A Hard-Water World: Ice Fishing and Why We Do It

Essays by Greg Breining
Photos by Layne Kennedy  

If you didn't grow up in northern climes, ice fishing may seem improbable, wacky, and perhaps a bit dangerous. The very words—ice fishing—suggest the bleakest aspects of northern winters and stoic people—so much so that the words alone provide a parody of life in the rural north. Perseverance bordering on complete inertia. A dull sport for a dull people. How much skill can it take to sit on a bucket, hold a jigging rod, and stare into a hole?

Being a good-humored bunch, we accept and revel in the stereotype (even though we know that ice fishing actually takes quite a bit of skill. Those who haven't, try not to laugh.) Those of us whose blood ran cold at birth or at least have lived a few years in this country of bitter winters, deep snow, and howling winds, know that fishing on the ice, and driving on the ice, and even dragging houses onto the ice, does in fact seem wacky. And so we can find humor in a cartoon that depicts ice-fishing "practice" as sitting in an empty gym on overturned pails.

Many of us who live where lakes are hard several months of the year are anglers, after all. And many of us simply refuse to accept that fishing has come to an end. And so we simply chop a hole, as a means to continue fishing. One could even say that we are metaphorically destroying the barrier that comes between us and our fishing. 

For others, it is simple escape: Ice-fishing is all about the outdoors, the solitude, the beer, and the tinny sound of the Sunday football games on the 1960s transistor radio on the two-by-four in ice shack—a simple antidote to cabin fever. Ice fishing is something to do that seems, on occasion, focused. And, sometimes, even productive. 

For a few, ice fishing not an alternative, not second best at all. It is the best kind of fishing. These people like the cold, the ice, the roar of the auger, the speed of the snowmobile, the thrill of driving on ice, and the delicious taste of fish from clean cold water. 

Harold F. Blaisdell, in the ice fishing entry to the 1980 edition of McLain's Fishing Encyclopedia, makes a valiant stab at the appeal of ice fishing. "Perhaps the greatest single source of fascination is the drastic change in the relationship between man and water brought about by the dramatic appearance of the ice itself," Mr. Blaisdell writes. "The waters which now lie hidden beneath the frozen surface immediately become a dark, sealed-off mystery and thus pose a tantalizing and compelling challenge to the fisherman." 

When I first read that, I could only conclude that in the long hours of staring into his ice hole, Mr. Blaisdell simply has been more imaginative than the rest of us. 

Being not only good-humored, but also endowed with a sense of irony, we proudly accept ice fishing as an emblem of our life in the frozen boonies. We sign our e-mail "I Love Crappie Days" or, my favorite, "I will be on the couch watching cartoons in my underwear until it gets cold!" Our embrace of something so odd as ice fishing is an expression of mild-mannered populism. As Garrison Keillor has said, "We come from people who brought us up to believe that life is a struggle." Ice fishing is our cultural identity with Wobegon Nation.

Certain elements stand out in the mythology of ice fishing. Beer. Escape from the spouse. The mythology is actually rather thin. Which may explain why so little has been written about ice fishing—other than how to drill holes faster, to use fish-finders through the ice, and to keep you minnow livelier. 

Writer D. J. Tice, a friend of mine, has contributed to the ice-fishing literature, which is to say he wrote about ice fishing once. Doug has the advantage of having not ice fished very much at all, which allows him a fresh perspective unencumbered by a lot of actual experience. He writes: 

"...after learning that the principle action in ice fishing is checking one's minnow, after beginning to worry that my bait was holding up better than I was—after all this the truth was suddenly revealed unto me. What's the fun in ice fishing? One might as well ask what fun medieval pilgrims found in trudging barefoot to Jerusalem or what kick Eastern mystics derive from hair shirts and self-flagellation.

"The secret that tens of thousands of Minnesota ice anglers share is this: Ice fishing has nothing whatever to do with "sport" or "fun." It is an exotic Minnesota rite of mortification, preparing the ice fisher for life's pangs, disappointments and tedium—it's especially good for tedium." 

Whether or not ice fishing really prepares us for life's trials is debatable. It is more important to realize that ice fishing is our cultural marker. 

When it comes to fishing, I have always been drawn to running water, visibility into the depths, the athleticism of casting, and the fight of the fish as it cavorts on the surface and whipsaws the line in might runs. So compared with open-water fishing, "hard-water" fishing has always run a poor second. But I began to see ice-fishing in a different light one winter day as I traveled through Moscow and saw men sitting on the frozen Moscow River, staring downward at the ice. I knew immediately what they were up to. My innate knowledge of ice-fishing, absorbed during a lifetime of living in Minnesota, marked me as a northerner, a member of a circumpolar clan, a secret society of winter sportsmen. Despite the strangeness of their culture, and their horrible political and economic system (communist at the time), aspects of their traditional customs I fully understood. Ice-fishing is to northerners what elaborate tattoos might be to South Seas Islanders. Ice-fishing is the identify we carry with us, figuratively speaking, in the sled with the five-gallon buckets filled with jigging rods, with the ice scooper and the power auger, the portable ice shelter and the propane heater. As we trudge across the first ice of the season, it is what we cling to more than a life-vest: our cultural-tribal link. You may think we're nuts, but this is who we are! That's our story and we're sticking to it. 

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