WEDNESDAY: Frozen Fisherman

BY MATTHEW DEL PAPA

Copyright is held by the author.

ICE FISHING is a wet and cold business. Don’t let anybody tell you different. Everything about it is hard. Just getting out onto the lake is a chore and a half. At least the way we did it.

Who are we? My neighbour, Jon Findley and me.

Findley had been after me for years to join him. Once he’d learned that I had never been ice fishing despite living in northern Ontario all my life there was no stopping him.

Truth is the idea just didn’t appeal. Sitting out on a frozen lake for hours at a time when the grocery store has perfectly good fish waiting already cleaned and packaged? Didn’t make much sense to me.

My neighbour though had somehow got it in his head that I’d enjoy “the experience” –– that’s actually what he called it –– repeating “the ice-fishing experience” so I wouldn’t miss the emphasis.

Since good neighbours are hard to find, I went ice fishing.

He’d warned me: “Dress warm.” That was about all the advice he gave. Not the most talkative of guys Findley. That’s a good quality in a neighbour.

“What about gear?”

“Don’t worry about none of that,” he said. “I got plenty.”

“So I don’t have to bring anything?”

“A fishing license,” he said. Then added, “And be ready to leave at 6:30.”

Sure enough come Saturday morning he was at my door at 6:30. I spotted him through the window 10 minutes earlier, but he stood outside and waited, checking his watch to make sure he was spot on time before knocking. Manners are yet another good quality in a neighbour.

“You ready?” he asked when I opened the door.

“Uh, sure.” Gulping down the rest of my still burning hot coffee, needing the caffeine jolt to fully wake up at the ridiculous hour, I finished drying my hair and hurried to pull on my new coat.

“Nice jacket,” Findley said, reaching out to pull off a tag that I’d missed the day before.

“Thanks. It’s new.”

He nodded. “One of them Gore-tex jobbies, right?”

“Yeah.” The coat, a shiny bright-red synthetic, looked sleek. Thin, it was guaranteed windproof, waterproof, and rated to 40 below zero. I had bought it special from the local outfitter’s store on the pimply faced clerk’s advice.

Findley’s jacket wasn’t new. It was old — or more accurately ancient. Green in colour, a cross between pea soup and mould, it didn’t have a hood or special adjustable Velcro cuffs like mine. No reflective strips, no clear pocket on the chest to display his fishing license. Just heavy layers of puffy padding, patched and mended so often it resembled a drunkenly sewn quilt.

That should have warned me that my neighbour and I had different –– almost opposite –– views on life. Me, I’d buy new. Not just new, but expensive. Him, he wouldn’t. Findley used stuff until it fell apart and then he’d spend long, happy, hours fixing it.

His house and yard were meticulous, he was a good neighbour after all, but it was his wife who ensured everything was just so. Sure, Findley did the actual work but “the missus” told him when and how.

The fishing equipment however was different. That was solely his responsibility, which should have warned me.

I didn’t see any of his gear until we stopped at the lake. Or close to it anyway — if you consider two miles close. And by then it was far too late to back out.

The drive, with the radio tuned to some God-awful country station, went by slow. Forty-five minutes north of town he finally pulled off. There hadn’t been much conversation. I’d watched him sip on a coffee the entire drive, doing my best to hide my envy.

“Should have brought yourself a cup,” he said seeing my looks.

“Yeah.” What else could I say? He was right.

We parked on the side of the road nowhere near any lake that I could see. He climbed out, sniffed the air, and announced, “Beautiful day for a walk.”

The sun had only just climbed above the horizon when he opened the back door of his old GMC Jimmy and began hauling stuff out. “Stuff” was the only word that came to my mind at the time. It resembled the sophisticated fishing gear I’d seen in the outdoors store not at all.

This was junk.

Old junk.

But I tried not to call it that even in my head. It might slip out and insulting Findley’s gear seemed a poor way to thank the man for his invitation.

First out of the SUV came a battered old sled. One of those wooden toboggans with the curled fronts, the kind that had hurled earlier less-fragile generations downhill at unstoppable speeds, to which he’d attached a crude wooden fence on each side. Into this, he piled an unidentifiable assortment of stuff –– none of which looked like fishing gear to me.

