I find, to my surprise, that I’m feeling less cranky about winter.
Maybe it’s because the days are getting longer, so I’m getting more sunshine. Maybe it’s because it’s about to be February, which means we’re only 28 days away from its being about to be spring. Maybe it’s because I’ve decided to throw economy to the wind and heat the house to a comfortable temperature.
But I think it’s the ice fishing.
The common element in all winter activities is danger, which makes me a reluctant participant and Kevin a gung-ho advocate. For most sports, the danger comes from speed. Take a ski, or a sled, or a luge, or the vehicle of choice from my college days, a cafeteria tray, and combine it with a slippery trail that goes downhill, and you’ve got an accident complacently certain to happen.
Although Ice fishing has the virtue of not involving speed, it more than makes up for that by happening on ice through which you can fall to your death.
(The worst of winter activities, of course, involve speed on ice through which you can fall to your death. Our friend Rick has been making noises about going ice-boating, but I’m not sure I can work up the nerve. Kevin is ready to suit up at a moment’s notice.)
If it were up to me, I wouldn’t even think about ice fishing until I saw, with my own eyes, something very heavy safely traverse the ice on our pond. Something like a Bradley Fighting Vehicle, or maybe a rhinoceros. Kevin, though, is dusting off the tip-ups as soon as the ripples stop.
This year, that was a few days ago.
Our pond, because it’s fairly big, is often late to the ice-fishing party. We’d already been to fish with our friends Bob and Suzie on their pond, on the red-letter day that Suzie caught a 1.8-pound perch. (In case you’re not quite sure what constitutes a big perch, that most certainly does.) And we’d been watching people ice fish on the other side of our pond, which froze first this year, for at least a week. But it wasn’t until this week that we could walk out on the ice from our property
As soon as we could, Kevin got out all our equipment. We’ve got five tip-ups, which are the gizmos you put over the holes you drill in the ice. They have a spool with fishing line, and a flag that pops up when a fish takes the line. We’ve a got a rope that we tie to a tree and bring out with us to the fishing grounds, so we have a lifeline in case of mishap. And we ought to have an augur, which is what you drill holes in the ice with, but all we have is an ice axe.
What we needed was bait. In the past, we’d used shiners, standard-issue bait fish you buy by the dozen from Amy at Sports Port. A shiner isn’t a kind of fish; it’s a size of fish. Just about any little, silvery fish can pass for a shiner, and I have no idea which actual species we’ve used in the past. The thing about shiners, though, is that our bait-to-catch ratio makes them expensive.
This year, Kevin had a brilliant idea. He’d had a lot of success over the summer with a Mooselook bright orange spoon lure that looks a lot like a goldfish. So, why not try an actual, genuine goldfish? They’re seventeen cents a pop at the pet store.
We got ten.
It was only when we’d set up the tip-ups and I mentioned, online, that we were ice-fishing with goldfish that I got the first inkling that it might not be a good idea. Astute reader Al Cambronne, who hunts, fishes, and writes about the great Wisconsin outdoors, brought it to my attention that using goldfish as bait just might be … ahem … illegal.
I checked the Massachusetts regulations and found the list of fish approved for use as bait. It contains such evocatively named creatures as the creek chubsucker and the mummichog, but it most certainly does not contain goldfish.
The problem, of course, is that goldfish are carp, a notoriously adaptive species that can make themselves, and their bazillion offspring, at home in any body of water bigger than a birdbath. Let them loose in your trout pond at your peril.
We will not make this mistake again. And we hope that, having made it the first time, we haven’t set the wheels in motion for Hamblin Pond to be overrun with giant, man-eating carp. That’s a long shot, since we think all our fish either died on the hook or got eaten by trout, but still. I don’t want to find out what it feels like to be the idiot responsible for a robust population of an invasive species, and go down in history with the zebra mussel guy and the kudzu lady.
For the record, goldfish make lousy bait. Although the trout seem to like them, their little gold lips are too flimsy to stay in the hook as they’re being eaten. We had way too many false alarms – a popped flag, but no fish. We don’t think the goldfish simply escaped, since we only lost them when a flag went up, and they aren’t nearly big enough to turn the spool on their own. The wily trout ate them right off the hook, and had a tasty snack without paying with their lives.
We did hook two trout with our ten goldfish, but we lost one just as we were pulling it up. The other one, we landed safely, and it’s in our fridge now, ready to be dinner. Or a part of dinner, at any rate. It’s a pretty small fish.
But in the depths of winter, when there’s no lobstering or gardening, no mushrooms or bluefish, no deer, no ducks, and no pheasants, it means a lot that we still have the excitement of pulling one little rainbow trout up through a hole in the ice.
I’m sure glad I didn’t wait for the rhinoceros.