"Out a little farther," I say, uncertain of our lineups—the birch tree on the island against the yellow house on the opposite shore as far out as the point of land to the south.
"Nah, right here," he says. And he spuds into the ice, littering its smoothness with pristine ice chips.
I look at the crowd of people. The fishermen are congregated in an area the size of a large city lot. They are at the Bluegill Hole, but it seems to me they are off-center just a bit, too near the cove. I watch them for activity—pulling in lines, baiting hooks, moving to other fishing holes, the quick jerk of a missed strike. Most of the fishermen are hunkered over the holes, sitting on a wide range of things that pass for stools—buckets, sleds, snowmobiles, folding chairs, homemade tackle boxes with ice runners. I am looking for a large old man wearing a plaid red and black mackinaw.
We just call him the Old Man. I think his name is Carl something. He lives a mile from the lake, alone, and is, by everyone's admission, the best fisherman the lake knows, winter or summer. He spits tobacco juice on the ice around his fishing holes. He also leaves the hulls of goldenrod stems, from which he has extracted, for bait, small yellow larvae with coal-black heads. From the tobacco juice and golden-rod hulls, you can tell which holes he has been fishing. Find one, walk away about 10 paces and you'll find the frozen remains of small bluegills and perch. Like many people in the area, he believes it isn't good to have so many small bluegills in the lake. The others become "stunted." Maybe they're right, but the lake has a healthy proportion of large bluegills. I return all my small bluegills to the lake but I leave the nuisance perch on the ice because I'm convinced there are too many of those.
Away from the others, though not very far, I see the heavy mackinaw. And the round head covered by the shiny leather of a World War II U.S. Army Air Force cap. The ear flaps are always up. His ears are always red, like two large tomato slices. The Old Man has made it through another summer, an extremely hot one. I'm glad.
I haven't spoken more than a couple hundred words to him in nearly 30 years, although I see him on the ice three or four times each winter. Once, when I was about 12, I asked if he was having any luck. "I don't call fishing luck, boy," was the answer. Two years later I asked if they were biting. "So-so," he said. Mostly we just nod at each other or maybe raise a hand. I wonder if my hair might not be too long.
Sometimes we find fish away from the Bluegill Hole, but only in two or three places and those within a hundred yards of the crowd. In summer there are very few places in the lake where you can drop a line and not catch bluegills, but in winter they are all at the south end. I know. I have spent hours, days, looking elsewhere on the 786 acres of the lake for a Bluegill Hole of our own. My father has just about given up the search, conceding that "they just go south for the winter." It is one of the winter mysteries of the lake, and I spend a dozen hours each season trying to solve it. One day, stubbornly, I chopped 50 well-scattered holes in the young ice and found only miniature perch. I hurried back to the Bluegill Hole that evening in the waning light just in time to catch a nice mess of 'gills. I had the place to myself by then, but that wasn't the point.
My father has his line in the water and is watching the cork bobber. He lifts the bobber from the water, jiggles the line and drops it again. It rests motionless for a moment and then dips quickly. He sets the hook and brails in about 20 feet of nearly invisible monofilament line, until a squirming three-inch perch slithers from the hole. He removes his gloves, works the tiny hook free and tosses the fish aside. The perch skitters across the ice, flops briefly, straightens out, and is quickly welded to the smooth lake surface as fish-wetness turns to glazed ice. With difficulty, because the line is so hard to see and gets caught on ice chips, he works the line back into the hole and mutters something about too many perch in the lake. The bobber no sooner touches the water than he has another perch. Two or three more of these, without a bluegill, will have him digging another hole.
I walk away with the spud and chop a hole of my own. I love that ice spud. My father made it himself out of a four-foot section of galvanized pipe that he welded to a wedge of hardened steel. He did this at the Buick Motor Division down in Flint, where he worked for 46 years. Unknowingly, General Motors has produced a lot of ice-fishing spuds along with automobiles.
I doubt that you can even buy an ice spud anymore. They have been nearly replaced by large augers, which look like giant corkscrews. They cut a perfectly round hole, as though someone had heated up a metal dish with a welding torch and then set it on the ice. The first augers were hand-operated and then, of course, someone rigged up a two-cycle motor drive.