I will say one thing for ice fishing. You’re typically going to have more time on your hands waiting for a strike than you are catching fish. So it’s not uncommon that you find yourself looking for ways to pass the time especially when it’s a balmy zero degrees outside with 30 mph winds whipping across the bay. Nothing is easy in that environment. That is unless you fish, like the fish, in schools with friends who can lend a hand or at least help break the monotony. Yes indeed, when I was growing up along the shores of Little Bay De Noc all my friends and I joined the small city of fishermen that sprouted up on the bay each year and went ice fishing. Passed down to me by my father, an old ice spud, a chewed up jigging stick, a cracked plastic bucket, and a license to enjoy myself on the frozen water, I carried on with pride. And a lot of goofing off at times.
We had huge ice shanties with even larger woodstoves. Bench seats that fit 4 people per side and two big icefishing holes chiseled large enough so that everyone had room to fish. Hell you could damn near drop a snowmobile down each of the holes. More than one of us took the plunge when trying to navigate through a sea of Sorrel boots that intentionally tried to trip you up as you made your way for the exit to cool off, create a yellow smiley face in the snow, or maybe it was your turn to grab a round of brewskis. It seemed harmless back then. After all there were seven of us to fish someone out of the hole if they were to require some assistance from the icy water. Yeah right. We were laughing too hard to help. It’s been several decades since those carefree days, or maybe careless is a better word, but the memories came rushing back today when I was removing the ice dams from the roof of my cabin and I couldn’t help but write a few down.
We were your typical 16 year old teenage boys for that time. We drank beer, smoked cigarettes, cursed a lot, fought a lot, hunted and fished when were weren’t with the girlfriends whom, by the way, weren’t allowed in the fish shanty or at hunting camp. And, if you brought your girlfriend out with you we always sought revenge of some sort. Take Daniel for instance.
A bunch of us all had our own fish shanties on the lake this particular year. We kept our shanties close enough to each other that we could walk outside and talk in a moderately normal voice to one another. We’ll call it our outside voice. When fishing was slow it was like wandering the neighborhood and visiting each shanty to see if they were catching anything. When I got to Daniel’s shack he wouldn’t unlock the door. He just kept telling me to go away. He sounded strange so I called a couple buddies over to complete the interrogation process. Daniel held firm about keeping us out and our suspicion ran wild. Fortunately we all used woodstoves to stay warm. So, a simple coffee can on top of the smoke stack was all it took to flush Daniel out of the shack and to our surprise Theresa nearly fell out the door choking from the smoke that filled the shanty. Oops. We looked at Daniel and smiled and he knew we had something in store for him.
That night myself and a few friends drove out to the shanty around midnight and under the headlights of the pickup truck we pooled our artistic talents and painted Daniel’s shanty a gorgeous hot pink color. The look on his face the next day when he came out to fish was priceless. At least I would guess it was. We saw him turn around and leave before he ever got close to the shanty. Probably a tad embarassed to claim that beauty would be my diagnosis.
Nearly as classic was Joey’s reaction when he received a similar fate for the same infraction. Them girls will get you into trouble for sure. This time we simply put his entire shanty in the back of the truck and drove it up the bay a full mile before setting it back down on the ice. In the end Daniel re-painted his shanty, under the cover of darkness. Joey retrieved his shack after an exhausting search. And we never saw either of them ice fishing with their girlfriends by us again. It’s not that we didn’t like the girlfriends, most of them were also friends with each other. This was “guy time” and in our minds we needed this time with no intrusions so you paid a price when our little code of honor was broken.
Another little trick we pulled when the fishing was slow involved rigging someone’s line with a heavy object when they walked outside for a break or to stretch their legs. Anybody who fishes walleyes through the ice knows that slow heavy tugging feeling of a big walleye on the line. It’s not that jerking and running motion of a fish like a northern pike. It’s a slow methodic pulse where you can feel the line stretching to near breaking point. It’s about the weight a six pack of beer feels like on a hand-line in about 25 feet of water with a bit of current. It’s a risk hooking it properly so you don’t lose the beers but it’s well worth it when your fishing buddy gets that first look at a six pack of beer dangling below him in the water. It’s even better when he’s shouting it’s a big one, it’s a big one, get the gaff as he pulls up more and more line. Funny thing is once he notices his beer hanging down there he’s just as cautious as he would be with a record walleye on the end of the line.
