A day of camaraderie in the ice village
When the truck crossed the threshold from the boat landing onto the 18 inches of ice covering the Turtle Flambeau Flowage, I listened closely to see if I heard any cracks or pops come from the ice. A half mile out without incident, and it seemed we were in the clear. I turned to my brother and we made a toast to the forthcoming day of ice fishing with our styrofoam coffee cups.
Before us on the ice lay a vast shantytown - clusters of trucks and tents; clumps of shacks made of scraps. The portable villages, a reflection of the lake bottom terrain below the hardened surface. Where there were ridges and weed bed borders, there were anglers. Where there were underwater debris, deep pits, or raised bottom, there were anglers. Along the jagged shoreline there were snowmobiles and tip ups shadowing the shape of the woods. Tucked away in the bays, more shacks and holes in the ice. And through the center of the city on ice ran a snowy highway, upon which snowmobiles zoomed in endless streams, and trucks plodded back and forth with gear, foodstuffs, and grizzled men.
Stakes surrounded every clump of fishermen on the ice - tip up markers. In some cases the markers were more like low, scattered, half-hearted fences, warding off competition from competing camps. After all, everyone on the flowage was out there to compete in the Eighth Annual JPD Warrior Fisheree, raising awareness of depression and suicide prevention. And what better way to heal wounds like that, than to be on the ice, competing for best catch in divisions of Northern, Walleye, Crappie, and Perch.
My father's friends were ahead of us in another truck, and when we stopped to check in with one of the camps they were familiar with, I started to get antsy. The morning was late now, the sun had nearly crawled to its climax in the sky, and we were still mulling around. Our suckers were still in a pail, our tip ups still piled in the back of the truck, and we didn't even have a spot staked out in shantytown yet.
I took another sip of my gas station coffee.
After a few spurs to the old-timers, we did eventually get around to staking our claim. We situated ourselves in one of the western bays of Big Island, across the water from the resort. We started drilling and found the ice was near two-feet thick in some spots, and we set our holes up about 50-yards off shore, mirroring its shape. My dad and I taught my younger brother how to set the depth, how to bait the hook, and how to set the flag lightly. I reserved one hole outside our tent to jig through, as I'd been having luck with wax worms lately, and hey, it's good to vary your presentation.
Finally, we were set. We were dug in, drilled in, and set up. I vowed multiple times I would have the first flag and catch the first fish, and thus, cursed us all for the rest of the day. I did jig, early and often, but had no luck in the shallows. In fact it wasn't until late afternoon that we had the first flag, and I didn't even care that it was one of mine by that point. I remember staring at it for a while. It was the furthest one from the tent, way out at the tip of the peninsula, and I wanted to be sure it wasn't a mirage caused by false hopes in the fish desert we'd chosen to live in.
Looking back now, perhaps I should have quietly strode out there myself to check the line, I may have had a better chance. But no, instead I eagerly popped my head in the tent and started yelling "Flag!" What a laugh we must have looked like, five grown men stumbling through snowdrifts, sliding around on the ice, hampered by hundreds of pounds of clothing, waving arms, hooting and hollering when we came upon the scene and saw the line was spooling out before us.
"Fish on the run!" my dad exclaimed as I dropped to my knees in front of the setup. I chiseled out the thin layer of ice that had formed over the open water in the hole, and set the tip up in the snow. Taking off my gloves, I took up the line gently with hand over hand movements, conscious of any tugging on the other end. The line was pulled out under the ice, evidence that some creature in the deep had taken the bait. Despite my best efforts, my head began reeling with dreams of a two-foot walleye or maybe a monster perch. I tried to suppress the delusions of grandeur, thinking it best to avoid a jinx - and who said fishermen were superstitious?
I tugged a bit as I brought the line up carefully. Nothing. I didn't feel any fight or movement from the dark water. I let it rest a bit, and pulled it in slowly again, coiling the braided line on the ice at my knees. Soon, the bright yellow leader, red treble hook, and the sucker attached to it were in the hole; no fish attached.
The excitement was enough to reinvigorate our small camp though. We were close, had just missed a trophy (always tell yourself it's a trophy, fishing is more fun that way), and had almost sealed the deal on a first place fish… right? Well, that's the story we went with anyway. Dusk fell not long after that, and though we did have one more flag, it had turned out to be a log.
We had missed a trophy and caught a log. Two flags, zero fish. We started calling ourselves Camp 20, even made up a chant to go along with it. By the time we started to pull camp it was dark, and the highway of snowmobiles, trucks, and ATVs streaming across the flowage was lit up like a steady river of light speeding across the snow. The night air was crisp, but full of the sounds of laughter and cheer, and yes, even some fireworks.
We left behind the dwindling shantytown, with all its neighborhoods, nooks and crannies. We joined the ice highway of trucks and trailers and snow machines cutting across the open plane of snow that only exists a quarter of the year. The moon hung overhead, behind a thin veil of cloud wisps, illuminating the outline of the frozen water against the dark shapes of trees on the shore. Tall, dark, ominous white pines dotted the black tree line - bulky, silent sentinels of the wild waters. Quiet pines that hear all of man’s whispered prayers.
We didn't catch any fish, but we didn't leave empty handed either. What we took home with us where shared memories of the adventure and culture of the Northwoods, all in support of acknowledging a truly good cause - the JPD Warrior Project. I'll try again next year, with a little more knowledge and a little more effort in preparation, maybe even a little more patience. Who knows, perhaps shantytown will pay out a real catch next time, if not, I’m ok with that too. It’s the activity that counts; there is serenity and camaraderie still on the ice.
“So what do we do? Anything. Something. So long as we just don't sit there. If we screw it up, start over. Try something else. If we wait until we've satisfied all the uncertainties, it may be too late.”
- Lee Iacocca
See you out there,
A woodsman in training.