SI Vault
Sigurd Olson
February 28, 1955
There's a secret world under the ice known only to those who sit in a "dark house," watching raptly as the snow whispers outside
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February 28, 1955

Fishing At 20 Below

There's a secret world under the ice known only to those who sit in a "dark house," watching raptly as the snow whispers outside

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It was just two years ago that my son Bob came home to catch the feeling of the Minnesota- Ontario border country in midwinter. He wanted above all to sit with me again in a "dark house"—an ice-fishing shanty—and watch the circling decoy and the scene below the ice. He wanted time to think long thoughts and hear the whispering of the snow outside the thin tar-paper walls. He wanted the good feeling that he used to know at night after a long day on skis and perhaps the taste of a fish fresh from the icy waters of the lakes of the north.

So one morning in January, though it was 20 below, we took off for the old haunts. The ski harnesses creaked as we pushed across the lower reaches of Fall Lake. Smoke rose straight above the chimneys in the little town of Winton at the end of the road and the sundogs blazed over the horizon. It was far too cold to travel slowly. We pushed hard on our sticks and the skis hissed over the powder-dry snow. We were the only ones abroad, the only ones foolish enough to be outside when we didn't have to be. Fresh deer tracks crossed the lake.

A tiny tar-paper shack off the end of a long point was our goal. A friend had set it up weeks ago, told us where the spear was cached and the wooden decoy. For its use, we were to bring him a fish. That meant we had to take two. We shoveled the snow away from the door, fanned a flame to life in the little stove, dug the spear and the decoy out of a drift.


Six inches of ice had to be cut out of the hole. We put some snow in the coffeepot, closed the door and settled down to wait. Outside a bitter wind howled, but the little shelter was cozy and warm. At first we could see nothing but the green translucent water, but gradually our vision cleared and we could see farther and farther into the depths, finally to the very bottom itself. Light streamed through the snow and ice and the bottom all but glowed.

In our field of vision were several whitish rocks and bits of shell, important landmarks of the scene. Soon eel grass and feathery water milfoil emerged in the half-light, weaving slowly in the slight current of the narrows. The rocks and shells became as familiar as though we had been watching them for weeks, the tufts of waving grass as outstanding as trees in a meadow. In one corner was a clam, its narrow furrow distinct and sharp in the sand. A shaft of light angled over our hunting ground, light reflected through flashing prisms of ice. The stage was set for action.

The spear rested easily against the inside edge of the ice, its handle free and ready to grasp, a cord fastened to Bob's wrist. Occasionally he shifted the point of a tine before it became too firmly embedded in its notch, twisted it slightly so that when the great moment came there would be no resistance, no wrenching free, nothing to interfere with the thrust.

I played the decoy, a six-inch model of a sucker minnow replete with fins and tail of shining tin. Whittled from a piece of cedar, it was weighted with lead and hung from the end of a string. Its tail was set so that with each motion of my hand it made wide and beautiful circles all around the hole.

As the coffee began to simmer, we shed outer jackets and mitts. Outside it was still close to 20 below and the snow was whispering as Bob had hoped. After an hour of tension we began to relax, talked quietly about many things. A fish house is a fine place for visiting, no place for arguments or weighty ideas but rather for small talk, local politics and gossip, things we had seen coming in, ideas that required no effort, short simple thoughts that came as easily as breathing. This was no place for the expounding of strong heady beliefs. Such ideas take room and space in which to grow and expand. Furthermore our energies must be conserved for the moment when the flash of a silver side below would eclipse everything else.

"A northern pike will taste pretty good tonight," I said.

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