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Ice fishing: Answering the question, 'why?'

Old and In the Way
Ice fishing setup
Photo by Gary Sankary
Once you get past the fear of the cold you find a frozen lake is quite a different experience from what it is during the summer.

Whenever the subject of ice fishing comes up and I’m talking with people who don’t ice fish inevitably the questions come…

Most common, one word “why?”

There’s also “What’s the attraction?” or the more personal “are you outta your mind?”

It’s hard to explain the attraction of sitting out on a frozen lake at 3 degrees for 3 hours looking down a hole. Usually an unproductive hole at that.

But it’s not just about the fishing.

If you live in this climate you have two choices in winter: stay inside and bitch about the weather, or get out in it and enjoy yourself; it does have its charms. I’m also going to admit that I don’t sit in the boat in the summer and think about how much I want to the lake to freeze up so I can get out on the ice. It’s more of dealing with the situation at hand, and taking pleasure from what the season brings, no matter the season.

I’m not going to try to snow anyone [thank you very much] and sell winter in Minnesota or Wisconsin as something it’s not, it is extreme. When it’s 10 below things become a little harder to do, the pain-in-the-ass factor goes up significantly. But it’s not a prison sentence. You aren’t, or rather don’t have to be, housebound. You can dress for the cold and be quite comfortable. Winter clothes these days have come a long way. They can be light weight, they can breathe, you don’t have to seal yourself up in a snowmobile suit.

Once you get past the fear of the cold you find a frozen lake is quite a different experience from what it is during the summer.

Ice fishing is the great equalizer amongst fisherman. In the summer the line between “haves” and “have nots” is defined by a boat. If you have a boat, you’re a fisherman. If you don’t, you’re regulated to the shore line and as a former shoreline guy, it can suck. It can be good, but mostly, it sucks. In the winter, everyone can get to any spot on the lake regardless of boats or equipment, the can walk out out, drive out, take a sled or an ATV, and for a few short months all the hot spots on a lake are open to everyone. It’s angling democracy at its best.

And you don’t have to worry about draining your livewell or pulling the weeds off your trailer.

I’ve written about this before: in the winter the lakes are quiet. Except for the occasional drone of a 2 stroke auger or a snowmobile speeding down the lake it’s amazingly quiet. The only sound out there, the wind in the trees and the sounds of the birds. If you’ve never experienced that kind of vast silence, and I say it that way on purpose, you should give yourself a chance sometime. You can put your fingers in your ears or put on some noise canceling headphones and get silence, but it’s confined and contrived. The vastness of an empty landscape brings a different kind of quiet, it’s not that you can’t hear, it’s that there are long stretches where there is simply nothing to hear. That alone is worth the price of admission.

The snow creates its own beauty. Stark, white, cold. The sunrises over ice are spectacular as the snow picks up blues and purples from the shy and reflects those colors back in a cold impressionist view.

The sunrises over ice are spectacular as the snow picks up blues and purples fro
Photo by Gary Sankary
The sunrises over ice are spectacular as the snow picks up blues and purples from the shy and reflects those colors back in a cold impressionist view.

And because it is so quiet when there is something to hear, it carries a long way. The honking of a flock of geese 10 minutes before you see them clear the trees and go right overhead. A coyote mournfully calling across the lake somewhere, or maybe further, hard to tell in the winter. My personal favorite, a Barred Owl hooting the “who cooks for you, who cooks for you” call. Owls are the first sentinels of the spring BTW. As soon as the days start getting longer they’re out looking for mates and nesting spots and by February have eggs laid and chicks on the way. Hearing a barred owl is one of my favorite northwoods experiences.

Wildlife is a little less weary in the winter and certainly is easier to find thanks to the lack of brush on the trees and plants in the fields. On Saturday last week I had the pleasure of watching a mink playing in the snow. Apparently he’s living under my canoe. Last year it was an otter under there. The mink was wandering back along the shoreline, make use of several snow tunnels he’d dug when he suddenly noticed a group of guys out on the lake. For the next 20 minutes dive into the snow, popping his head up from time to time to see if we were still there. Finally the call of home became too much and he risked the dash across open field to get to his house.

Being a nice guy I dumped the leftover minnows in front of his den, I’m sure they were appreciated.

While I was sitting out there I was treated to a flock of swans flying just over my head. Enormous birds that make a tremendous racket, but at the same time, a treat to see. Usually they don’t like to come near people. Finally, the coup de grace, if you’re really really lucky, and the night is clear, winter is the best time to see the Aurora. The greens and reds dancing in that night sky over a frozen lake is a experience reserved for the hearty, as it’s might cold at night. But it’s worth every second, had to be one of natures most amazing works of art.

Ok not exactly related to ice fishing, but if I wasn’t up there for the fishing, I’d never see the Northern Lights, and that’s worth the drive alone.

This post was written by Gary Sankary and originally published on Old and In the Way. Follow him on Twitter: @sank

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