Phil and Joe Novitsky show off 4 beautiful Chinook salmon caught on Oregon’s Wilson River mid-November. Fish were tagged before 11:30 AM and Phil says it’s all because of “super guides” Jon Martin and Josiah Darr. Well done, guys!
This weeks cold weather reminded me of a time when I was a kid I went ice fishing. At least that’s what I thought I was doing.
Growing up my folks had a nice piece of property that was mostly farm with a 3 acre lake on one end of the property. Years ago, maybe 1910 – 1920, this lake had been a rock quarry. As I remember it the lake was pretty deep except for a shallow spot on the end opposite the dam. Rock faces rose up out of the lake on one side by the dam and often in the summer we could be found diving from those ledges into the lake, much to my Mom’s displeasure.
The fishing was good. Actually very good. Largemouth bass were abundant thanks to a great baitfish population that, I am sure, was equally abundant due to several natural springs that fed the lake. Included in this lakes’ ecosystem were the requisite bluegill and red ear as well as some crappie and channel catfish. For a small body of water it was diverse and always fun to fish.
From early Spring into late Fall I loved fishing this lake. Being quite young my bait of choice was usually red worms, but often when red worms were scare or I was lazy an uncooked hot dog sufficed for my fishing excursions. Whatever the bait, the lake seemed willing to yield some nice fish if my patience held up and my little dingy of a row boat didn’t have to fight the wind too much.
Southern Indiana is not known for its blustery winters. Quite the contrary. If anything it’s known for a potpourri of weather that at any given time is a mix of rain, sleet, freezing rain, and bursts of snow that typically melt within hours of covering the ground. Long, sustained cold spells just aren’t typical down here. Crappy weather that makes it hard to go outside for any form of recreation is. And it can be like that all winter. Except this one year.
Thinking back I must have been about 7 or 8 years old when we had a most unusual winter. Fall went immediately into winter and it got cold. And it stayed cold. Thanksgiving day was Dad’s time to hang Christmas lights and was often accompanied by some spiked cider that Mom would ration out to him and his friends, always wary that too much too quick would result in an abstract arrangement of lights that would confirm to all of our neighbors that the Ashby’s were a pretty weird bunch.
But this year Thanksgiving was cold. Not just cool, but really, really cold. Dad took time not to string Christmas light, but instead went about insulating all of the outdoor spigots to prevent them from freezing up and breaking the cast iron pedestals they stood on. Mom didn’t make cider, but did offer up some milky hot chocolate. Dad wasn’t that impressed, but I was.
As November gave way to December the weather refused to warm up. Soon the lake had a layer of ice on it and any idea of late fall fishing vanished for good. My dingy was drug up the hill with the tractor and stored in the barn. Fishing had suffered an early demise, at least for this year. Even casting my bait out from shore was fruitless. As the ice became thicker, our resident Mallard ducks were even driven from the lake save a small open area they created by the dam. Life for a young fisherman such as myself had turned very gray.
By mid December the cold had hung on and the ice on the lake thickened. With no snow and clear, bitterly cold nights the lake’s ice became a mirror that had been laid on top of my favorite fishing spots. The wind, when it did blow, brought an Arctic kiss to the farm and all it encompassed, the lake included.
One Saturday about a week before Christmas dad and a friend went down to the lake for an “inspection”. At least that’s what he told Mom. They were soon standing on the small wooden dock that protruded into the lake, talking back and forth as Dad drew on his pipe. Soon the pipe went into Dad’s pocket and I was stunned as he stepped from the dock onto the sheet of ice that had once been liquid.
Soon Dad and his friend had walked to the middle of the lake, standing there as if this was standard operating procedure in winter. They talked, gestured, and then started jumping up and down! First one, then the other. Then both at the same time! Mom burst out the back door, shouting, “What are you doing, Jack?”
“Checking the thickness of the ice”, Dad yelled back.
Mom turned and went inside, shaking her head, talking to herself as she went.
I stayed at the back door until Dad was back inside. “Let’s go ice skating”, he said with a big, toothy grin.
By that evening Dad and some of his pals had built a roaring fire at lake’s edge and had managed to get a group of maybe 10 to 15 friends and neighbors out on the ice, some with real ice skates on, some with clip-on ice skates, and some with worn out shoes that acted like skis rather than skates. It quickly became quite a party, with spiked cider, hot dogs on sticks, and more than a little celebration on the part of most participants. Even Mom was slipping and sliding back and forth.
I managed to get some of my buddies over and soon they too were exploring the magic of the hard, slippery environment that had once been my fishing domain. And then the thought struck me: Ice fishing! I had heard about such things from my northern friends in Canada. My knowledge of such matters seemed fairly straight forward. There’s ice, a hole that is chopped into that ice, and a fishing pole with a hook and bait on the end. Simple and, according to the stories my Canadian friends had related, quite productive.
The next day I was up early, Boy Scout axe, fishing pole, and insulated jacket and mittens at the ready. Now all I needed was permission from Mom to set out on my very first ice fishing excursion. Permission was granted, but with the caveat that just in case I get cold or find a “thin spot”, Mom was going to stand watch and immediately order me back inside the house.
I proceeded out to what I knew was a good spot close to the rock face and chopped a nice hole in the ice. Water immediately came up and covered the surrounding lake ice along with my boots and jean bottoms. No matter. I was about to experience ice fishing. I baited my hook with a piece of left over hot dog from the night before and prepared to be overwhelmed with winter’s cornucopia of various species of hungry fish.
I stood there for a good 30 minutes and nothing happed except my feet got cold. I raised and lowered my pole. I moved from side to side. I even chopped another hole in the ice a few feet from the original. Nothing. Soon my toes were aching and the allure of ice fishing started to fade. “Wasn’t this supposed to be easy,” I thought. “Surely the fish are here. What am I doing wrong?”
I stuck it out for maybe 2 hours. By then my legs were aching and my hands were getting numb. My toes? The feeling had gone away a long time ago! I was cold and the wind had picked up as the early morning dawn gave way to the full sun and the whims of the clouds passing increasingly quickly as I stood there.
Now I knew, really knew, there were fish in this spot. I had caught so many when the lake wasn’t solid. But now they seemed totally uninterested. Or perhaps frozen. Maybe they had all swam up toward the surface and become frozen in this sheet of ice. That certainly would make them incapable of chasing any bait I had offered. Geez, maybe all I’m doing is antagonizing them in their immobile state!
Safe to say this was not an auspicious start to my ice fishing career. By noon I was back in the house. As I shivered and looked for the warmest spot in the kitchen Mom asked, “So how’d you do?”
“The fish just weren’t biting today,” I offered shyly. She just gave me a warm smile, a big hug, and a cup of homemade hot chocolate – with extra cream. This may not have been a practical, everyday substitute for a mess of fish, but that cold and blustery afternoon it was just about as good as it gets.
Now, almost 60 years later, I still haven’t “warmed up” to ice fishing. I know it has to be fun. Too many folks love it. But for me, I’ll stick to fishing when the lake is fluid and the breezes warm, and out of the south.
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