By Calvin McShane
We sat on 5-gallon buckets, endlessly lifting our rods up and down, jigging for whitefish we hoped liked the rhythmic movement of boiled salmon eggs in 60 feet of water. My fishing partner, who was in his 60s and had fished our current location for more years than I was alive, was chatting about his fondness for arctic regions and his desire to see Lake Baikal before he died. As he said, “You know the whitefish fishing must be excellent, it’s not like they’ve ever seen a damn jig in their life.” I was thinking about how badly my fingers and toes hurt, as well as that I had zero affection for anything cold at the moment. His disposition proved to be the ticket that day. The evidence was his assorted harvest of splake, whitefish and yellow perch compared to my meager haul of a few splake that my friend deemed easy to catch.
Our conversations that day took place about 1000 yards off the shores of Lake Superior on one of the few windswept, exposed patches of ice in the area. The air temperature was a bit above 0 degrees and the wind was blowing so hard its direction was meaningless. Midwinter ice fishing is definitely something I want to be doing; but at the same time, it is the last thing I want to be doing. I ice fish for a couple valid reasons: fresh whitefish, good company and the fact that there is nothing else better to do. The fishing can be good — well I should say good enough, with an emphasis on patience and a penchant for sitting in one spot for long periods of time. When the action dies down for over an hour I am usually on the brink of a mental breakdown. But the death-defying act of getting set up is enough deterrent to stick out the lulls in hopes for a good nighttime burbot bite.
The scene is quite grim on the bays and river mouths of the Big Lake. Daylight is short, and whether you watch the sunrise or sunset, you’re going to spend some time in darkness, with only the faded orange industrial lights of far off towns glimmering in the background. The water is vast. Depth and contour are easy to find — so much so it continuously begs the question “where to now?” I don’t like to sit still, at least when I am fishing. I am always sure to get my fair share of winter lounging in, whether with a good book in front of the wood stove or covered in potato chip crumbs snoring on the couch, so when I’m out on the ice I’m antsy. It is always when I am stacking up half-cocked, nonsensical fishing theories when, overwhelmed with anxiousness, I step outside the ice house to stretch my legs. There I am reminded again of Lake Superior’s dominance, thinking “where did we park? Where the hell is the shoreline? Which way is north?” Back to patience and old war stories told on 5-gallon buckets.
Where do I fish on Lake Superior? Wherever there is safe ice. What kind of water are we fishing? Sometimes deep, other times shallow. Sometimes we move frantically to find active fish, and other times we bunker up in one spot, shoveling piles of snow around the ice house for added insulation, dead set on making the best of what we can right where we are. The program is usually to target whitefish and splake during the day with jigging spoons tipped with boiled steelhead eggs. Once dark sets in, we switch over to eelpout. Never heard of eelpout? What about burbot? Lingcod? Lawyers? If not, that’s okay, I didn’t want you to know about them anyway.
In the cover of darkness, we wait for the burbot to move to shallower water to feed, intercepting them with big intrusive glow spoons tipped with cut bait. Aggressively pounding bottom and making as much noise and racket along the bottom is your best bet. For appearing to be a generally laid back fish, they sure don’t like a lot of ruckus interrupting their nighttime swim about. And if you’ve never eaten a burbot, don’t bother. They taste like all the other fish keen anglers horde to themselves. And lastly, under the guidance of fishermen better than I, I have caught a few cohos under the ice from time to time. When I did, I was set up near a river mouth and focused on the top half of the water column with an assortment of jigs and spoons. You have my word, as a fisherman who prides himself on a shallow understanding of honesty and keeps a secret like his life depends on it, that this is really all I know.
I think ice fishing is too often thought of as a beer drinking venture — just another excuse for a bunch of people to get together and goof around. I won’t say that this isn’t some portion of what’s involved, but ice fishing is hardly an activity meant for those looking to blow off some steam, especially here in God’s country. Ice fishing is for the grizzled. It draws in unshaven men dressed in hand-me-down wool that have been carved out of blocks of ice. For every 10 fishermen sitting on a boat, under warm sunlight, beer in hand, half-assedly watching their bobber, there is one fisherman pulling a sled full of gear into a headwind through knee deep snow. I am lucky enough to have met some great people who make ice fishing their expertise and their time-tested lessons on location, technique and persistence are sadly glossed over in an age where numbers and popularity have more to say in the outdoor community.
Even though ice fishing is far from my expertise, it is among the many outdoor activities wherein my interest exceeds my execution. My younger cohorts usually have Vexilars, depth finders and enough hi-tech gear that their final setup rivals the tech room at Google. The sophistication is beyond me, and it doesn’t take long for them to tell me to stop asking questions and that I really do not need to know everything. To escape feeling totally stupid, I prefer to wiggle my way into the shanties of the older gentleman whose techniques are less refined. Their tactics, much more simple, lean on tradition and endurance over technology — plus, their setups are usually way more comfortable, with years of trial and error behind their woodstove and shanty rigs.
Part of the allure of Lake Superior ice fishing is doing something most deem as crazy and dangerous. Onlookers will say, “You do all of that for those little fish?”
Meanwhile, those who take to the hard water eagerly admit we have done a lot more for far less. We are the guys whose hands are empty more often than our pails are full. We seek the arduous task of conquering ice and snow and it inches toward cause for concern for loved ones. It is not fun heading out and getting set up. During the trip, it can be boring and unfruitful. And finally, packing off the lake is more of a mad dash against frostbite than anything else. But oddly enough hours later, sitting in a truck with the heat cranked all the way up and the feeling in your toes just starting to come back, you look around at your buds and say, “Man, that was a lot of fun.”
Ice and snow offer no reprieve for survival, their unending vicious north winds make the simple task of breathing a calculated measure. Think braving the jungle is tough? Come try Lake Superior’s south shore come February and you’ll see an unforgiving landscape that doesn’t care if you make it or not. Once conquered, shanties set up and heater blaring, its the satisfaction of conquering something bigger than you that sets in. Punching a few holes and jigging up whitefish is just an excuse to test our toughness as humans and escape the doldrums of winter for a little while. All we ask is that our loved ones look past the reddened, frostbitten cheeks and have the deep fryer heating up when we come home.
I wouldn’t say I love to ice fish, but at certain times of the year, it’s really the only fishing to be had so I make due. Many times, I am just the guy tagging along annoyingly suggesting changes in tacts without any forethinking or knowledge on the subject matter. My excitement for ice fishing comes from my obsession for the magnitude of Lake Superior and the contrast of perpetual openness to the heavily forested landscape of the inner UP.
Endless expanses of white stretch for what seems to be the ends of the earth. The ice beneath my feet, fed by a steady diet of unsharpened auger blades, provides a rooftop to the unknown black abyss, a riveting dichotomy to the air above. Probing the depths in 8-inch cylinders, we pimple snow drifts and ice sheets, patterning an otherwise patternless world. I’ve never been to Siberia, but I imagine it can look a lot like the south shore mid-winter. The reasons for braving such horrid conditions are reasons anchored in relativity: Relative to the warmth and comfort of the woodstove. But ultimately, relative to the boredom and anxiousness of cabin fever, ice fishing the big lake is a damn good excuse to get together with friends, catch a few fish for the pan, tell old stories and run back home to the warmth of the woodstove.