Back to the woodstoves for a bit here. The very worst trick I ever had pulled on me was the plugging of the stack on my woodstove. That came only after a couple buddies dumped a dozen minnows and two raw eggs down the chimney then blocked the door so I couldn’t get out. They knew as well as I that the windows on my shanty were big enough to stick my entire head out so the smoke wasn’t the big problem. I made them that big for that very reason. I was thinking ahead. In reality I didn’t trust any of these jokers even though we were best of friends. They said I looked like a smoked chub laying on the ground gasping for air. More like dry heaving. The smell nearly killed me and it stuck in the shanty for weeks. You might think well, eggs and fish that’s not a big deal. Trust me here. When they’re tossed down your chimney and the stack gets plugged it’s one of the few most rancid smells I still remember to this day. Nobody was immune to getting the treatment at one point or another. Fortunately I got less than I dished out.
Another trick was to get a few guys together and lift the side of the shanty up so another person could slide under while avoiding sliding right into the ice fishing hole, and then he would sit in there and wait until the owner of the shanty would come out to fish. Because everything was locked and looked normal they got quite the surprise when our buddy would scare the hell out of them as they opened the door. And that was part of everyone fishing close to one another. We saw the reaction each time which mostly ended in someone falling on their ass or getting chased and tackled in a pile of snow. Another version of the same trick was for someone to slide under and toss all the firewood out. We would stash his firewood in one of our shanties. He always knew what we did because it happened to everyone at least once. The real purpose was that he now needed to beg for wood to build a fire and stay warm. We would usually toss a single piece outside now and then for him to grab and throw in his woodstove. It was never enough to get the shanty toasty warm but it was better than nothing which was what you got if you didn’t beg properly. The rule that accompanied that trick was that the person that needed wood wasn’t allowed in the other shanties to warm up. You didn’t even open the door for him. I laugh now about how we treated one another but we didn’t see it as truly being mean.
Now you might be thinking these guys were complete goof-offs that didn’t take fishing seriously. I can only say that we caught plenty of fish. We all lived within five minutes of the bay so fishing was practically an every day event. We all worked together to move our shanties and get setup in a new area. Back then we chopped through the ice with chisels. We didn’t have gas augers. Eight of us stood around a rectangular pattern about 6 feet long and eighteen inches wide on the ice and passed the chisel down the line. You chopped until you got tired and then handed the spud off to the next guy who worked on his area. With three feet of ice to chop through it took time. We created two holes per shanty and usually had four shanties minimum. Then we got two chisels working together to push the big block under the ice once it broke free. Two guys would break away from the chopping long enough to set the shanty over the holes, block it up off the ice, and then bank up the sides with snow to keep the wind out. Build a quick fire to warm the shanty and then they returned to chopping with the rest of us. We had a system and it worked well. Fishing a mile off shore it wasn’t uncommon to lose track of the shoreline during a storm of a whiteout. We spent more than one night out on the bay in our shanties waiting for a storm to pass. For safety reasons that’s what we were taught. Stay put and together. Too many people have drowned out on that lake trying to navigate the shoreline during a storm. It was serious business for the most part.
I could go on for days writing about all the good memories and some of the best ice fishing I’ve ever been part of but these memories of a young man really stand out in my mind. The rest, I’ll keep them to myself to re-live when I run into one of my old fishing buddies. And maybe, just maybe, I’ll get back out on the hardwater and create a few new ones. They won’t be as sinister, comical, or even as involved as those from days of old. After all, I’m no longer an indestructible teenager. The six packs of beer have been replaced with Coca Cola and the closest thing you will catch me doing to chiseling ice is removing these ice dams from my cabin’s roof. Which reminds me, that’s another memory that is calling my name right now. Except this one is not so cool.