Friday, July 4, 2014

Ice Fishing

I like warm weather.  Today is July 4th, and it’s warm outside.  Actually, it’s almost hot, but that’s okay.  I can always find a cool spot if I need it, but I can never seem to find a way to get warm when it’s cold outside.

I’ve lived most of my life in places like Texas, southern California, and Arizona, and I have rarely allowed myself to experience the cold.  At various times circumstances dictated a trip to cold country, but a shivering body and chattering teeth are not my favorite forms of exercise.  I think it is great that some persons like to ski, or ice skate, or snowboard.  I think it is great that some persons ride snowmobiles and some persons ride bobsleds.  I think it is great that Santa lives at the North Pole.  I think it is great that I live where it is warm.

In Fort Worth the temperature would occasionally drop below freezing in the winter and a reading of ‘zero’ was not overly unusual, but warmer days were never far off.  In Arizona cold nights were not uncommon, but warm days were expected.  And I’ve never seen snow in Long Beach, CA. 

My first experience with extreme cold was on a business trip to Great Falls, Montana.  I left Dallas in 70-degree weather and landed in Great Falls in minus 40-degree weather.  I had on a heavy coat, but it wasn’t enough.  When I stepped off the plane, I could instantly feel my various parts freezing.  Or maybe the problem was that I couldn’t feel my various parts freezing.  My parts were growing numb very fast.  I wore a handlebar mustache in those days, and when I placed my hand over my face to protect it from the weather, I broke off one side of my mustache.  It had instantly frozen.  So I did the only thing that made sense at the time—I broke off the other side.  Oh, well.

I rented a car that had a block heater.  At my motel I could park just outside my door and plug in the car to an electrical outlet to keep the engine block warm without running the car all night.  Cool.  (Maybe that was the wrong expression.)  I parked the car and went inside to get the extension cord the motel provided.  When I tossed it out of the door to uncoil it, the cord shattered in mid-toss.  It froze as fast as my mustache.  I guess that was the reason the motel had about a dozen extension cords in my room.

The following morning I met with the manager of the store I was visiting, and all he could do was stare at my face.  Finally I asked him if something was wrong.

“It’s your mustache.  Why is it so lopsided?  And your hair is a different length on each side.  Is this a new trend that hasn’t reached Montana yet?”

I knew my mustache had a problem, but my hair?  Apparently I had managed to break off a large portion of my hair on the way to the store that morning.  I wanted to go home.

On a business trip to Minnesota, I was talked into some ice fishing.  The temperature was only about 10 below so I wasn’t too worried about my newly re-grown mustache, but it was still very cold.  Leonard, the store manager, assured me we would be quite comfortable.  He had an ice hut.  I didn’t understand exactly what I was getting into, but I was reluctantly willing to give it a try.

About 5am we were standing at the edge of a frozen lake with a sled full of our gear.  Maybe I should say that it was all Leonard’s gear.  I owned absolutely nothing suited for this adventure.  In the dark distance I could see a number of cabin-like structures sitting out on the ice and most of them had smoke emanating from a pipe extending through the roof.  We were going out to the red one.  Wait, they were all red, but Leonard knew exactly which one was his.

I had never walked very far on ice before, but it wasn’t as difficult as I had supposed it would be.  Visions of slipping and sliding and falling were going through my brain, but nothing like that happened.  I just walked normally, and together we pulled the sled behind us to Leonard’s ice hut where a sign on the door identified him as the owner.

Inside we were sheltered from the elements to a degree.  The hut was about six feet wide and about eight feet long and had a wooden floor in it with a trap door that could be lifted up to expose the ice underneath.  There was a small cast iron stove at one end in which Leonard started a wood fire.  Soon there was a coffee pot on top of the stove and we were getting ready to fish.

The first thing to do was to open the trap door and cut a hole in the ice.  Leonard used an auger and a metal spade to accomplish this, and he threw the excess ice into a bucket and then he then tossed the contents out of the door.  He opened a small box and removed from it some heavy fishing line with a leader and a lure of some kind attached to the end.  Into the hole he dropped the lure and lowered the line about 10 feet.  And he sat there holding that line.  Occasionally Leonard would raise and lower the line a few inches, but mostly he sat there.  Finally I asked him what came next.

“Oh, well, uh, not much unless a fish bites.  Sometimes we need to scoop out the ice from the hole.  It re-freezes quickly.”  Leonard was happy, but I was bored—and cold.

It didn’t take me long to realize that only one person fished at a time, and Leonard was doing the fishing.  My job was to sit quietly, sip coffee, and keep the fire in the stove going.  After an hour of so of this, Leonard handed me the line so I could take a turn “fishing.”  No sooner than I had taken the line, a fish took the lure.

It wasn’t a big fish, although it did require some effort to retrieve.  I’ve never been much for hand line fishing, but when attempting it with cold hands and heavy gloves, it becomes rather difficult.  I couldn’t feel the fishing line through the gloves.  In fact, I couldn’t feel the inside of my gloves with my cold hands.  But I managed to get the fish up through the hole and into the cabin.  It wiggled for about ten seconds before freezing, and after I removed the lure, the fish was tossed into the corner of the cabin.  We didn’t need an ice chest—we were sitting in a freezer.

Then Leonard took over the fishing duties again, and I can honestly say I was glad he did.  I believe I could find more enjoyment by watching paint dry.  I was cold, I was bored, I was cold.  I threw more wood into the stove, poured another cup of coffee, and I waited.  About 10am I began to wonder what was going on outside the hut.  I opened the door to see snow falling and several men pulling their sleds back toward the edge of the lake.  Maybe it was time to go.

Leonard laughed at the idea.  “Wimps!  They’re just fair weather fishermen.  Afraid of a little snow.”  Apparently we weren’t going to go.

At last Leonard caught a fish and tossed it over with the other one.  I took the line when he handed it back to me, and I dropped the lure back into the hole.  And I sat there with Leonard looking at me as though he was the happiest man on this earth.  Maybe he was.  He was certainly happier than me.

It was well into the afternoon when I caught another fish, and I thought we would go home at this point, but I was incorrect about this.  Leonard wanted to give it another try.  I opened the door again to look out at the snow and could see little more than a gray/white fog.  Now I was starting to worry.  I actually had thoughts of abandoning this effort and trying to find my own way back to the truck.  But, 1) I didn’t have a clue where the truck was, and 2) Leonard had the keys.  I closed the door, threw some wood into the stove, poured another cup of coffee, and sat down.

Leonard caught his second fish about 5:30 and said that was probably about all the fish were going to pull out of there today.  At last he was going home.  We packed our things (including the four fish) onto the sled and started off into the now very dark fog.  With unerring accuracy we walked to the truck and within an hour I was back in my hotel room where it was warm.  Warm.

I was to visit Leonard’s store several more times over the next few years, but always in the summer.  He would constantly remind me of the great time we experienced ice fishing, and he would never forget to invite me back; however, for some strange reason, my visits to his store were always in the summer.

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