“A Hole in the Ice” is a short story I wrote before the pandemic started. I’m still ice fishing and in that time I’ve figured out some things. This season, I caught a lot of crappies out of Lake Nokomis that I filleted, fried and ate. It was a gratifying moment to see seven-year-old Theo reeling in his first fish—a nine-inch keeper–through a hole in the ice.
Life in the “City of Lakes” is full of contradictions. I accidentally drove by George Floyd Square on my way to buy minnows last month. Well, nothing looks good this time of year in a city, but the sight of it made me sad. Chicago Avenue had been reopened. I knew they reported that, but I wasn’t sure if this was true. There were concrete barricades set up in front of Cup Foods where he was murdered. I gazed at the pale, frozen flowers thinking Minneapolis could do better. But we don’t do better. We can’t get out of our own way.
The teachers are on strike here. If you are not from Minnesota, you probably don’t know about this situation. 28,700 kids are being denied a public education. This impasse is a violation of federal and state law. My boys sit at home while our state sits on a 9 billion dollar budget surplus. We wait . . . for it to get better and the next thing to go wrong.
For the last several winters I’ve thought about buying ice fishing gear but have never had the gumption to follow through. I put in some long hours in the Minnesota cold as a mailman, so staring at a hole in the ice has never seemed like an appealing way to spend my off day. Yet fishing has always filled a longing in my soul and a caught fish always provides that much needed feeling of redemption when life turns bleak. The temperatures this year have been unusually mild and this Christmas I finally did it. I gifted myself a hand auger made in Finland, a long-handled dipper for clearing the hole of ice fragments, a few tip-ups, three two-foot Fenwick rods, and a colorful assortment of teardrops and jigging spoons. The whole purchase totaled less than three hundred dollars, but, predictably, my parsimonious wife thought I had gone overboard.
“Do you really need special lures for ice fishing?” she asked as my sons excitedly inspected the merchandise. They were both on their knees around the Cabela’s box, our small living room littered with packaging and crumpled balls of wrapping paper. “Don’t you have spoons?”
“These are for jigging,” I responded tersely. “They’re different.”
She believes I have too many rods, too many lures, too many tackleboxes. Too many lures? Not possible. Admittedly, lures are designed to hook fishermen more than fish. The majority of the crankbaits in my tacklebox rarely, if ever, get used. But I could never get rid of them. They’re too beautiful and I love them too much. I stick to the classics, what I know works—the Mister Twisters, Mepps spinners, Little Cleo spoons, and Rapala minnows. I’ve been amassing quite a collection of oversized muskie lures—misshapen, googly-eyed beasts that are bigger than most of the fish I catch. My youngest son, Theo, used to “play lures” in the back seat of the car. He had his own tacklebox that he transported everywhere. No hooks, of course, just soft plastics in various shapes and sizes—squids, tubes, crayfish, minnows and worms. He would treat them like they were action figures, make them fight with each other and then cry about it when they got lost inevitably in the crevices of the backseat. He’s moved on to other things now, so I reclaimed the tacklebox.
It’s that very Plano tacklebox—small, suitcase-style with a lid on both sides—that we take to Lake Nokomis to christen the auger. Theo agrees to come which surprises me. It’s cold but not windy or below zero. This activity is not what you would formally call child abuse. A pair of brightly colored pop-op shelters have been set up to the left of the fishing dock which has been towed about fifty yards out into the lake. Maybe I’ll get one of those next year if I get serious about the hobby. I’m nervous stepping with them out onto the lake, although the ice seems solid enough. According to the newspapers, they’ve been having problems up north on all the big, resort lakes. It was warm early in the winter and then a foot of powdery snow insulated all that poorly formed ice from getting hard. Trucks have been falling through and getting stuck. The ice-fishing campers get frozen in the deep slush overnight and it takes half a day with blow torches to chip them out. Sounds awful. Locals claim the weather isn’t “natural.” Either it’s climate change or the weather being the weather.
