My father was a quiet man, and he wasn’t the type to give long explanations or lecture. Still, just spending time with him taught me important life lessons. One of his classrooms was the frozen fishing lake.
Ice fishing is a lesson in patience. As a middle child who wanted to spend time with her father who loved to ice fish, I impatiently waited for the ice to thicken and for the weekend when Dad was off work. Once those two things happened, my older sister and younger brother, if interested in going, would help Dad and me get ready. We’d pack the Rambler station wagon with ice skates, a shovel, fishing gear, drinks, lunches, the toboggan (it was so long part of it needed to stick out a back window) and finally, ourselves. The amount of gear depended on whether we were going to a nearby lake or traveling to Shawano where my grandfather would join us.
Shawano Lake is so huge anglers drive out on it. As my father steered toward the middle of the lake, we might hear one of those terrifying “Booooooming” sounds that rise up from below and make you think the ice is cracking. The first time I heard it I cried out, sure we were about to plunge into the freezing water. I wanted the scary ride to be over. Now!
My dad wouldn’t have explained how the sound should be reassuring since it happens because water is freezing and expanding, pushing up against the old ice, which makes it more solid. All he would have said is, “You’ll live.”
There was no hurrying the journey. We had to endure it.
Once we drove to what Dad hoped would be the “hot spot,” we would drill holes. Dad had an old auger that never worked well and he’d end up just using a spud instead. Next we’d bait tip-ups with minnows. If my grandfather was along and had brought his ice shanty, we’d set it up. While inside the cozy fish house, we’d drill more holes so we could “jig” for blue gills, pumpkin seeds, or crappies. We’d thread waxies on hooks and then jerk our poles every once in a while to attract hungry fish. Grandpa would start the stinky kerosene heater if we got cold. We’d keep peering through the shanty’s scratched, plexiglass windows, hoping to be the first to spot a tip-up. Patience . . . patience . . .
When we complained about being bored, Dad would shovel off a patch of ice so we could ice skate. It was a rare winter when the ice was smooth, so the frozen lake was great practice for a second life lesson: learning how to navigate life’s bumps.
We’d push off and glide, only to hit a bump or have a skate blade fall into a crack. We’d fall, get up, and try again. Fall, get up, and try again.
We’d further our education about life's bumps when we’d convince Dad it was time for him to take us on a toboggan ride. He'd tie a rope to the bumper of the station wagon and try to find smooth ice, but we needed to prepare for the the ruts, too.
After all this excitement, we’d be hungry and grab our hot chocolate and lunches. We’d sit on upside-down pails or right on the snow, letting the sun reflect off it and warm us. My siblings and I would tease one another or chat, all the while keeping our eyes on the tip-ups. We all wanted to be the first one to see the red flag pop up and shout,“Tip-up!”
We’d have to be on double alert if Grandpa was along since he liked to trick us and shout, “Tip-up” when there wasn’t one.
If the flag truly was raised, everyone would run to the hole. “It’s your turn,” my dad might tell me. I’d slowly remove the tip-up and set it on the ice. After peeling off my gloves, I’d pick up the line and “feel for a fish.” Would I be lucky enough to get a walleye, northern, or musky? Wait for the tug. Wait . . . wait . . . . Now!
I’d jerk back. And then that glorious thrill of knowing a fish was on the line. Hand over hand, I’d keep tugging. If my luck held, I’d get to pull it out of the hole and see Dad’s grin as it flopped on the ice. Those moments . . . Memories I want to hold onto.
Ice fishing has given me many treasured memories. My father and I were once out on a shallow lake when the fishing was slow. He removed his jig pole and invited me to lie down on the ice so my eyes were looking down the hole. After I did so, this quiet man who wanted to share a wondrous sight with me, took off his coat and used it to cover my head, blocking out the light. The underwater world instantly came to life. I saw a sandy bottom and aquatic plants waving in the gentle current. I waited and . . . there! A blue gill! Its fins undulating gently as it swam by.
Magical. I still treasure that moment today.
Learn to wait.
Navigate the bumps.
Treasure the wondrous moments.
Three wintry lessons I learned while ice fishing with my dad.