Sunday, March 4, 2007

The Tao of Ice Fishing

I watched three men ice fishing: one alone, two together. They were perhaps one hundred yards apart, each with their primary hole for jigging and several tip-ups. The two men were unable to sit for any duration. They cleaned their holes of new ice every few minutes. The lone fisherman couldn’t help but watch their activity through binoculars.

No flags tipped. No fish were raised.

I stood in a ceaseless wind, dropping the ambient temperature of 34 degrees to somewhere in the 20s. My ears stung, as did my legs when the cold wind ripped through the holes in my jeans. I admired, perhaps for the first time in my life, the one-piece winter outfits within which they braved the cold for hours.

Somewhere beneath the surface, fish lethargically compelled themselves to move else they would die from lack of oxygen. Was it too cold for them to eat? Certainly their hunting instinct was dulled as their need for food was reduced because of their lowered body temperature. The bait was probably neon salmon eggs; I didn’t see a bait bucket for minnows. “What is that orange ball?” the fish thought as it flexed its tail to continue its endless journey around the lake’s bottom.

Another man pulled into the parking lot, not dressed like the others. He buttoned his flannel shirt and uttered a friendly obscenity as he acknowledged me. He was carrying a plastic grocery bag. I watched as he took a bag from within it, and emptied the contents in a pile. He was leaving breadcrumbs for the ducks and geese to eat upon their return from wherever they spent their day. He set three piles and silently returned to his truck. Everyone contributes in their own way.

I watched this broad interaction with nature as my body shook trying to warm itself. The shaking became a distraction as my body took over where my brain refused to act in seeking warmth. Another car pulled up with an older couple within it. I thought they intended to enjoy the passion play as I was, but they left within just a few minutes. Perhaps they were seeking privacy and found none. Although they parked close to me, they never acknowledged my presence.

The sun was setting and the cold accelerated. Still, no flags, no fish.

The arrangement of tip-ups in each camp, six in one and nine in the other, were set as loose triangles angling away from the primary hole, and both sets going from right to left. This arrangement meant the lone fisherman had to turn his back on his array in order to peer at his competitors. Certainly, he would not move his inventory if they were successful; it was too late in the day. He was just lonely on the ice, and was willing to deny the very reason he was on the ice to combat his loneliness. His company was a thirst for knowledge in a barren place and an envy of their companionship and productive-less activity.

Ice fishing is by its nature done on a landscape barren of information. Everything you learn is through touch. The only visual is the depth of the ice from opening a hole. You quickly learn whether you should be thankful for not breaking through the thin ice or can have a sense of safety, and therefore peace, as the thickness yields to your cutting. Once the hole is augured through the surface, all you can do is drop a tethered weight into black water to find the bottom. The lines are set at differing distances above the bottom.

Nothing more is seen. Everything is on faith. Your faith is tested with each blast of wind on the open terrain. As your faith weakens, you search to understand the activity of other fishermen, or, as in the case of the two-man camp, you scurry from hole to hole peering into the blackness trying to sense a fish lurking beneath the surface not unlike trying to read tea leaves in a cup without leaves.

My body was shaking too much to stay any longer. The temporary visits to my car no longer warmed me. I drove away haltingly as my left leg bounced my clutch in and out of gear.

I’ve come home from ice fishing often enough to know the stories that will be shared by the men I watched: The persistence of the cold, the hooks emptied by fish crafty enough to eat the neon prize but not raise the flag, the plans for setting tip-ups in a different configuration next time.

I hope that they also brought some fish to fry and enjoy as they relay their stories.

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