Felony angling

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.

12 people are having a conversation about “Felony angling

  1. Where I grew up fishing, in a New Hampshire granite quarry, there was a healthy population of goldfish. They seemed to co-exist with the brook trout just fine and only got to be about eight inches long. I don’t think they were deposited with anything like your creativity, though. Probably someone just got tired of taking care of a bowl of fish and dumped them…

  2. Gosh, I am so embarrassed. I just want everyone to know that I mentioned this to Tamar privately, and I hope diplomatically. (At least as diplomatically as I could in a 140-character Twitter message.)

    Let’s just hope your friendly local conservation officer isn’t following your blog tonight. And if he or she is, then good luck finding the evidence.

    It certainly must have seemed like a good idea at the time. And you know, something isn’t quite right with our free-market pet and bait economy when goldfish cost so much less than minnows at the bait shop. (Aren’t illegal things supposed to cost more?) Plus, they were color-coordinated with your orange tip-ups and your favorite orange fleecy shirt.

    My word, you have gigantic perch out there! Most of the ones around here are more bait-size. (In fact they do make great bait, which I hope is legal.) And by the way, what the heck’s a mummichog?

    Until there’s more snow, you should be safe from rhinos out on the ice. Their hooves slip, and they can’t get much traction when they try to charge. Still, it’s best to keep your distance.

    Enjoy your trout dinner!

  3. I would be worried that the rhinoceros or Bradley Fighting Vehicle would just crack up the ice first but make it look safe, and that my weight would do the trick and I would fall in.

    Why do you have to use live bait when ice fishing? Why don’t lures work?

  4. Paula,

    Back in Iowa, I think Dad wanted the ice to be at least three inches thick to go fishing (My uncle waited for at least two inches to haul is ice shack out and set it up, maybe 1/2 mile from shore). I remember Dad saying he wanted six inches or more before driving out on the ice. And don’t mind the cracking sounds, that just happens from wind and such, it doesn’t have anything to do with the ice breaking up. We did get off the ice by the end of January, since over time the ice ages and weakens.


    I would look over the fishing regulations again. If you are on a private pond that doesn’t drain to a navigable stream, the fishing rules may not apply.

    And I think the historic safety gear is a wooden ladder. If the ice weakens, the ladder can be used as a raft to spread your weight, and is easier to grab onto if you fall in. We never got to use any of that stuff. Just bundle up, grab the bait, lunch, tipups and lines and start walking.

    My sister caught a 10 pound Walleye one year, from my uncle’s ice shack. Sis, Dad, and I were out, and there were holes for four lines inside and we had two tipups. We only had three rods, so one hole got a length of line tied to a screw, with a bobber. Dad was cleaning perch for bait outside, when the bobber disappeared with a ‘plop’ sound. Sis grabbed the line, I grabbed the gaff hook, and when the fish came up I snagged it, and set it outside on the ice. Ten pounds is a very good sized Walleye in northwest Iowa.

  5. Tovar — Well, that’s encouraging. Maybe a goldfish population would become a tourist attraction!

    Al — Why should you be embarrassed? I always appreciate it when my illegal activities are brought to my attention. I think the goldfish are cheaper than the shiners because they breed the goldfish but they catch the shiners. But I could be wrong.

    Paula — Generally, you use live bait ice fishing because you can’t move the lure around. If you use dead bait, it just sits there, looking unappetizing.

    At least, that’s what we thought. Then Kevin tried some Powerbait last night, and we got a fish this morning. Go figure.

    Brad — Our pond isn’t private. It’s about 110 acres, and there are some 25 houses on it besides ours. The rules most definitely apply. But I appreciate your attempt to find me an out.

    10 pounds is an impresseive walleye!

  6. I am impressed and entertained by your adventure. I must say there is probably no amount of convincing that would get me out on the ice. Cold water death is at the bottom of my list 😉

    But seriously, I have been turned off to fishing ever since my Uncle told me about a kid that got a hook in their eye when a friend cast. Perhaps ice fishing is the way to go… doesn’t seem to involve hooks flying through the air!

  7. I like that you were thinking outside the goldfish bowl. Great anecdote. And it makes me feel better about the time that I nearly got you in trouble with the law over trying to buy a priest (the fish despatching kind, not the papal kind)

  8. Remember how mom used to put a string through the sleeves of your coat and attach it to your mittens? They sell the same deal only with handles avec spikes on it that you could use to drag yourself out of a hole in the ice. OR, you could scrounge a couple of hefty screwdrivers from a garage sale and make your own with a bench grinder.


  9. HOLY CRAP THAT IS A HUGE PERCH! That might actually qualify as a “trophy fish,” and in certain states you can get it officially weighed and the state will mail you a little certificate. And yellow perch are such good eating…

    Next time you live-line minnows, put the hook through the top of the back of the fish, not the lips. They stay on the hook better that way.

  10. Was reminded of this post the other night when I saw the Michael Moore movie “Capitalism: A Love Story.” It included brief clips for his first movie, “Roger & Me.” Reminded me of that classic “Pets or Meat” scene with the rabbits. Mental picture: Tamar out at roadside stand, beside sign that reads: “Goldfish. Pets or Bait.”

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