Closing up the back of his vehicle he smiled. “And we’re off.” He started pulling the sled off the road, leading the way into the bush along a trail that was invisible to me.

“How far?”

“Not very,” he said, before adding, “Be there in less than an hour.”

An hour! “Oh,” I said, careful not to let anything show in my voice.

“I’ll pull for the first half and then we’ll trade places.”

“Sounds like a plan.” A bad one. There was nothing else to say, so I just walked along in silence.

I’ll admit that it was beautiful. Far from town, and getting farther with each step, the quiet was overwhelming. Surreal. No people but us. No sign anyone had ever been through here before. Not a footprint. Not a cigarette butt. Not even a chip bag, and those things lasted forever.

Glistening white snow covered everything. Deep enough to be a pain to walk through –– even my new boots, ultra-light Kevlar beauties, couldn’t do much about that –– but that seemed a small price to pay to see nature in all its untouched glory.

When my turn came to pull the sleigh I grunted in surprise at how heavy it was, “What you got in here?” I asked. “Lead?”

That made Findley laugh.

Turns out he did have some lead in there, several dozen homemade sinkers, but I didn’t find that out until after we got to the lake.

“We’re here,” he said just before we stepped out from the screen of trees onto a good-sized lake.

Empty. “Uh, where’s your hut?” Looking at all that whiteness I was glad I’d put on my new polarized sunglasses.

“Hut?” he asked. “I don’t use no hut. Those things ruin the whole experience.”

“Oh,” I said again. Turning to stare up and down the lake I caught a blast of icy wind right in the face. My eyes teared-up so bad I had to turn away. Turns out expensive sunglasses don’t block the wind, not even the polarized ones.

“We’ll try over there first,” he said pointing toward a spot not far from shore. “It drops off fast there.” Leading the way, he started kicking snow clear to reveal the ice beneath. “Two holes each sound good?”

“Sure,” I said, tromping along with the overloaded sled dragging along behind me. It somehow became harder to pull out on the ice.

“I’ll go first,” he said, digging into the piled toboggan to pull out a blanket wrapped auger.

Manual? The disbelieving thought came when I saw it.

He set the tip on the ice and began turning the handle. Slowly the auger cut into the ice, boring a hole six inches across. Ten minutes of effort had him puffing. He was almost a foot down and still he wasn’t through. It took him almost 20 minutes before he reached the water. Then pushing the auger through he pulled it back up quickly, bringing with it all kinds of shaved ice and water.

Twice more he dipped the auger, spreading a pool of water around his hole and over his feet.

I shivered just watching.

“You’re up,” he said, handing me the corkscrew-like device. “I’d try over there about 20, 25 feet.”

Nodding at that, I walked over the recommended amount and started scraping at the snow with my feet. When I had a clearing I set the auger and began cranking. Half an hour of sweating grunting effort had me nearly through, and finally –– miraculously –– warm. It didn’t last.

“Crap!” I shouted, almost losing the damn auger down my hole. I saved it, but at the cost of soaking both my gloves. Thank God they’re waterproof.

Findley had his hole set up by the time I was done. In fact he had a lot set up. A tip-up fishing rod crouched over his hole, bright yellow line running down into the water. Beyond it a small stove, a box of steel mesh grating soldered onto four stubby legs, held a fire burning a foot and a half off the ice. A blackened coffee pot sat on top, percolating slowly. Two battered aluminum folding lawn chairs sat beside the fire along with a damp cardboard box full of supplies: canned beans, a package of hot dog wieners and a bag of buns. Heartburn city.

“You done?” he asked seeing me carrying the auger over.

“Yeah,” I said. “That ice is thick.”

“Means we don’t have to worry about falling through,” he said, laughing. Moving over he started his second hole. “Make yourself a coffee and then set up your line.”

“Thanks,” I said, sitting down and almost collapsing my chair when I leaned toward the fire to thaw my now frozen hands.

When feeling, and some natural colour, finally returned to my fingers I squeezed all the water I could out of my waterproof gloves. Thinking bitterly, They ought to mention that these things hold water just as well as they keep it out, I set the lining under the stove to dry out.

