Thursday, January 10, 2013

Lakes like minds

I saw a lot more than fish come out of the hole i chopped
in the ice a few weeks ago.

Revelations from a hole in the ice

The silence of a winter sunrise on a clear day is nothing short of staggering. It's one of those visions that gets seared into your head, and you mutter to yourself indistinguishable praise when it truly captures you in its rapture. The sort of sight that's difficult to look away from, more difficult yet to walk away from. When you see it, you swear a secret oath to yourself that you'll dedicate time for it more often. You swear you'll get up early every day that week, bundle up tight, and venture out to watch it unfold. Usually, that never happens though, the cold keeps us inside, the memory fades, and soon we forget. We forget, that is, until we happen on it again. A gentle reminder of what exactly we are missing.

I received one of those reminder memos from the atmosphere the other week. Perhaps it was a swirl of the holiday spirit still lingering in the air around me, but during Christmas week, I let that frozen sky convince me to stare into it on two separate mornings.

Despite frigid temperatures that week, I went out ice fishing on my favorite lake the day before Christmas and the Friday following. I had not been out to the lake for fish since late August. Let’s just say there had not been much caught since early June, so my pursuit had petered off. I had a feeling, though, that my luck would change on hard water. I was simply too curious, the crisp winter sunrise too stunning, and the lake too promising to let the cold deter me.

*Note: This article is part I of a IV part series enveloping the four classical elements: firewaterearthair.

See, I had more understanding now. I knew the lake and her quirks because I had spent time learning them over the past summer. When I first met the lake, a few years back, it was love at first sight. Her and I were long lost soul mates meant to reunite, but I needed to spend time learning her to unlock her secrets. She's 34-feet at her lowest depth, surrounded by white pine, poplar, and birch, and has some of the cleanest, most mysteriously dark water I've ever seen.

Though I loved swimming in and exploring the shores of the lake, I didn't start trying to fish it until opening weekend last May. On the suggestion of a friend, I cast from shore on a rocky peninsula that juts out from the far western shore. We would go in the evenings after work and stand in the chilly, early spring air casting off either side of the point. We brought beer, but I would have preferred hot chocolate to be honest - it was cold. We caught fish though, always at sundown the bite was on.

The bite is addictive, if you've any interest at all in wild things. When you're pulling fish out of the water as fast as you can get a line in, few things can distract you from rebating the hook and trying again. This exciting sensation is only increased if your fishing buddy is catching next to nothing while trying desperately to copy your steps. That's when you tell him, "It's all in the wrist," and haul in another lunker.

As it turns out, that spot dried up in a couple weeks. The fish were moving with the changing temperatures. We tried the shore along the two little bays behind the peninsula, but had limited success and way too many bluegills. We tried the shore off the boat landing, we tried wading out and standing on rocks - we tried and tried again. We had no choice but to get the rowboat ready for summer and begin searching for a new spot in deeper water.

On the DNR Web site I found an old sonar map of the lake from 1979. It had information on the sediment types, the depth changes, and even some information on water levels and vegetation. With this map, we were able to row around the lake and estimate where depth changes would be most likely to yield us the type of fish we wanted. We tried different baits, new lures, different depths, times of day, everything. Finally, at the end of May, we hit the jackpot - a little cove off the northeastern shore, spinners, and mid-morning hours. I was tickled pink! Our research, combined with trial and error and a few resources, yielded us the catch we were looking for, but I digress.

See, the time we spent trying things out around the lake in the spring and summer was about to pay off. I had an idea now, via landmarks and memorizing the map, of approximately where fish could be caught on the lake.

As I stood there, freezing my butt off over a hole in the ice a few weeks ago, I started to see something. I thought I caught a glimpse of golden scales swelling in the dark water that filled the six-inch opening. The first time I saw it, my heart leapt into my throat as I thought I was about to pull a three-foot fish out of the frozen water with a jig-pole more suited for perch. The color and shape swelled and glistened, then, just as quickly as it had appeared it faded back to black. I leaned further over the edge of the ice for a better view into the abyss below. There! I saw it swell and sparkle again! This time I was sure there were sea monsters or dragons or some mythical/ancient/undead monsters lurking below my feet.

I blinked and shook my head… "Strange." My eyes remained trained on the black water, and the third time the swelling happened I realized it must be in my head. This whole situation was beginning to seem more and more a hallucination of some sort rather than reality in front of me. The sun was up now, and I had been jigging over this hole for no more than 20 minutes, but my mind was clearly lost in some deep recess of my head. Either that or my eyes were playing tricks on me - some loose connection in my brain must have been short-circuiting. That had to be it, I thought. I had gotten up too early, not had enough for breakfast, gone to bed too late - one of those things.

Just then, I had a bite. It was a little nibble at first, a test run. He would be back though; I had live bait skewered on the jig hook. He hit it again, this time with a little more force, and I set the hook. I reeled him up to the tiny surface water between my feet and pulled him through the hole. A shiny little gem of a fish. Not big enough to keep, I tossed him back, but that was the beginning of the bite.
That morning I hooked seven fish, pulled out six, and kept three beauties. The cold was not an issue for me that day - I was too busy concentrating on the line, reeling in fish, and re-bating the hook to care how frozen my toes were. My scouting during the spring and summer was paying off for me now. The lake was yielding a long-awaited catch, and I finally had enough for dinner.

Now, some people say there is a certain amount of luck involved with fishing, but I like to call it patience. No, patience and persistence. By trying and failing and learning to adapt and then trying again, having little nuggets of success here and there dashed in, you have no choice but to be patient and keep trying if you're in it for the payoff. I like to think this is a lesson that can be applied to ourselves as well.

I am like the lake, and so are you. Other people see your surface, the shoreline, the tall trees surrounding you. What they can't see, is much, if any, of what is under the surface. Your depth, your ridges, your warm water, your cold water, your decaying, your growing. Other people cannot see those things unless your transparency allows light through the depth - unless you allow the light into you.

Like the lake, our shorelines change. We wax and wane through the years, through the seasons. Some of us try to stay the same as much as we can, while others have a current running through them. Some rely on rain water or the winter melt to fill them, while others are part of a river, and some are spring fed. Our shapes our innumerable, but our surfaces reflect the same sky.

Each of us harbors life. Some waters are more polluted than others, and we are very susceptible to all kinds of pollutants, but there is never a case in which redemption isn't possible. The natural world always heals itself if given enough time.

Like the water, we have the ability to dissolve as well as provide. We can be solvents for negative circumstance, and we can yield incredible bounty. Each day we learn more of ourselves, and thus, more about others. We all have a great mystery swirled in our ambiguous, shifting shapes, and yet we're summed up in a single droplet.

Each day we exist below a new sunrise, and we have the chance to fish ourselves and find out what's down there. Some days we glimpse a sea monster, and on others we pull out a real catch - sometimes both on the same day. Do yourself a favor, learn your lake.

"A lake is the landscape's most beautiful and expressive feature. It is earth's eye, looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature. The fluviatile trees next to the shore are the slender eyelashes which fringe I, and the wooded hills and cliffs around are its overhanging brows."
- Henry David Thoreau

See you out there,
A woodsman in training.

Thrice personifies water in their song 'Kings Upon The Main'

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