Near “white out” conditions on Green Bay were actually much worse than this…
Referring of course, to the ubiquitous white plastic five gallon bucket that nearly all minimalist ice fishermen carry out to their spots, containing the list of their fishing and comfort accoutrements, as well as the bucket itself, which soon becomes your perch. (No pun intended…) Hmmmm…let’s see, ice creepers, jigs, wax worms, jig pole, little fuzzy things, dipper, Backwoods Smokes, auger, hot seat, thermos full of Joe, Nutty Bars, and a whole lot more stuff, enough to make the producers of Grumpy Old Men look twice and organizers of Mt. Everest expeditions envious.
I for one hate ice fishing, and for one main reason: it’s cold; damn cold! Especially this year, when it has been a record setting hard winter, with 60” of snow and -45 degree wind chills and -18 real temperatures. Our January thaw didn’t really happen yet, and I’m not holding my breath till it comes. I am a “springtime” early March type ice fisherman, when you get those late winter sunny 30 degree days with no wind and that lovely tinkling drip, drip, drip of melting snow off the trees and roofs that comes like music to the ears. Then you can sit out there on the lake in a nice comfy lawn chair, catch a few rays, and just let the hungry jumbo perch leap out of the hole and into the bucket by themselves. Ahhhh, now that’s ice fishing!
Ice fishing used to be miserable in January; wet frozen feet in soggy pack boots, a cold breeze down the “plumbers smile,” enough puffy frost bite to make folks think you went out and got a face lift, ‘cept the Doc forgot to put your purple-black ears and nose back on straight. You still can find the misery you seek, if you try hard enough, grasshopper. Though now days, you have options, as the winter fisherman has gotten a lot smarter, and his technology has gotten a lot better, reducing the machismo aspect of the symbolic Peshtigo-Yooper- Finn, from the fur parka and bomber-hat Stormy Kromer crowd standing cold and defiant out on the open God-forsaken ice, down to the modern wireless internet connected Gore-Tex clad big screen TV Lazy Boy and wet bar fully heated Winnebago sized ice shanty with its own steamy sauna.
Whereas it used to be a tough break when you stepped in your own fishing hole and got a soaker, causing your boot to turn into a solid block of ice in 30 seconds, today, it’s a tough break when your cell phone battery dies, or somebody forgets the paprika for the fish boil. The post modern ice fisher-people have gotten comfort down to a science so well that it is quite possible to go out there for a whole weekend and not get cold at all, and catch a lot of fish on top of it.
I started out last Saturday morning at the Bond Center in Oconto doing the usual drill, a mile swim in the 85 degree water of the pool and a 10 minute steam in the 105 degree hot tub while looking through the Arboretum windows at the blizzard raging outside. That would have been fine and good all by itself, because you always feel like a million bucks after that workout, but there was a lot more steaming than my onions on that morning, because I suffered a severe lack of judgment the Friday before and while caught off guard, by some super nice and enthusiastic friends I had been bamboozled, tricked, hornswaggled into going ice fishing!
If you look at the photo and imagine total white out conditions where those tiny black dots you see disappear, note the lack of a horizon or any visible landmarks out on the Bay on a “clear” day, now imagine today out there on the ice, west of Door County, during this blizzard.
“That’s ok Dude!” said my friend, “Just give me a call on the cell phone when you reach the shore, and we’ll turn on our roof light, or we could just give you the GPS coordinates. Got a GPS?”
The ice on Green Bay is always dangerous. Over New Years, a Coast Guard ice breaker went out of Green Bay Harbor bustin’ ice up the east peninsula shoreline 35 miles away…but it caused a “ripple” or wave under the ice so huge that it traveled all the way up here, causing an island chunk of ice the size of Lambeau Field to break off from the shore and float free. Of course, there were half a dozen trucks, RV’s, ice shanties, snowmobiles and fifty or sixty people stranded out there at the time. No worry, everybody got off ok, but it took a whole lot of expensive rescue equipment, and a few frayed nerves to get everyone off the ice.
Icecicles formed on my eyebrows as I crossed the Bond parking lot, and my Toyota was slowly being buried in wind whipped white stuff. I have had my truck in 4 wheel drive for almost a month now. The locals keep saying that this winter is “normal,” “like in the old daze,” but after I picked up a box of fresh donuts to contribute to the fishing party, I drove down to the shore, and looked out over the big lake and its pure white hell, and I wondered if I would be able to salvage a good story out of this. Would I somehow be able to reconcile this trip with the distinct yearning I had for the ice fishing of the old days, like the old timers? Even if, deep down inside, I hated it? Because that was a time when men were men and boys were boys, and young folks were not totally insensitive to preposterous amounts of cold wet wool, and digits frozen inside the mittens that now days would totally wreck youthful thumbs for video game and text messaging dexterity. A paradox, but such suffering builds character, everyone knows that, so it was with great trepidation I hugged my box of donuts, fired up my cell phone and called out over the ice.
