As I put together the powerhead and the shaft of my auger, I took note of the extension that was still securely bolted into place from the previous season. And by "securely bolted" I mean rusted solid.
I figured it was best to just leave the set-up as is, considering last year's 40 inches of ice on some area lakes put the full length of the auger and the extension to use, bumping the bottom of the powerhead on the frozen surface multiple times last March before I packed everything away. Thus far it has been a cold winter, even though the season hasn't technically started, and I expect now, with eight to ten inches of ice already on area waters, a full 40 inches of ice or more is likely this season.
In fact, while sitting in my shack on a solid formation of eight inches of clear ice and watching the non-biting walleyes and perch slink along the bottom of my depth finder without so much as a nudge toward my jigging spoon, I heard a strange humming drown out the whir of the Marcum. It wasn't a four-wheeler or the jet-ski like buzz of a snowmobile whizzing by. The subsequent "slam-slam" of driver's and passenger-side doors coupled with a "this looks like a good spot" comment from the passengers confirmed that on December 6, the first ON-road vehicles were making their way on to the ice. Despite the apparent "safety" of the ice, it seemed a bit early for my budget, factoring in EPA fines, towing expenses, repairs, cleaning and fish removal costs - not to mention the stress of finding a way to the surface and swimming through near-freezing waters that go with an early-ice breakthrough. I'm not one to rush on to the ice, but it seems that this winter is meeting me halfway, and in all likelihood, I will join the brave souls this first December weekend in their cars and small trucks parking around my shack sometime at the end of the month…but most likely in January.
A long, and apparently thick winter lays ahead, the thrill of first ice initially with a good layer as solid as the beginning bite usually is available to many anglers, thanks to the rapid freeze. Then comes the waning action of late January and February, which tests the mettle and the fortitude of all who challenge the negative fish and negative-zero high temperatures. For those who do, a prosperous and prolonged bite well into March and maybe even April awaits as panfish and predators prepare for the spring spawn.
The calendar is marked by highs, doldrums, rough weather, January thaws and a lion-and-lamb finish. Each weather system that blasts through on the sails of an Alberta clipper changes the luck of anglers. Propane tanks are filled, burned up, refueled and again converted into BTUs through a Mr. Heater sunflower or cooker. Deer sausages sizzle, augers hum, rattle-reel bells ring and drags occasionally scream. Snowmachines zip across barren surfaces, GPS screens flicker, and propane lanterns burn in after-work panfish marathons on Friday night into Saturday morning.
It's a great time, with a barrage of experiences. Sometimes you eat the fish, and sometimes the elements - snow, ice, and wind - that protect them, bite through your ice-crusted bib overalls and jackets chewing through the layers of sweatshirts, turtlenecks and long johns sending you whimpering, face covered in frozen tears and a snot mustache. It's not for the weak, it's not for the faint of heart, and it isn't for those from south of the Mason-Dixon line. Believe me, having spent four winters away from home in sunny Florida, one day of ice fishing had me whimpering with bare feet dangling over the flame of a propane heater while back on winter break. Meanwhile my friends had blackmail material for the next decade with the pictures that were taken.
Memories with friends, family and a few fantastic fish come with all the ups and downs. It's only here and only at this time of year that we can make them. Only in this place where woods meet water and prairie meets pond, does everything happen when the temperatures start dipping near zero.
Get out there. String up a rod, and string up some fish. Experience ice fishing the way God intended it, or the way man has, in some instances, made it a second home. From the shacks and shanties, to the pop-down trailers and the turrets of veritable ice castles rigged with Dish TV, Satellite Radio and the NFL Sunday Ticket, take in every moment of it, in every way imaginable, because it will be the only way to fish for the next few months…in our outdoors.