Human Guinea Pig

Sleeping With the Fishes

I thought ice fishing would be cold, uncomfortable, and a little bit dangerous. How wrong I was.

You're getting sleepy ... 
        Click image to expand.
You’re getting sleepy …

Preparing for my first ice-fishing expedition—a February trip to a frozen Minnesota lake—I read through the advice offered by the U.S. Army Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory about the “precautionary measures” that were a “matter of life or death” when one is “working or playing on the frozen surface of a river or lake.” Since ice fishing has a faintly comic air, it was bracing to know that Defense Department researchers viewed this sport as having a potential for calamity somewhere between race-car driving and vacationing with the vice president.

But after three hours of jiggling my bait, the fish ignoring it, and the propane heater in the fish house making things so toasty my guide was stripped down to his T-shirt, the greatest danger seemed not that a fissure in the ice would swallow us, but that I would nod off and tumble, Alice in Wonderland-like, into the hole. Fortunately, our fish house had a bunk bed, so instead of falling into the water, I curled up on the bottom bunk and took a nap.

At that moment I realized that any sport that comes with its own bed is meant for me.

My guide, Denny Ryan, had taken me to Lyback’s Ice Fishing resort, on the shore of Mille Lacs, a 200-square-mile lake about two hours north of Minneapolis. Denny is a 52-year-old Minnesota native, a mail carrier who has been ice fishing since he was 4 years old. (He remembers the first occasion because he stepped into the hole and had to wear his mother’s figure skate on his wet foot the rest of the day.) We drove in Denny’s van to the door of the fish house, which was located on Mille Lacs, about two miles from the shore. As his tires touched the frozen lake he advised me to unbuckle my seatbelt. “We’re not going through the ice, but my dad always said if you do, you don’t want your seatbelt on.” We heard an occasional low rumbling sound. “That’s the ice cracking,” Denny explained, before reassuring me that it was 20 inches thick. I was not comforted. I imagined becoming part of Al Gore’s global-warming slide show: a picture of Denny and me in the van at the bottom of the lake, as Gore described how Minnesota became the latest outpost of Club Med.

Before it became a sport, ice fishing was an ancient means of survival for northern people. The Wisconsin State Historical Museum, in an exhibit on Native American fishing traditions, described how after chiseling a hole in the ice, the fisherman would lie down on a bed of balsam branches to hide his reflection, and cover himself with a tepee. He would lower hand-carved decoys into the water, and when a fish approached, impale it on a spear. You can see this skill demonstrated if you rent the magnificent 1922 documentary Nanook of the North.

Ice fishing has since evolved (degenerated?) from balsam and tepees to brews and TVs. Compare the scenes of Nanook triumphantly pulling up fish and killing them with his teeth to the portrayal of ice fishing in Grumpy Old Men, with Walter Matthau sitting on an easy chair in his fishing hut, a six-pack chilling in the ice hole.

We had gotten up at 4:15 a.m. for our expedition. At dawn, before we reached the lake, we stopped at Meleens Sports Center in the town of Onamia. All sports have their equipment and vernacular, but fishing seems to have more than its share. Fishing “jigs” are colorful lures you jiggle in the water. (If Minnesotans ever decide to become rappers, they should name themselves after brands of fishing jigs: BOOYAH Boo Bug, Techni Glo Fat Boys, Power Wiggler, Rattling Varmit.) We bought a bunch of wax worms, called “waxies,” moth larvae, $2.09 for 30, and several scoops of large flathead chubs, a small fish, for $3.50 a scoop. Denny warned me he would be putting the heads of chub on hooks because, he explained, “Since the dawn of time man has used little fish to catch big fish.”

Then he said we needed to buy a bunch of Swedish Pimples and directed me to a wall of them—they are small oval metal lures. (When I got back home I tried to do some research on the origin of the term. I discovered “Swedish pimples” are also called “Swedish nipples.” Looking up Swedish pimples sent me to Web sites on fishing or acne. Looking up Swedish nipples delivered me to I Am Curious—Yellow territory.)

We checked in at the resort, and I picked up a copy of Fifty Thousand Holes, the memoir of Phyllis Lyback, the co-founder of the resort. I flipped the book open and landed on Chapter 13, the story of her husband’s near death after falling through the ice and his futile attempts to rescue himself until passing fishermen scooped him out. “The lake never seemed quite the same to him after that experience,” she wrote. Her son, Eddy, who with his wife, Cindy, now runs the place, escorted us to our house, one of 20 of theirs scattered around the lake. Before we drove off, Denny, curious about what had been the most successful method of fishing lately, asked Eddy, “What are they doing—jigging pimples with chub heads?”

