By Shawn Perich
It’s hard to go halfway with ice fishing. Unless you have a friend who has an ice shelter and all of the gear to go with it, you really can’t be a casual ice angler. You’ve gotta have the gear and know how to use it, which I do. But I decided several years ago that my attention span for staring at a hole in the ice is surprisingly short. I prefer more active winter endeavors, like cutting and splitting firewood or going snowshoeing with my dog.
Then my friend Kate asked me to take her ice fishing. We’ve gone fishing in the summer, unfortunately with limited success. Kate’s total catches while fishing with me are a dinky walleye and a dinky smallmouth bass, and a two-pound rainbow trout from a pay-to-fish pond. Still, she wanted to give ice fishing a try. And she wanted to go into the Boundary Waters wilderness, too.
So we picked a Saturday and I started to plan. Kate is physically active and, having grown up in Alaska, no stranger to winter, so I knew she was up for the adventure. I decided the bottom line was to make sure she had fun. A friend who is a hardcore ice fisherman suggested a Gunflint Trail lake with lots of native lake trout that is located a little more than a mile from where you park the truck. Then he suggested a good place to fish. The total walk, one-way, was about two miles. The odds of catching a laker or two were pretty good.
Since the forecast called for a single digit high that day, our expedition was unlikely to be fun unless we brought a portable shelter, which I didn’t have. So I rented a hub-style shelter from a local outfitter, because it was easy to carry on my toboggan. I loaded the rest of my gear into a Duluth pack and we were good to go.
I didn’t look at the temperature when we got out of the truck, knowing from experience that when you are on the move, not overheating is more of a concern than staying warm. You dress in breathable layers, covered with a windproof shell. Even though a foot-and-a-half of snow covered the ground, the first portion of the trail was outside of the wilderness and packed by snowmobiles. It was like walking on a sidewalk. Even when we reached the wilderness boundary, a well-travelled trail continued to the lake. There we strapped on snowshoes and headed across hard-packed drifts to my friend’s hotspot.
Once there, we punched a few holes to check the depth and decided to set up the shelter over 25 feet of water, although my friend had suggested fishing from 15 to 20 feet. Then we pulled the shelter off the toboggan and went to work. Although the outfitter said the shelter “pops right up,” it took us a minute or two to figure out how it worked. For us, it was a two-person operation. When we were finished, we discovered the shelter didn’t have a floor.
Now, a moment’s digression. Kate used to work for me and we’ve been friends for a few years. In that time, she may have heard a story or two about my outdoor mishaps and misadventures. Her favorites are the ones when catastrophes are narrowly missed or not avoided, like when you are charged by a moose or a washed-out road collapses beneath your truck. In hindsight, I wonder if she asked to go ice fishing on the off chance that she might see me break through the ice or something similar. If so, I did not disappoint.
Every portable ice shelter I’ve used in the past had a floor. You toss all of your gear inside, which is enough weight to hold it place while you set tip-ups or fish outside. In a momentary lapse of judgment, I stood beside the floorless hub shelter while Kate went to retrieve the rest of our gear from 40 yards away. Then along came a gust of wind.
Suddenly, the hub was airborne, tumbling end over end like a giant beach ball. In an instant it was 30 yards away from me, with nothing ahead of it but a long sweep of open lake. I started to run.
The hub had a head start. It kept rolling down the lake while I punched through the drifts and tried to close the distance. If I was going to win this race, I had to make sure it was a sprint and not a down-the-lake marathon. The hub kept its lead for a hundred yards and was starting to gain on me. A corner of my mind thought Kate was probably taking pictures.
Suddenly the breeze dropped and the tumbling hub relaxed to a slow roll. It was my now or never moment. I made a final mad dash and captured the hub with diving tackle. Victory!
With the hub firmly secured beneath my 200 pounds, I rolled over and was surprised to see Kate just a few feet away. Even though we were out of breath, we broke into laughter.
“I just happened to turn around and see you chasing the shelter down the lake,” she said. “You had a head start on me, but I was just catching up.”
“I’m pretty quick,” I replied.
“I thought you might have a heart attack,” she said.
Still laughing, we broke down the shelter and hauled it back to our fishing spot. Then we put our stools on top of the skirt along the bottom edge to hold it in place. This cramped our fishing style, because someone had to stay inside the house at all times. Later that evening, I learned via YouTube that you are supposed to anchor the house with ice screws—the frozen equivalent of tent stakes. Apparently the screws were in the shelter’s carry bag.
As for the fishing, we had no bites inside the shelter, but I caught a 19-inch trout while setting a tip-up outside. Unfortunately, Kate missed the action because she had to—literally—hold down the fort. While I wish she could have caught a fish, it didn’t really matter. The moment I tackled the runaway hub, the day reached my bottom line. Kate had fun.