Wayyyyyyyy off in the distance, blotted out on occasion by gusts of wind whipped snow; I saw a yellow light begin to flash, like a strobe. The old Toyota ground out over the ice, snow squeaking under the wheels, almost like driving inside a ping pong ball, and believe me, you simply cannot do that without thinking of going through, lost forever under and into the icy cold darkness, at least once. This ain’t Ice Road Trucke, dig? After about ten minutes I ground to a halt in a circle of 4×4 pickups, ATV’s and sno-mos whose center point was an old 16-foot travel trailer, painted desert sand Hummer camo, complete with fake bullet holes, as two of its creators are Iraq vets.
As soon as I turned the engine off, even with the howling wind, I could hear clear as a bell Jimmy Buffet crooning “Margarita-Ville” from the trailer. The door blew open and a stogie-sucking Hawaiian shirt, bomber hat-clad buddy of mine, hollered: “Hey what’re ya standin’ out there in the cold fer? Har har har! C’mon in!”
Was I overdressed? I mean, it was hotter than hell in there with the heater cranked up to sauna levels, and as I began to shed my layers of polypro Gore-Tex and fleece someone handed me a Pina Colada with a lot of fruit and a little paper umbrella in it. Jimmy B. faded and the Reggae’ tunes took over, then the Cajun Zydeco music, and finally Don Ho and his ukelele on the mighty boom box. Everyone but me was wearing shorts, and a couple of the fellers were shirtless, with red suspenders, again, everyone else wore Hawaiian shirts with a variety of hats, including a couple straw cowboy hats. These fellows had a blow up palm tree in the corner there. “Got it at Menards! Let’s PARTY!!” They all hollered!
It was an old travel trailer converted into a “six- holer” with lawn chairs Vexilars and underwater cameras all around. “Hey man! It’s a hairy trip out here over the ice…scary!” I said. After that, they just about peed themselves laughing. “What’s so funny?” I asked. And my one friend who shall remain nameless (more on this later) pointed to the hole, and bending over, I could clearly see the bottom. “Two- feet of water!” he laughed.
Between the music, the laughter and the insults, it was a magical beautiful noise way out there in the Bay, and the five of us bantered about clever dirty ice fishing remarks, and the standard gross wax worm jokes. Some people write about adventure, I live it, and poop on my cherished civilized persona. There are times when you must get wild, and get away from the shoreline. A brutal survival story of modern man trapped out on the ice in the unforgiving North Country with little more than organic Cheetos, fresh caught boiled whitefish, American fries with onions and rum to survive on.
Oh yes, did I say…whitefish? That ever so delectable gourmet eating fish that was once thought to be almost extinct due to commercial over-fishing? Yes. (Hence the secrecy of exact location and the anonymity, no pix, of the participants under penalty of death.) Whitefish coming back, averaging 20 inches and caught in shallow water starting around January 15th. One fish equals two nice-sized filets, and as tasty a fish as you’ll ever eat. Especially boiled in herbs and seasonings Door County style or fried “blackened” Cajun style. Yummy!
Pan the camera out to an appropriate distance and listen to the music, the laughter and the extremely off-key singing, my own squeaky voice among them now, and consider the dark spruces along the shorelines, now stripped of their snow by the wind. Consider the clouds, grey and ominous, dumping more snow than your sense of irony can imagine, consider the ice way out here in the middle of nowhere, desolate, lifeless and freezing cold, without mirth or movement. There is a masterful and beautiful and alien incommunicable wisdom out here on the ice; old man winter turning slow, laughing out loud at the weakness and futility and stupidity of human beings, so small and so tiny against all of winter. Here in the frozen waterway sits a tiny island of warmth light and silliness ready to take it all on, and come up; entertained with a full belly.
On the underwater cameras we saw lots of stuff – walleye, perch, trout and even a mudpuppy and a sturgeon, and later in the day something – like something big took a “chomp” off the plastic fish-shaped body of the camera, and left it chewed like a golden Lab had got ahold of it. Pike? Musky? Hmmmm…more excitement, and yes, about every two hours or so the school of whitefish passed beneath the trailer, and every one of us began pulling up squirming, struggling silver-and-white gourmet fare for about two minutes until the school moved on. Short and sweet and exciting, but enough for five lines to pull up half a dozen nice fish; 17” to 20”. A long wait between frenzies, but oh so well worth it. Some of them went right into the boiler and frying pan, and if you’ve never had whitefish that fresh…
…then you must ask yourself, what else in life have you missed?
And to think, I almost chickened out on this mid-winter excursion.
There is the theory of ice fishing, and the modern-day application. Everyone should go ice fishing like this just once. Forget about the world going to hell in a hand basket; that means nothing out on the ice. We all spend entirely too much time working, worrying and contemplating the apocalypse and all other such equally boring and meaningless subject matter. Escape. I am eminently qualified on the topic of escape. Near dusk, as I stepped from the trailer to make yellow snow, I reflected on all the white emptiness once again, slogging through the slush to an appropriate place I heard the real sound of silence, filling me with enough emptiness and nothingness to cheer the heart of any Zen Buddhist meditator in the state of “no mind” emptiness and meaninglessness across the open sky without end until it all reached a great refreshing trouble-free crescendo of recreational nirvana.
Beware the mad cautionary tale of cabin fever. It lurks among those who never get out and fish.
Till next time,