Ice fishing has changed.
Because of the changes—advancements, if you want to call them that—more people and a wider variety of people seem to be participating in ice fishing. That’s great. We need more people engaged in any pursuit offering a positive, healthy connection to the outdoors. Pulling pan fish through a hole in the ice, cleaning them, frying them, and eating them is an important lesson for a society increasingly delinked from what is required to forge the food chain.
When I was a kid growing up in east-central Wisconsin, going ice-fishing was a big event. We’d plan a trip for weeks. It involved lots of phone calls to relatives and friends to find out “where they were biting” and ice conditions. Then when my dad or uncle or a buddy’s dad deemed everything was safe, we’d load up the station wagon and head to the lake for a day.
Especially by today’s standards, our gear was meager. A few simple jiggle sticks, a couple of tip-ups, and some other tackle mostly adapted from the big tackle box meant primarily for open-water fishing.
In anticipation of a big trip, I spent a lot of time building various sorts of sleds to haul this gear. Usually they consisted of salvaged snow skis from the Goodwill and 100-pound Swiss cheese boxes readily available in the dumpster at the cheese plant where both my parents worked.
We would each haul along a 5-gallon bucket to sit on, though as kids we did very little sitting. If we thought it was going to be really cold, we’d take along a Coleman lantern and a moth-eaten wool army blanket. A lit lantern on the ice under our legs with the blanket draped over got pretty darn warm, pretty darn fast. Honestly, I’m amazed none of us every actually combusted or at least blistered ourselves! Of course, when it got too hot, all you had to do was jump off, sit down in the snow, and then you could start all over again.
Part of what held us back from much ice fishing was my dad’s frugal nature. He wasn’t about to spend money on any gear that would only get used once or twice a year—or perhaps not at all in a bad ice year. That meant we didn’t own an ice-auger. When we went ice fishing as a family (without the company of a well-equipped relative or friend) that meant we chopped holes in the ice through which to fish. The tool we hauled out of the barn for that job was a 20-pound crowbar! Usually, we were each happy with one hole to fish through—all day—after you had to chop it with that tool. And heaven help you if you dropped it through the ice while you were chopping. Dad’s crowbar wore no lanyard.
Today “standard” ice fishing gear includes graphite jigging rods and reels tuned specifically to the fish you’re after and the conditions you will face; super sensitive bite detectors; special super-thin, invisible ice-fishing line; portable shelters that come with built-in sleds, comfortable seats, lighting, and even heat; and lighted, thermal tip ups that require no attention more than an occasional glance. Augers can be had in gas-, propane-, and electric-powered variations that cut holes through feet of ice in seconds. You can add features that even leave the holes totally free of slush and ready to fish! These make it possible to easily cut dozens—even tens of dozens—of holes to go in search of fish.
But the biggest advancements separating new ice fishing from old ice fishing are GPS (global positioning system) units, sonar depth/fish finders, and underwater video cameras.
Back in the old days, finding and staying on the fish took patience and commitment. The really good ice fishermen back in those days were mostly guys who either had seasonal jobs providing a lot of free time in the winter, retired guys … or guys who just weren’t too addicted to gainful employment at all. From first-ice to ice-out they spent their time fishing. Even for them it was an exercise in patience and persistence.
When these guys found a “hot spot” they had to mark it by dead reckoning—visually triangulating the location by landmarks on shore. If they stuck a branch to freeze in a hole as a marker, it would be like a neon sign saying “fish here” to all of us weekend warriors, so they couldn’t do that. They had to develop skills at “refinding” these honey holes. Unless you were a favored relative or “had something” on these guys, getting them to share these locations was just about impossible.
And even when they found a good spot, each time the old-timers set up for a new day it was like starting fishing all over again to find the fish. They would start jigging at a depth where they last caught fish, but if the fish weren’t there it was a matter of trying a foot deeper or a foot shallower. Then if they caught nothing at any carefully probed depth, they’d often start all over again with a different color jig or a different kind of bait, methodically exploring the water column a foot at a time.
By today’s standards, this kind of fishing seems archaic. With a GPS unit, you can put yourself within inches of a tiny piece of fish-holding structure time and again. Even if you’ve never been there before, but have a friend willing to share the coordinates, you can easily go to the exact spot. You can use the sonar to determine if there are fish at that spot and at exactly what depth. With cameras, today you can watch an HD-video screen that shows both the sonar readout and a full-color display of what’s going on under the ice. Frankly, it’s a lot like playing a video game, which may explain a huge part of the appeal to the younger, tech-savvy crowd turning out more and more on northern lakes each winter.
Thankfully, there seems to be no technology to make the fish bite. There are still skunked outings that keep us all coming back for the days that make lasting memories and great dinners of delicious fresh fish.
Then or now, I don’t think there were ever too many people who considered ice fishing a “religious experience,” but I have the perspective that my youthful exposure to old school ice fishing taught me virtues equally important in my relationship with God.
No, seriously …
Cutting a single hole in the ice and fishing through it for a long time, meticulously working each depth with a variety of baits was an act of faith. You put your best knowledge and belief into where you cut that one important hole. Perhaps you even used lessons you were fortunate enough to learn from some of those stingy “prophets”—those guys who lived on the lakes all winter. But once you had your line in the water, the only thing that kept you there was faith that the fish were down there, right below you. If today’s ice angler doesn’t see fish on the spot even before he cuts the hole, he’s likely to move on to the next location, and the next, and the next.
Right in line with faith is patience. In the old days, it often took time for an ice hole to produce fish or even answer the question whether the fish were there that day. Praying Christians know that God doesn’t always give immediate answers to our prayers either. Patience is part-and-parcel of faith, whether it is believing in your ice hole or in your God!
For me, if there is a single Bible story that speaks about faith and is tailor-made for outdoors folk it’s from John 21. It’s the story of Jesus appearing to the disciples for the third time after his resurrection. This passage is so appropriate because: A) these guys were fishing, B) they had to have faith to recast their nets in a way and place that was unorthodox, and C) had they had greater faith in their Lord, it wouldn’t have taken Jesus performing a miracle for them to recognize him.
Pretty cool, if you ask me …
Afterward Jesus appeared again to his disciples, by the Sea of Galilee. It happened this way: Simon Peter, Thomas (also known as Didymus), Nathanael from Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two other disciples were together. “I’m going out to fish,” Simon Peter told them, and they said, “We’ll go with you.” So they went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.
Early in the morning, Jesus stood on the shore, but the disciples did not realize that it was Jesus. He called out to them, “Friends, haven’t you any fish?”
“No,” they answered.
He said, “Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.” When they did, they were unable to haul the net in because of the large number of fish.
Then the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!”
As soon as Simon Peter heard him say, “It is the Lord,” he wrapped his outer garment around him (for he had taken it off) and jumped into the water. The other disciples followed in the boat, towing the net full of fish, for they were not far from shore, about a hundred yards. When they landed, they saw a fire of burning coals there with fish on it, and some bread.
Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish you have just caught.” So Simon Peter climbed back into the boat and dragged the net ashore. It was full of large fish, 153, but even with so many the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.”
None of the disciples dared ask him, “Who are you?” They knew it was the Lord. Jesus came, took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. This was now the third time Jesus appeared to his disciples after he was raised from the dead (John 21:1-14).
Today I will focus of faith and patience—faith in the things that I cannot see, but know to be true and patience for God’s plan to unfold in my life.