(To do a “Full Reid” means to greet the creek with your face. Read on.)
Okay, there are folks who enjoy fishing in the middle of winter. Some are called “ice fishermen,” others “steelheaders.” I use the collective noun; insane masochists.
I’ve been ice fishing before. I was the third man in a two-holer ice tent. If you’ve never seen one, imagine a nylon-fabric porta-potty on the middle of a frozen lake, all surrounded by little flags stolen from a Smurf golf course. At least, that’s what it looks like. Some of these tents and shacks are very fancy, with solid sides, sofas, TV and hot and cold running maniacs. More on that.
It was Nebraska in late January. I was invited to join Henry and John to fish. As a fly fisherman, I show up with my fly rod and a chainsaw. I figure I can cut a long, keyhole shape in the ice and get two or three casts before the guides freeze up.
The guys invite me into their tent. My 8’6″ five weight won’t fit, so I leave it at the door. I keep the chainsaw, noting the crazed look in the eyes of these erstwhile “friends.” Self defense, don’cha know.
The interior is sparse. Two upturned 5 gallon buckets in a line with a kerosene space heater in the middle. They are facing two holes in the ice. Two fishing rods that have been taken away from their mothers too soon sit on little stands; the lines go into the water.
I need a hole. Hmm, never had cause to utter that sentence before. I mention this to Henry, he steps outside the tent and brings in “the drill.” This isn’t your standard Black & Decker. The drill has a 2 horsepower gas motor on the top, handles designed for hands wearing boxing gloves and a 9 inch bit. Not 9 inch long, but 9 inches across. This is the WMD evidence that we were looking for in Iraq.
John pushes things back and Henry pulls the rip cord, the tent fills with smoke and noise. Okay, we got your basic shock and awe going here. I’m shocked that the thing will start in the minus fifty degree temps and awe gonna get out before I’m overcome by carbon monoxide.
Henry centers the bit between the other two holes, pushes a lever and poof! We have a three-holer. 14 inches down and he’s into the lake. He takes the drill outside and then starts to explain the technique.
“Okay, those holes outside are John’s and mine. You fish out of your hole here. We don’t have the gear to set you up outside.”
“Those are more fishing holes?” (I thought the local CSI had been out here tagging evidence from some bizarre Inuit gang war.) “How do you get the fish in? You’ve got no fishing poles.”
“Well, the flags are tip ups. When the flag goes up, we run out and pull up the line. Right now, we have them set for bigger, cruising fish. We don’t want to catch tiddlers.”
“You catch tiddlers on your tip-ups?”
“No, we don’t want to catch tiddlers on the tip-ups. That’s why we use a flasher.”
“Okay”, I think, these guys are suffering frostbite between the earmuffs. I warily eye my two tentmates in their knee-length parkas, as I slowly move to the back corner of the tent.
“You flash the fish?”
“Yes, we put the probe down the hole and we can see the fish with the flasher.”
“You put the probe down the hole so you can see the fish with the flasher and not catch tiddlers with the tip-ups.”
“Okay, I think I’ve got it.” What I’ve got, I’ve no clue. “What do you use for bait?”
“Those look like maggots.”
“No, no. They’re totally different.”
“Well, they don’t seem to have much action.”
“You have to warm them up.”
“How do you warm them up?” I ask.
“Just pop a few in your mouth and hold ’em in your cheek.” He then raises his mitten to his mouth and coughs up four wriggling worms into his palm.
“I think I’m gonna spew!”
“Don’t worry about it. They’re wax worms. Perfectly clean.”
“You’re sure about this?”
“Of course, been doing it for years. Since I’ve started warming up my bait, I’ve trebled the amount of fish caught.”
John is besides me nodding seriously. He opens up a little cardboard can and shakes a tablespoon full of chilled, flesh colored rice krispies into my glove. I summon up my courage and pop them into my mouth.
“Mmbule, mrammblu bebeme nbm mammods?”
I move the wax worms around with my tongue playing sheepdog and finally herd the suckers into my cheek. I said, “what’s the difference between wax worms and maggots? You said they were totally different.” The wax worms are starting to wake up and one escapes out the corner of my mouth, plopping onto the ice and squirming away.
“Marketing. No one in the US would buy maggots so they changed the name to wax worms.”
John takes the pepper shot full in the face. He now looks like a genetically altered Medusa with maggots instead of snakes. None the less, they are both laughing hysterically.
This is the ice fishing initiation. Henry just had a few “wax worms” in his palm to keep them warm. With a bit of slight of hand, just spit into the mitten and voila, there they were.
I, on the other hand, am not laughing. I still have one little bugger caught behind a crown and a second is heading for my sinuses. Now I know where they got the idea for so many movies along the line of Alien. That sucker nested up there. Finally hatched out during a big presentation I was giving at work.
Time to get down to fishing. John hands me a spare rod. It’s about 18 inches long with a little bitty reel attached. I remove my gloves to bait the hook, picking a couple of live ones out of John’s hair line.
Since there is no room up front, I lean over the space heater and finally set up on my hole. Plunk, in the water with a bobber the size of a kidney bean. Hey, this isn’t so bad. A couple of “friends,” we’re fishing and chatting away. Even after my appetizer, I’m starting to get hungry. As a matter of fact, I smell something cooking. Doesn’t smell very good. More like burning plastic bags. Smoke curls up around my face. John looks over and casually comments, “fire.”
“You’re on fire.”
I look down, and my parka is up against the space heater. Flames are licking up from my groin to my chest. I calmly assess the situation. Ah, yes. Stop, drop and role. I remember that from kindergarten. Unfortunately, there is no room in the tent for this maneuver. I believe its time to quietly exit the facility and find a snow bank.
Translate: The scream that I emit draws sharks in from the South Pacific and sets off car alarms for a 50 mile radius. Many Nebraskans head to their tornado shelters. I throw the rod and reel, which takes the path of least resistance and drops straight down through the hole in the ice. I proceed to beat myself across the stomach and chest whilst doing a great impression of the Tasmanian Devil in a confined space. I finally head for the exit.
I hit the door doing about Mach 10. The Velcro closure decides to hold fast. I, and now the whole tent with me, am now moving across the windswept lake. The tent finally catches on its two other occupants. It molds around them like a second skin. They don’t move, John thinks he has a nibble. The Velcro gives and I burst through the door.
As I exit, I figure out that the flames were oxygen starved in the tent. I know this, because as soon as I hit the outside air, I turn into a human comet, a flaming blue head trailed by a stream of grey smoke. I head for the nearest snow bank and discover the true meaning of windswept. Ain’t no snow banks for hundreds of yards around.
Kids are playing hockey. I head out, head down and hip check a ten-year-old into Kansas. I enter the flagged minefield of Henry and John’s tip-ups. Slaloming through, I manage to snag every one of them with my mukluks. I look like a Wisconsin limousine kitted out for a wedding. One tip-up is attached to a state-record walleye that flies through the air, flash freezes, shoots across the lake, and trips a figure skater who does the first ever quadruple Lutz. Unfortunately, she lands in one of John’s ice holes and is never seen again.
I finally dive for the ice, rolling and spinning in inaugural Winter X-Games break dance competition. The officials hold up their signs, 2, 1.5, 2 and a 0.5 from the French judge.
The flames out, I look back and Henry and John haven’t moved. The tent site looks like a plane crash debris field. My 5 weight is broken and forms a cross over the hole that the skater disappeared through. John raises his rod and brings up a 6″ yellow perch.
I think I’ll stick to fly fishing and class V rapids, it’s safer.