Ice fishing: trout or death

I never thought I’d be talked into an activity where the upside is dinner and the downside is drowning, or maybe hypothermia, but yesterday found me gingerly walking out on our frozen pond, ice fishing gear in hand.

Let me be clear from the get-go: this was my husband’s idea. From the morning, some time in November, when we woke up to find a thin skin of ice on the puddles in the driveway, he’s been waiting for the pond to freeze so we can go out there and freeze with it, jiggling a hook through a hole in an attempt to reel in a rainbow. The pond began to cooperate some time in the beginning of January, and each day Kevin walked a little farther out on it while I watched from shore, waiting for the crack and the splash.

As cold day followed cold day with no crack and no splash, I gained confidence, and one sunny afternoon we decided to walk the pond’s perimeter, a circuit of two or three miles. The east side of the pond, where we live, was reassuringly solid, but when we reached the north side the ice started shifting under us. The movement, accompanied by ominous groans, had me scurrying for shore.

“The water’s only knee-deep when you’re three feet from shore, you know,” Kevin said in his patient-husband voice.

I did know, but it was the idea of the thing.

I’m not normally a cringing, snivelling coward, but there’s something about the idea of falling through ice into freezing cold water that scares the bejeezus out of me. I took a deep breath and soldiered on.

Half-way round, we ran into two ice fishermen. They had several holes going, were burning wood in a barbecue to stay warm, and were, inexplicably, drinking beer. After we chatted with them for a while about technique, we went on our way.

“How can they be drinking beer when it’s 20 degrees out?” I asked Kevin.

“You’re supposed to drink beer when you ice fish,” he explained, “That’s part of the point.”


There’s a public beach at the south end of the pond, and a father and son had come, apparently with the sole purpose of walking out on the ice. They went out what seemed perilously far, but looked unconcerned. I was beginning to get the sense that I was the only person on the Cape afraid of the ice.

Now I may be a cringing, sniveling coward, but I’m a reasonable cringing, sniveling coward. By the time we finished our circuit, I was ready to acknowledge that the ice was clearly safe some distance out, and I was determined to conquer my fear and try some ice fishing.We had the ice, and we had the will, but we didn’t have the gear. So we went to see Amy.

On Cape Cod, knowing fishing must be like being rich: you’re never sure why someone wants to be your friend. Whenever I talk to Amy, who runs our favorite bait and tackle joint, Sports Port, I get the sense that she thinks I’m being friendly and engaging because I’m trying to charm her out of everything she knows. Which, in a way, I suppose I am – but I’m not sure I could pull it off with someone I didn’t like.

Amy explained that, in winter, the fish hang out near the bottom, so you want your bait to hang out there too, and she showed us how to rig a tip-up so the shiner (the little fish we’re using to catch the bigger fish) stays where the trout are likely to be.

If you’ve never used a tip-up, it’s a gizmo that you lay across the hole you made in the ice, with a reel extending below and a flag on a spring above. When you set it, you tuck the flag under a bar that’s attached to an axle that has the the reel at the other end, and spins when the reel does. Fish takes bait, swims away, turns reel, which turns the bar which releases the flag which tells you you’ve got a live one.

But before you set it, you have to deal with that making-a-hole-in-the-ice part. I had imagined this was a delicate operation, performed with a precision tool designed to drill a hole with minimal disruption to the surrounding ice. The ice you’re standing on, that would be. There is such a tool. It’s called an auger. But we don’t have one, so we had to go to plan B, which involved an eight-pound maul. A maul is like the infertile offspring of a sledgehammer and an axe. It is not delicate or precise. It is designed to beat your chores into submission.

“Don’t worry,” said Kevin. “Everyone uses these.”

“Not those guys,” I said, with some trepidation, pointing across the ice at two guys who had what I strongly suspected was an auger.

Kevin waved his hand in dismissal. “Coupla sissies.”

At this point, I should tell you something about my husband. He’s a risk-taker by nature, a commodity trader by profession, and still in one piece by sheer luck. I have resigned myself to his participation in dangerous activities, but I haven’t quite gotten to the point where I participate with him. Mauling ice seemed to me to qualify as a dangerous activity, and even Kevin admitted it had a certain counterintuitive element.

In an effort to alleviate my obvious anxiety about the danger involved in the whole ice-fishing enterprise, Kevin had rigged up a safety system that consisted of a long rope tied to a tree. “You just tie it to your belt when you go out on the ice, and you’re covered, he explained.”

When we ventured out on the ice for the first time, maul in hand, I couldn’t help noticing that the rope wasn’t tied to anyone’s belt. When I brought this to Kevin’s attention, he said, “We don’t need it when we’re both out here. If I fall through just go get the rope.”

“And if we both fall through?”

“That won’t happen.”

I grabbed the end of the rope and out we went.

If you’ve ever been on or, more sensibly, around, ice-covered lakes, you know that they make a strange, creepy noise. It’s an eerie, echoing twang, as though either Zeus is flexing his cookie sheets or Shamu is very sick. If you are inclined to be afraid of the ice, it’s not helpful.

We went out about fifty feet, and Kevin started whacking away at the ice with the maul. Chips flew in all directions, and in moments we had a trout-sized hole. Nothing bad happened, and we set up the first of the three tip-ups we’d gotten from Amy. We went out a little farther, and I took the maul. In for a penny, in for a pound, I figured, and started whacking. Another trout hole, another tip-up. All told, we set three.

The existence of tip-ups makes all the difference in ice fishing. It means that, instead of sitting next to the hold jigging a line up and down, you can set it and retreat to more hospitable accommodations to watch for a flag. In the case of the ice fishermen (and they were all men, although I reserve the right to use “fishermen” as a gender-neutral term for anglers of both sexes) on our pond, that meant hanging out around the Smokey Joe. In our case, to the sneering disapproval of ice fishermen everywhere, it meant sitting in our living room.

You’ve heard of armchair travelers and armchair quarterbacks, but we like to think we’ve done them all one better by becoming armchair ice fishermen. Because hanging out on the ice in relative discomfort is supposed to be part of the experience, one could say that retiring to comfortable chairs in a house warmed by a roaring wood stove is unsportsmanlike. Although, if one has the opportunity to retire to those comfortable chairs, one is much more likely to say, could you hand me my slippers?

It’s almost embarrassing to tell you how exciting it was when that first flag went up. We saw it release, and we both pointed and yelled. “The flag’s up, the flag’s up!” It was kind of like a fire drill – we grabbed our boots and hats, and ran for the exit. We went down to the ice and raced out to the hole. Somehow, I wasn’t scared anymore.

We reeled in our line and found nothing. No trout, no bait. The wily fish had grabbed the shiner and made a break for it. We reset it and went back in the house.

After another half-hour of not catching anything and using the binoculars to watch the other ice fishermen not catch anything, we got another flag. Same excitement, same drill, and, this time, a beautiful 2-pound rainbow trout.

No drowning, no hypothermia. Dinner!