Sipping at a cup of coffee, burning my tongue but not caring as I tried to warm up, I watched my neighbour smile as he drilled his way through the ice. I put the inevitable off as long as I could, but finally I had to man up. The gloves crunched when I slipped them on my hands, space age materials more than half frozen. My tip up, a surprisingly complex counterweighted device constructed of duct tape and Plexiglas, awaited.

I had to take my gloves off to get the hook tied and baited. Three minnows escaped down the hole before I learned how to skewer the little fish without dropping them. By the time I succeeded and dropped my line in the water, lead sinkers pulling it down with a plop, my hands were so cold even my frozen gloves seemed a relief.

Returning to the fire I’d just sat down when I saw Findley was done his second hole. Great, came the thought, now it’s my turn again.

“Fancy some breakfast?” he said after handing me the auger and settling by the fire.

My boots kicked the snow clear from my second drilling spot –– really putting some muscle behind it helped me vent some of my frustration. “Sure,” I answered, “What you got?” I was thinking it was going to be either baked beans or hot dogs but he surprised me.

“I got oatmeal. That okay?”

“Sounds good.”

“And toast too.”

“Even better.”

I worked up an appetite on that second hole. In fact I was so hungry I barely even felt how cold I was. It took 45 minutes –– just about the same time as the oatmeal –– but the auger got through without incident.

“Breakfast is served” came the call.

Abandoning the job of setting up my other tip-up I sat down for a bowl of steaming breakfast. It wasn’t very good, instant oatmeal never is, but it was hot and filling. The toast, unsurprisingly, was burnt. I’d watched my neighbour hold the slice over the open flame on a blackened fork, smiling as it cooked to perfection and then past. Only when it was charred black did he pull it off. Luckily there was jam to make it palatable. And more coffee.

It proved a quiet leisurely meal. By the time it ended I was almost enjoying myself.

Then the wind, which had been blowing pretty good, picked up. “Time for the windbreak,” Findley said after he finished eating. “You mind helping set it up?”

“No, not at all.” The idea of something to cut the wind appealed to me a lot right then. “What can I do?”

“I need a hole drilled about eight inches into the ice,” he pointed, “One here, one here, one here and another here.”

Damn. “Okay,” I said, standing and starting the auger turning.

He unloaded the sleigh, pulling out a half dozen blade-less hockey sticks and a bundle of oversized garbage bags, piling everything near my feet. When I finished the first hole he put two sticks inside, packing snow and ice around them to hold them upright. A piece of twine tied the two bottoms together. Then he draped a garbage bag over each and pushed the stick tops through the thin plastic. Tying the tops together he waited until I had another hole done then did the same –– only this time he used one of the bags he’d already put over a stick.

That bag, now stretched between two hockey sticks, made a wall. Not a very thick wall, but enough to cut the wind — some.

It took us almost an hour to get four panels up. Luckily the wind never changed direction or our efforts would have been wasted.

Sitting down when the job was done we had another coffee. I was still cold, not just my hands either. My new coat was letting me down badly. Fancy synthetics might do on the posh ski hill, when the chalet is just a few minutes away, but out here in the real cold of Northern Ontario’s bush I wanted something more. Something with weight. Something like Findley’s ugly puke green coat.

All I could think was Thank God for the fire.

“I think we might need more wood,” Findley said after a while. He’d fed the last of what he’d brought with him into the metal contraption.

The idea of having that fire go out motivated me to say, “I’ll go get some more.”

“There’s a hatchet in the sled and some extra garbage bags,” he said nodding toward the mess of junk piled haphazardly in the sleigh. “Try to get deadfall, it’s usually dry.”

“Deadfall right.”

Stepping out from behind the windbreak the cold wind slapped me in the face hard. I hurried across the open ice to the shelter of the trees. Not slipping more than 10 or 20 times on the way. The wind wasn’t anywhere near as bad on shore between the trees. Nature’s windbreak, I thought.

