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The Minnesota autumn is a wanton and treacherous season. Cool nights and bright, crisp, warm days lull the inhabitants of Sleepy Eye, Bemidji, and Saint Paul into a false sense of security and comfort. ‘Surely these halcyon days will continue indefinitely’ thinks the unwary hiker as he or she basks in the blazing glory of hardwood foliage turning red and orange and yellow. The lakes and streams continue to offer unparalleled fishing in mellow peace and quiet . . .
Then WHAM! The skies turn a leaden gray and great gobs of snow fall from the heavens as if hurled by Odin himself. The metamorphosis is sudden, dramatic – and depressing.
The outdoors is no longer wreathed in a welcoming and sunny smile. The polar winds howl and the coniferous trees rub their needled branches together in sadistic pleasure like a villain in a melodrama rubbing his hands in anticipation of foreclosing on a mortgage.
But my Uncle Jim had a sovereign remedy for the winter blues. Ice fishing.
He would call me to say “Hey, dere, Timmy – you vant tew go out on da lake, dere? It vill sheer yew up like nutting else!” I always replied in the affirmative.
Right after Thanksgiving, or as soon as the ice was thick enough, he pulled his ice fishing shack out onto White Bear Lake to begin the age-old ritual of man vs fish, fueled by Hamm’s Beer and a black and white television set that broadcast North Star hockey games with a blurry, fuzzy nimbus.
The shack had no floor to speak of – it was deleted in order to offer more scope for the drilling of holes in the ice. Using a hand-held auger, Uncle Jim patiently turned the crank until the icy blue water came gurgling up around his galoshes. To scoop out the slush he liberated one of Aunt Cecelia’s ladles (a crime for which he was never caught).
Having cut off part of his thumb while working as a butcher, Uncle Jim received a generous Workman’s Comp package, and so was at leisure to fish each day all winter. I joined him on the weekends.
Back then nobody but Thurston Howell the Third on Gilligan’s Island would think of buying anything brand new for ice fishing. Uncle Jim’s shack was a patched-together, jury-rigged affair made from scraps left over from his remodeling the basement into a rumpus room. His fishing rod was an ancient bundle of bamboo splinters kept together with black electrical tape. A tin lard bucket served for bait, and for dumping in any fish he might catch.
It took me a while to catch on to the fact that the main idea behind ice fishing was not to catch fish but to get out of the house and away from Aunt Cecilia. She often said that she would not be caught dead in that disgraceful piece of rubbish that Uncle Jim had christened “The Lucky Fish & Chowder Club”.
I, on the other hand, was dead serious about catching some Northern or crappie or bass for the dinner table. My mother was a dab hand at frying fresh fish fillets.
So while Uncle Jim would spend tedious hours fiddling with his broken-down television set in the vain attempt to get a clear picture, and drinking draft after draft of Hamms, I hovered over the icy hole with my rod, willing the passing fish to seize my bait and become an accompaniment to mashed potatoes and green peas. It did not take long for my tootsies, even though shod in thick winter boots and swaddled in thick wool socks, to ache with the cold as if they were being held in a narrowing vice.
My luck, or skill, varied. Some days I hauled ‘em in like nobody’s business. Other days nothing offered but trash like carp or sunnies so miniscule they could have passed for pet gold fish.
Inevitably, Uncle Jim waited until the last possible moment to pull his fish house off of the ice as spring approached.
The year I turned sixteen he missed his window of opportunity – or, as Maxwell Smart would say, “Missed it by THAT much!”
He drove his truck down the winding path to White Bear Lake one fine morning only to find his fishing house mimicking the Titanic, slowing sinking beneath the icy slush.
He never built another fishing shack, but instead stoically went out fishing in the dead of winter sans shelter; he drilled his hole and sat on his tin lard bucket waiting for the fish to bite. Anything was better than staying home all day with . . . well, no need to repeat myself.
I’m ashamed to say I’ve never taken my own kids out ice fishing. Where I live it just doesn’t get that cold. Besides, I gave up drinking beer years ago.