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Ice fishing can warm the heart

Sometime this winter, when my wife is in the mood for walleye, I will slip fillets from the fridge, dip them in egg, dredge them in special seasoning, and plop them in a pan of spitting-hot melted butter and oil.Then I’ll stand guard, spatula at the ready, as they brown on the outside, turn flaky white on the inside, and proffer an aroma that could only smell sweeter if it rose from a pan atop a campfire on some distant shore.Next, I’ll pour two glasses of wine. Ferry the remaining fare to the table. And as we dine, the world will be fine. It always is when the fish on your fork comes from a hole in the ice rather than a freezer at the supermarket.As we savor our meal, I will relish the fishing trip too. This will be especially true if our repast begat from a journey to Joe’s. Joe is my ice-fishing buddy. He lives on the north shore of Mille Lacs Lake. We have fished together for years. We do not wet lines a lot, but we do always launch a foray each winter from the harbor in front of his home. I look forward to these ice-fishing trips. They’re great.I look forward to them because Joe is so many things-a caring curmudgeon, a prince of a pal, and a perfect paradox. A self-described recluse, he is lousy at this for his phone is often abuzz and his solace sought. Likewise, his cherished simple life is constantly in conflict with his pit-bull pursuit of bones of fact. His kitchen table, for instance, is a sea of the flotsam and jetsam of an ardent angler and former fishing guide-the latest lures, unwanted line, photographs of fish-yet it also contains The Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times, and tomes heavy in substance, stature, and weight. As a result, I never know in which direction Joe will cast a conversation. But I do know that eventually it will land on angling tactics, techniques, and the weather.That’s because Joe knows fishing, especially at Mille Lacs. And he knows that a discourse on the day is de rigueur. Joe will wax about the wind, the state of the fishery, and the latest reports from reliable sources, such as Barneveld, The Prince, and the Cheers-like gang at Phil’s Myr-Mar, a marina restaurant and saloon across the puddle where patrons often greet Joe as though he were Norm.These pre-fishing prognostications are kin to the kind of commentary kicked about on television pre-game football shows. We talk about offense: Will Ivan’s latest lure be the hot ticket? We talk defense: Will the cold front shut down our plans and force a change in strategy? We talk intangibles: What if late-arriving louts drill holes near our shack right during the witching hour, that precious fish-feeding time as the sun slips behind Garrison? What should we do? Such invention and grousing is good fun and entertaining to boot. It is why ESPN broadcasts pre-game football shows even when it does not air the game.But I digress.In time, Joe and I will don our fishing duds, strap on our boots, and hoof to a fish house not far from shore. This shack is adequate but Spartan. It is essentially two holes in the floor and nothing more. There is no table for cribbage. No bunk for a snooze. No electronic tomfoolery or color TV. Just two holes, a couple of coat hooks, and small gas stove that sputters a soft light and toasty warmth. This piscatorial palace is mostly a thin skin of tin.Palace? Not really, but it seems like one. I say this because within its confines, Joe and I, like others of our ilk, assume the airs of the philosopher king. With stocking hats as crowns and plastic pails as thrones, we rule the rock rubble. We become sultans of the sand. We are temporary lords of the lake-well, at least lords of our small slab of ice. We exercise this sovereign responsibility by making pronouncements on all things important and many things that are not. We do this until a fish breaks our stream of consciousness or, in rare instances, our line. Northern pike-crocodiles, as Joe calls ’em-are the worst line breakers. When we spy them below, we try to banish these bums to other parts of the lake, but they frequently disobey our orders. The eelpout heed no better.We often fish fairly close to shore. This near-shore winter fishing-“viewing,” Joe calls it - is always fun and fascinating because fish, frankly, are as unpredictable as pups. Hunkered over my hole, I have watched a walleye slam into a Swedish pimple. Other times, the darn fish swims up cautiously, snuggles its snout to within a whisker of the lure, and then fins away without ever opening its mouth.Different again is the walleye that sees the bait, cruises past like an aimless torpedo, then circles back to mash the minnow that seconds before it chose to ignore. I do not know why walleyes do this. Was the temptation too great? Was the jigging just right? Who knows? It is just fun to behold.Joe and I usually chew the fat for most of our trip, but there are times we simply sit in silence. We listen to the wind, which sculpts the snow into desertlike patterns. We listen to the ice, which booms and groans as it heaves its mass from shore to buckling shore. And we listen to our own thoughts and the internal voices of those who are important to us. I’ve often found that ice fishing is a great way to get away and meditate. Granted, a shack on Mille Lacs is not a monastery in Katmandu, but it can do. And it is a lot closer.Sad to say, I cannot report that I have ever caught a huge fish from Mille Lacs during a trip with Joe. However, I have come close. It happened years ago, while Joe and I were sitting side by side during the evening bite. We were twitching jigging spoons tipped with a minnow. Joe, as usual, had been outfishing me and at some point gave me his rod because his lure was hot and mine was not. Joe’s jigging stick was little more than a glorified dowel, a short shank of fiberglass rod, and a pair of pegs on which to wrap line. As I was fishing with this stick, I looked down the hole and spied a “whale,” a word we reserve for only the largest of fish.“Whale, Joe!” I exclaimed.“What’s it doing?” he replied.“Just looking.”“Still there?”“Yup,” I said.And then the whale opened its mouth and the fight was on. It was a brief battle but memorable nonetheless. As I set the hook, the rod arched as though I were trying to heft a boulder from the bottom of the lake. Joe, noticing the bend, popped off his pail and dove to his knees so that he could help snag the fish when its head poked up the hole.Well, the whale was not particularly interested in meeting Joe. First, it took a run toward Isle. Then it circled back toward Malmo. Finally, as I was steering its snout toward the hole at my feet, the fish plain missed its exit and disappeared into the great beyond. Instead of a fish, I was left with a length of slack line in my hand. The only heft was that of a fishless spoon.Joe and I, of course, mused about this episode for quite a while. Then, after a fitting period of time, I asked the question for which I was confident Joe would know the answer, because his eye for fish length and weight is as sharp as a dorsal spine.“You saw the whale. Almost grabbed it. How big was she?” I asked, knowing the largest of walleyes are always female.“Eight. Maybe more,” said Joe.“Good to know,” I said, a twinge of dejection snagged to each word.Since then I have never seen such a large fish on a trip with Joe. Yet that is fine. There are more trips in our future. More opportunities. And meanwhile, the memories are good in and of themselves.It is usually dark when we leave the lake. The stars, tiny pinholes of light in the fabric above, shine down on us. So does the moon. And beyond, on the roads that circle the lake, the headlights of cars flicker and fade. I suspect some people in those cars might see me and Joe and think we are crazy as we plod off the ice with sled in tow. And they might be right. But then again, they’ve likely never seen a whale whack a lure . . . or even better, the smile of a spouse over a pan-fried walleye, freshly drizzled with lemon, on a winter night.C.B. Bylander is outreach section chief for DNR Fish and Wildlife.

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