Then came the hard part, finding deadfall. Any tree that had fallen over lay buried under the snow. Realizing the futility, I started looking for dead, but still standing, trees. I found one small and already leaning oak –– least I think it was an oak, without the distinctive leaves all trees sort of looked the same to me –– and knocked it down with a few dozen well place hatchet-blows. My fingers in danger only once or twice.

I started at the base and took the bigger branches first. Working until I had about as much as I could carry.

“Firewood,” I announced as I dropped the bag. It had a couple holes from the branches but had held together for the entire trip back. Plopping on the stool I said, “Any bites?”

“Not yet,” he said, “But ice fishing is all about waiting.”

Lunch came. The highlight of the day so far –– undercooked hot dogs and burnt beans. Hot bitter coffee washed everything down. Afterwards I settled back in my lawn chair and, fighting down growing indigestion, stared at my unmoving tip-ups until I couldn’t take it anymore.

Needing to do something I climbed to my feet and checked both my holes. Ice had formed a skin on each. Borrowing the old soup ladle my neighbour had used I scooped out the worst of it. Then, pulling the line up, I discovered that my minnows were gone. “Damn!”

“Got you did they?” Findley asked laughing. “Them fish are tricky buggers.” His lines were fine. “There’s a knack to baiting a hook. It’s all about lining the point up right. Get just under the minnow’s spine.”

With my neighbour carefully supervising I re-baited my hooks. And didn’t lose a single minnow the rest of the day. I also didn’t get a single bite — unless you count frostbite.

Neither of us got so much as a nibble. But, despite that, Findley’s contented smile never wavered. Head tilted back watching the clouds drift over he was a man in his element. Me? I spent most of my time dreaming of my couch. Being at home, stretched out with a thick blanket over me and the remote in hand, flipping back and forth from football to whatever of those hour long infomercials was airing, maybe with a big bag of chips tucked in with me. Or, better yet given how cold I was, a bowl of steaming chilli.

“So, ah, how long do we give this?” I asked.

“The fish don’t really get active till just before dusk.”

That threw me. “You fish in the dark?”

“Sure. This time of year the air is clear enough you barely even need a flashlight. Snow reflects light. Just a handful of stars can make it near as bright as day.” He stopped and, with a sheepish smile added, “Bright as a cloudy day anyhow.”

I didn’t know what to say. Even at this time of year there’d be another five hours of daylight. Five more hours! I’ll never make it. This is insane. Who thinks this is fun? Fighting the cold and the wet, suffering with the wind and the sun — all without a single fish to show for it!

Finally I gave up on worrying and said, “Any more coffee left?”

***

There was less conversation on the drive home than there was on the way out. I was numb. Not just from the cold. My mind had shut down sometime after the sixth hour. All that whiteness –– snow, ice, and my own frozen and unnaturally colourless flesh –– had been too much.

Pulling into his driveway Findley smiled and said, “That was fun. We should do it again sometime.”

What? “Uh, sure. Sometime.” Climbing from the car I carefully refrained from burning any bridges with my neighbour, “Maybe when it’s not so cold?”

“Cold? Were you cold?” he asked sounding surprised. “Should have said something. I had a couple blankets and some heating pads in the sled.” Leaning across the roof of the car he finished with a smile. “‘Sides it was a beautiful day. Not like some I’ve spent out on that lake.”

Waving good-bye as I hurried across the street, anxious to get inside and under a hot shower –– anything to try to drive the ingrained chill away –– I had to wonder if I lived across the street from a crazy person.

No sane man could find ice-fishing fun.

Ten minutes later, almost feeling human again under a stream of steaming water, I decided Findley wasn’t really that bad. Quirky, came the thought. But then all fishermen are. “And it’s not like he’s a golfer.”

Now those guys were nuts.

7 comments

  1. Michael Joll

    Yup! Lived every freezing cold minute of it. Great details without superfluity. Please don’t ask me to go ice fishing. Ever.

  2. Mitchell Toews

    “Should have brought yourself a cup,” he said seeing my looks.
    “Yeah.” What else could I say? He was right.

    Reminds me of my friend Leamington Dave. (A golfer.)

    True to life and a fun day out on the ice. Thx!

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