Home sweet ice fishing house
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Home sweet ice fishing house

The red-painted VIP fish house was almost ridiculously luxurious, with two sets of bunk beds, a picture window, a toilet, a heater, a stove, and a dining room table. There were eight ice-fishing holes cut in the wall-to-wall carpet, each 10 inches across. Renting the deluxe house cost $125 for the day; we could have it for the week for $425. I loved the idea of being in my own cozy home and simply pulling dinner up through a hole in the floor. I was not sure about the carpeting, however. I could imagine if I lived there I would be constantly nagging, “How many times have I told you to get your crappie off the rug!”

As Denny moved our equipment in—bait, lures, rods, waxies, chubs, pimples, hemostats for removing hooks from fish, and an amazing underwater camera—I was feeling distinctly unNanookian. Denny dropped the camera viewfinder down the 30 feet to the bottom of the lake, and suddenly we could see on the screen the fish swimming below. Most of them were young yellow perch, but occasionally a foot-long adult would amble by. Denny pierced a chub with my hook, tore off its body, and I lowered the head into the hole.

I could not only feel the perch nipping at the head, I could watch them on what I came to think of as the Fishing Channel. Denny advised me to keep the head moving. “The fluttering triggers the fish. They’re like cats playing with string.” When I saw my bobber—the piece of plastic attached to my line that floats on the surface of the water—get tugged, I should give the rod a sharp snap, impaling the fish.

Don't worry little fella, we won't eat you
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Don’t worry little fella, we won’t eat you

After 45 minutes of fishing, I snapped my rod in response to a tug, then felt resistance on the line. I slowly reeled in my one catch of the morning, a 4-inch yellow perch. Denny carefully unhooked it and handed the fish to me. It was silky and thrashing and after I put it back in the frigid water, it quickly circled its way down to the dark. There are rules governing the size of the fish and the number you can keep. Since we planned to eat the fish someone else caught at a restaurant that night, Denny released all of ours.

Denny put some waxies on his line and started pulling in fish after fish—then unhooking them and plunging them back in the hole. Occasionally, we saw on the screen, as the little ones congregated around our bait, a big fish would sail by, giving our lines a condescending look, as if to say, “I’m not falling for this no matter what nationality your pimple is.”

The Fishing Channel was mesmerizing, but it didn’t seem quite fair, either.

“Isn’t it cheating to watch the fish?” I asked him.

“Yes!” he replied, but we couldn’t bring ourselves to turn the thing off.

After I got up from my nap at 1:15 p.m., the fish seemed like they were on a break, so we went out to talk to a couple of guys who had just driven up and drilled their own hole in the ice with an auger. (Since it was a Tuesday, the lake was almost deserted.) They were Tom and Jeremy, who lived nearby. Garrison Keillor has observed that, for men, walking onto a frozen lake, cutting a hole in the ice, and fishing is an alternative to both therapy and divorce, and a way to experience transcendence. “The moment you leave the shore, you are gripped by a sense of grandeur,” Keillor writes. I asked Tom and Jeremy to describe the allure of ice fishing, but they didn’t quite take Keillor’s lyrical tone.

“It’s something to do,” said Tom.

“Yeah, it’s something to do,” agreed Jeremy.

Then Tom told us his favorite recent ice-fishing story. On a warmish day a young father was sitting by an open hole, pulling up dinner while his 3-year-old son played nearby on the ice. The father was hitting fish after fish, and he would unhook them and toss them behind him. As each one landed, the little boy carefully picked it up, walked to the next open hole, and put it back. “Finally the guy finished, turned around, and saw he had no fish,” said Tom. “I never laughed so hard.”

Calling spirits from the vasty deep
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Calling spirits from the vasty deep

Denny and I went back to the house, and while Denny continued to pull up a stream of perch, I went for hours without a fish. At one point I took out my cell phone and called my daughter 1,100 miles away, to see if she was doing her homework. As we talked I felt a tug on the line, hung up the phone, and pulled in my second fish. By now the sun was starting to set, and before it got dark Denny suggested we walk farther out onto the lake to take a look at an ice heave—a place where the ice has buckled upward several feet.

We set out and I was finally cold—it was about 20 degrees Fahrenheit, and as I took off my gloves to snap a few pictures, the tips of my fingers started burning. We walked about a third of a mile straight to the heave. It was a windless day with about 4 inches of snow on the ice, and all was flat and white and quiet. We stopped to take it in, just as the Ojibwe, the Indians who lived by and fished on this lake for hundreds of years, must have.* I realized in all my life I had never experienced such utter, spectacular silence.

We walked back, packed up, and drove off the ice and back to Onamia. At Trophy’s Sports Bar I ordered a walleye dinner. It was delicious.

*Correction: This piece originally stated that the Ojibwe Indians have lived by Mille Lacs Lake for thousands of years. In fact, they have only lived there since the 1700s.