A freezing cold November day is nature’s way of reminding us that ice fishing season is almost here. It’s time to get out the buckets, tip-ups, hand warmers, augers, and camo coolie cups. Ice fishing in South County is a peaceful experience, one that gets us out of the house throughout the winter, provides some much-needed exercise and helps to satiate our fishing jones. Ice fishing may also be the purest of all fishing; no hop-scotching down rock walls or paying $4 a gallon to fuel your boat; this sport has you walk on water, wear lots of warm jackets with silly hats and get really, really excited when your child pulls up a five inch yellow perch. The gear is simple and largely bomb-proof, which is good. Good because when you’re huddled on 20” of ice, feet buried in 10” of wet snow and your hands haven’t left your pockets for 15 minutes, you need really simple gear.
Let’s be serious, with the exception of the teetotalers, who genuinely enjoy ice fishing for the joy of ice and fishing, this “sport” is really just another place to drink beer. It gets you out of the house for a few hours before a Patriots game, conveniently justifying the remainder of your afternoon, slouched in a chair watching the game, exhausted from being out in the cold all day. Real ice fishermen always have a plan.
If you are a history buff, or just cheap, you may still be using your grandfather’s reels on wooden tip ups. Their designs are pure genius and if left in good shape through the warm months, seem to last forever. We cut our holes with an auger, which is actually not an auger, but a homemade, cripplingly heavy iron post with a sharp spade at the bottom, perfectly designed to bash a nice hole and crush your two biggest toes when you slip. We inherited it from someone who advanced to a real gas powered auger, likely because they were tired of sore toes and dragging a clunky iron fence post across the ice.
Technology, however, has caught up with my grandfather’s gear. Frabill makes a round top tip up, called the Pro-Thermal, which cover the whole hole, blocking sunlight from those shy yellow perch while keeping out freezing winds. Several of these also stack nicely inside a 5 gallon bucket, which is the ice fisherman’s idea of winter luggage. Canada’s Marmish Company offers a 9” rod which fits in the palm of your hand, with a built in strike indicator and a drag managed by palm pressure. It weighs just 2/3 of an ounce and supposedly works quite well but it still looks a lot like a stick with a string on the end.
So you first find solid ice. RIDEM recommends, “a uniform thickness of at least six inches before it may be considered safe”. Of course, safety always comes first, so that six should be just a minimum. Taking a January dip in Worden Pond would be careless, dangerous and wicked embarrassing. RIDEM also limits your tip ups to 6. For years we fished through the winter, only drilling as many holes as seemed necessary. One can manage just so many reels on a hard winter day and there are established creel limits in our state for everything from landlocked salmon to gold fish, so why put a limit on how much fun we can have?With good ice, you look for enough space to set out the tip ups and establish base camp. And by that I mean unpacking the sled of its snacks, cooler, bait bucket, aerator, hand warmers, flasks, hockey sticks, very melted Snickers bars from last winter and twenty dollars-worth of shiners. For comfort, we carry a green plastic seat, which opens for storage and is fashionably wrapped with camouflaged pockets. This was originally a gift for my father, appropriately given a year after he quit ice fishing and coincidently, just about when we realized how tired we were of sitting on five gallon buckets. He also received several Elvis and Grateful Dead records that year, which also worked out well for me.
Once the holes are in and tip ups are assembled, the hooks get baited with big shiners. This immediately draws in a flock of gulls that surround your party and circle overhead, waiting for a chance to steal one and leave you a little white present on your sled. Then you wait. And watch for orange flags. The kids skate and play hockey, slug down gallons of hot chocolate, the men talk football and the women, well, there are no women when we go. My wife has joined us a few times, begrudgingly, but ends up wrapped in so many layers of fleece and scarves she looks like a very unhappy Michelin man, which may be something better thought and not written. Harry Belafonte was correct; the women really are smarter.
There exists an interesting dynamic when ice fishing with kids: we adults procure bait, load trucks, sherpa gear, chip holes, run back to trucks for the hats and pucks they left behind, even though we asked if they had them before we got on the ice, while the kids get to play. Then when a flag goes up, it’s the kids who get there first and hoist up a trophy. We even get to shed the deer skin mittens and take several photos from several angles of their catch. This is called parenting.
Some winters back, we were jigging a few holes in a local pond after school. After a few hours, it was time to head for home so my young son handled my rod while he watched me repack all our gear. Suddenly, the rod was bent, there was yelling, the reel was singing as he hauled in a largemouth bass no less than five pounds. That is a very respectable fish for an eight year old, and it was my supposed to be my fish. It was my hole and my rod and my bait but for less than a minute, he held it, hauled in a beauty, got his picture taken and took all the credit. On a hot summer night, thinking of stripers and too lazy to walk the break wall, it still hurts to see that picture on my wall.