I’ll be the first to admit that I had no interest in trying ice fishing. Fishing in the cold is one thing, but to do it on purpose while staring at a hole in the ice? Well, that’s another story. It wasn’t only the cold that deterred me; I’d seen ice-fishermen stay warm with fires, steaming cups of coffee and body heat. For me, the issues were the ethics of targeting starving trout, as well as my fear of boredom. I’m the sort of person who needs to be constantly moving—or at the very least, visually stimulated. Ice fishing just didn’t seem to fit the bill.
As fall turned to winter and intact deer tags turned to bookmarks, I had no protein in camp and was beginning to get hungry. I regretted not stocking up on trout when the lakes were still open, but the truth is that I wasn’t able to get out on them anyway. Logistics of boats and a baby had me shore-bound and it was almost impossible to get to where the fish were.
Ice fishing seemed to be an exciting alternative. The lake I fish most often is close to my home and it’s teeming with hefty brook trout. The sudden realization that I didn’t need a boat meant I could finally explore parts of the lake that were once out of reach. As quickly as my need for a boat disappeared, so too did my concerns about “playing fair.” Catch and release wasn’t high on my priority list when all I could think about was eating.
I’d never ice fished before and had no idea what kind of gear to use. I figured I’d need one of those mini rods I always see in the big box stores, an auger to drill a hole in the ice, and a stool to sit on. My friend Jimmy let me know he had all the necessary equipment, including a hut specifically made for ice fishing. I picked him up and we headed out for the day.
It was surreal to see the lake so accessible. I worried that the ice wouldn’t be thick enough to hold our weight but a nearby snowmobile gave me confidence that we were safe. Regardless, stepping onto it was unnerving. Every so often my foot dropped through the upper layers of slush, threatening to plunge into the water below. I held my breath until both heels came to an abrupt stop; the crispy, crunching sound of compacted snow indicated that the ground was solid.
We found holes that other anglers had drilled that morning. Blood stained the surrounding ice in various shades of red. I’d never been so happy to see proof of massacre. We cleared out the slush with a large slotted spoon and rigged our rods with shrimp. I peered down into the dark hole, trying to see the bottom. It couldn’t have been much deeper than ten feet. Opening the bail of the small spinning reel, I uncoiled the line until my spoon and shrimp touched bottom and then started jigging. The blind jigging was mindless and dull and I could see why I was hesitant about trying it in the first place. It seemed to be about as boring as I figured it would be.
Jimmy kindly offered me the hut, which was similar to a large black tent. It had enough space for my dog and a cover that trapped in heat and darkness. It was at this point when my entire experience changed. The dark material blacked out the sun, directing all of the light into my ice hole. Suddenly the bottom lit up, glowing as though there was someone holding a spotlight underneath me. I could see individual blades of grass, my shrimp and every single fish that came to check out my bait! Here I was, sight-fishing for enormous brook trout while basically standing right on top of them. I’d once paid a small fortune to do this exact thing out of a boat in Quebec. I giggled uncontrollably as, one by one, fish swam up to my shrimp. They’d flare their gills before sucking it in, then spit it out before I could set the hook
Eventually I hooked into a healthy brook trout and tug-of-warred until it reached the surface. As it flopped atop the ice, I flailed and kicked, desperately trying to keep it from going back into the water. The entire ordeal was a stark contrast to the fishing I’d done in the past. I wasn’t striving for any sort of challenge or “fight” from the fish, nor was I looking to prove that I was skilled, well practiced or ethical. I was fishing for food—the simpler it was, the better.
I watched Jimmy from afar. Dressed in a snowsuit, he laid on the ice covered by a black sheet; beer in one hand and fishing line in the other. Jimmy is the sort of angler I’d never really understood—the kind of guy who has little interest in blind-fishing for steelhead, yet has all the time in the world for shoulder fisheries and less sought-out fish species. He made me question why it took me so long to embrace the logic of utilizing the rivers and lakes ignored by out-of-towners. All these years of fleeing the winters to experience some of the “greatest fisheries on this planet” and this whole time, all it took was a dark sheet, short piece of monofilament, a packet of shrimp and a hole in the ice for me to experience my most entertaining fishing trip this fall.