Ice fishing used to be a guy in coveralls on a bucket, a few frozen perch at his feet. Now everyone has sonar and cameras, GPS to guide them to the exact right spot on the lake. It seems like cheating to me, not to mention expensive. I’ll stick to my bucket and pray to the gods of chance.
We set up to the right of the fishing dock where a departed someone has left behind a line of holes. I’m hopeful they knew what they were doing, but judging from the desperate number of holes drilled, I suspect they didn’t catch a damn thing. The holes have just begun to freeze over and I’m able to bust them out easily with my dipper. The ice on the lake is a comfortable 12 inches, solid and clear. I’m able to measure this exactly as the dipper comes with a ruler on the long handle. We won’t need the bundle of rope I neurotically brought along in the sled just in case. I thread Theo’s hook through a waxworm that I purchased earlier in the day from a pet store. The bait looks like a maggot—white and dead with small, brown legs that don’t move at all. Not something I would eat, but I’m not a bluegill.
Miles appeals to me to try out the auger. I tell him to have at it. It takes him a mere five minutes of cranking to get through the ice. I walk over and pat him on the back. Then he runs for the dipper to scoop out his fresh hole. We wait, staring at the holes together expectantly. Nothing happens, of course. Not even a nibble. Yet, Miles seems happy. He sits on a lawn chair with the stubby rod in his hand while Theo grumbles about it being boring and cold.
“We’ll go soon,” I assure him. “Just a little longer”
I can’t fault him or disagree. It’s an obviously hopeless endeavor. We can barely get the fish to bite in the summertime and the water under us must be extraordinarily cold.
“Next time we’ll bring minnows,” I tell my older son. “Catch some crappies. We got out, that’s the important thing.”
“The auger works,” he says with a smile.
I drill a hole myself and I’m through in ninety seconds. Nothing to it. The waxworms don’t seem to be attracting anything, so I’ve switched to a jigging Rapala in the slim hope I’ll catch a northern pike. We’re sitting over sixteen feet of water. I let it fall to the bottom and dance it around. I feel a bit of weight that isn’t a fish. I reel up and pull a willow branch out of the hole.
“Look guys! I caught a stick!”
The boys, unimpressed with this accomplishment, don’t even bother looking up.
“At least there’s a bit of cover down there,” I say to myself. After tossing the stick aside, I drop the perch-colored bait with hooks sprouting front, middle and back into the hole. “Are you guys getting cold?” I ask.
“My hands . . . a little,” Miles answers timidly.
I’m about to tell him to put on his gloves when I notice them on the ice.
“You can’t just lay them on the ice like that! They’ll get wet!”
Sure enough, the warm gloves have acted like a sponge and are sopping. I give him my second, more heavily insulated, pair that I was about to put on myself.
“Don’t ever do that again! You should have put them in your pocket or in the sled!” I pause, feeling I’m being too tough on him. “You have to stay dry out here or you can get into trouble. Clothing won’t keep you warm if its wet. It’s ok. This is our first time doing this, so we’re learning some things. Do you like it? I always tell you guys that you don’t have to come if it isn’t fun.”
“It would be nice if we caught something,” he says.
“I think you need minnows.”
“I liked using the auger.”
“Of course, you did.”
“Can I drill another hole?” he asks.
“Sure. It will warm you up.”
I watch him crank with an appreciative smile. I can always be proud of him, even when I’m feeling not all that proud of myself. He’s big for a nine-year-old, almost double digits, well on his way to becoming a teenager. The kids give up on fishing and start chasing each other around the snowy surface of the lake. I migrate stubbornly from one hole to another with my jigging lure. My fingers are freezing up and I’m having some line tangles. With the leaden horizon turning blue as the sun sets, I decide I’ve had enough It’s time to get home and cook supper.
“All right!” I shout. “It’s time to get the hell out of here!”
I stow our gear in the sled and the three of us head back toward the car. Meanwhile, our holes freeze over and forget us.