They say any day of fishing beats a day of work. So I played hooky one day last week and headed out at daybreak with a couple of friends. Our destination was a small lake stocked with rainbow trout and splake. We were after splake, a hatchery cross of lake trout and brook trout which tastes better than just about anything that swims.
In a real sense, I was just along for the ride. My friends had snowmobiles to get us to the lake, located several miles back on an unplowed forest road. Actually, we discovered the road, which is also a snowmobile route, had been recently bulldozed to clear out fallen trees and brush from a heavy, wet snow in December. We crunched along on a smattering of snow over frozen gravel.
I was seated behind Steve on his new two-up Polaris, which has arm rests for the passenger. To avoid the gravel, Steve tried riding on the humped bank of snow beside it. Everything was fine until we tipped off the hump into two feet of snow. My right calf was tightly pinned beneath the machine. Nothing was broken, mind you, but I may as well have been caught in a steel trap. It was a good reminder of why I’ve always preferred snowshoes to snowmobiles.
Steve wallowed for a long moment in the deep snow and got his footing. Then he freed my leg, which was pinned by the arm rest. The two of us righted the machine. And we were on our way.
We were happy to find the lake was mostly slush free, which hasn’t always been the case on the north country’s frozen waters this winter. Roger, who’d fished here in the past, led us to a point across the lake. Cutting holes with hand augers was easy, because the ice was only a foot thick.
Dropping a tiny tube jig down the tube cut in the ice, I was immediately rewarded with a strike. Within minutes I had two more bites, but failed to connect with the fish each time. And then the party was over. Steve and Roger, who are far more serious about ice fishing than me, were watching for signs of life on their flashers. Steve was the first to spot a blip and promptly landed a 12-inch splake. A little while later, Roger scored with a 16-incher.
The weather was mild, so standing outside was comfortable. After twitching my tube jig with no response for what seemed like hours (for me, ice fishing without action is like standing on a snow-covered parking lot), I drilled a couple of holes and moved around. I may as well been augering through parking lot pavement. So I returned to the hole where I started and set up my portable house.
After chasing a pop-up portable down a windswept lake last winter, I decided to go old school, borrowing a 30-year-old Heco portable from a friend who no longer uses it. Super lightweight and setting up in seconds, the Heco, no longer made, may represent the epitome of portable shelter design. Unlike contemporary shelters, the Heco has a floor, so you can put your gear inside to prevent it from blowing away.
This day, the shelter was a perfect place to sit down, rummage through the Duluth pack and find some snacks. The tube jig was left to its own devices while I munched. Live minnows are not allowed on designated stream trout lakes. For me, this is a serious drawback to ice fishing on them, because you have to instead jig endlessly, regardless if the fish are biting. Also, you are only allowed one line. I much prefer ice-fishing for lake trout, where you can use two lines and live minnows. When you have a short attention span like me, sometimes it’s best to let a lively minnow do the fishing for you.
When I wasn’t eating, I twitched the tube jig; not really expecting to get a bite, because my friends weren’t seeing anything with their flashers. Eventually, Steve and I moved to try another place where I’d caught rainbows while fly-fishing in the summer. We never had a bite. Roger moved in another direction along a steep shoreline. When we checked in with him, he’d seen a blip or two on the flasher, so we decided to set up nearby.
Dropping the tube jig down a new hole was like making a fresh start, so I twitched with renewed interest. And then it happened. I felt a tug on the line and set the hook. Something tugged back. And then it was gone. Inspired with a bite-induced adrenalin surge, I twitched some more. Then I set up the fish house and rummaged through the Duluth pack again. The day so mild my cold spaghetti didn’t freeze.
Well-fed and content, I moved down the shoreline a ways to try another spot. You won’t catch fish unless you’re fishing. Sometimes you still won’t catch anything but a skunk. This was one of those days. About an hour before sunset we decided to call it quits.
So I took a day off from a busy schedule to sit on a lonely lake and fruitlessly twitch a jig. Was it worth it? Yes it was. Did I mention how all of the conifers bear a heavy coating of snow that has transformed the boreal forest into a winter wonderland? Did I tell you about the rugged hills that rise above the lake and the towering white pines that stand like ancient sentinels above their peaks? Do you know what it is like to hear the lonely croak of a raven; the only sound of a living creature you hear all day?
Like they say, any day of fishing is better than a day of work.