I didn’t grow up ice fishing. I loved to play outside in the snow, and we neighborhood kids spent plenty of time outdoors, sliding down hills on our sleds until the sun set and we’d waddle on home. But ice fish? Nope. Didn’t catch that bug until my late 20s, when I met a man who introduced me to the sport and its customs.
Things like this: You might catch fish all day long, and you might not catch a single fish. Either way, we’re going to eat well while we’re out there.
And this: You’re bound to get more flags on the coldest day of the year than you are on a mild day when you’re not worried about freezing your fingers off every time you put another bait on your line.
And even this: If your ice shack burns to the ground, that doesn’t mean you have to stop fishing. As long, that is, as you made sure to dive into the burning shack and save the bait. (Yes, he actually did that).
Armed with those lessons, and others I learned on my own, I began to ice fish quite often. Heck, I even got my own shack — a rebuilt version of the one my mentor had burned down — and looked forward to regular outings on the “hardwater.”
And then, I just stopped.
The year I almost waited too long before removing my shack from the lake played a role, I suppose. Realizing how close we’d come to losing the shack left an impression.
Then, you might say, I grew up. Or something like that. In any case, my life changed in many ways, some subtle, others more drastic.
The friends I fished with didn’t fish as often, either. Family commitments started pulling all of us in different directions.
My ice auger stopped working. My tip-ups fell into disrepair. Hooks rusted. Flags refused to trip.
And eventually, that old, unused ice shack — the one I’d grown afraid of losing through the ice — simply rotted away.
On Friday, after a decade away from the sport, I finally returned to ice fishing. A co-worker wanted to go, and she needed some tips (as well as some equipment).
So I began the melancholy exercise of gathering up my neglected gear, seeing what might still work, and planning a day on the ice.
The traps were largely useless — heck, my lines still had lead sinkers attached to them, and those haven’t been legal to use for years — and the line on one jig pole was brittle. My hand auger showed some signs of rust, but I hoped we’d be able to drill a couple holes with it.
Then, after picking up some shiners and worms, I drove to a local pond on a glorious bluebird day, to join my fishing party.
I’d assigned my colleague, Sam Schipani, the most important task of the day, though I didn’t tell her how crucial her role would be.
Sam was in charge of lunch.
While I couldn’t guarantee we’d be able to find any fish — I was a little out of practice, you see — I remembered what my old mentor always told me.
There’s never an excuse to go hungry while you’re ice fishing.
Sam had never ice fished, but she proved to be a quick study. Lunch was fantastic, and she didn’t seem too frustrated when the fish didn’t cooperate. Her boyfriend Alex Cole spent the morning with us, as did our other co-worker, Aislinn Sarnacki. During slow periods (read that: ALL MORNING) each killed time by skating across the pristine pond.
And eventually, a fish cooperated. Not that you’ll hear any more about it from me.
That’s not my story to tell.
Instead, I’ll leave you with this: The hand auger I bought years ago to fill in for the finicky gas-powered one worked like a charm. We basked in the sunshine and watched a bald eagle soar past. We told stories and laughed.
A new lesson I learned: You can go back again.
And after the day we enjoyed, I’m sure we all will.
John Holyoke can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 207-990-8214. Follow him on Twitter: @JohnHolyoke. His first book, “Evergreens,” a collection of his favorite BDN columns and features, has been published by Islandport Press and is available wherever books are sold.