceberg. Will real spring never come, I said to myself, echoing the poets of yore. I meditated on the difference between a fly rod and a chugging paddle, which resembles a fraternity paddle with no initials carved on it. Pulling a fish in hand over hand has an atavistic glee to it; the fish imparts directly to the senses his electric struggle far below. Meat on the table! The little woman will be right proud of her jolly though indigent hubby. Pull that lunker out on the ice and cover him with snow to prevent the effects of dehydration in fish sunburn. I wandered around the creek estuary until I tore a foot-long hole in my waders. The water pouring in was horribly cold. I walked up the shore to an empty cabin and a thermometer on the porch read 24�. I built a small fire out of driftwood and warmed my foot, watching some buffelheads circle above. From out in the bay, the birds were barely visible. I could hear the tremulous cry of two loons. I was frankly tired of cold weather and imagined that the loons were also tired of running into icebergs and the steelhead were tired of dozing in the cold water, their brains asleep to the spawning run.

Oh for April, when the ice is gone and the snowdrift on the hill across the road shrinks daily. I will enjoy two weeks of steelhead fishing and then head for Key West. Fantasies of a record tarpon will be rife, though as unlikely as a record starlet. By that time I usually feel somewhat benign about the preposterous winter I have endured. A crocus perhaps has appeared in vulgar purple glory. I will avoid hammerheads and moray eels and rattlesnakes and other imagined dangers and go through more winters not unlike this where the depleted imagination narrows to a singular point. Fish. Anywhere and almost anytime. Even when trees split open from cold and the target is a bowling ball-sized hole in a lid of ice.

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