I remember looking up from my volume of Little House on the Prairie as a child and seeing my dad come back in from ice fishing. His face was red with cold. Sometimes he would have fish to clean and put in the freezer; other times he would cheerfully announce that he had been “skunked.”
He had left the comforts of our afghan-and-cocoa-filled house to do nothing but grow icicles out of his nose. I thought he was out of his mind. Why in the world would anyone, in an age where there are perfectly good fish sticks in the freezer section of the grocery store, want to go sit on a bucket in the freezing cold all day?
Cut to the winter of 2014. My then-fiancée and I are at a bonfire with a group of our friends when they inform us that they all are going on an ice-fishing expedition to Traverse City and that we should tag along. I have come a long way from the bookish ways of my childhood, but I am still wary of ice fishing. Fortunately, my fiancée says that we will go before I have time to raise objections. We go, and I have the time of my life. I catch the ice fishing bug, and it becomes something I look forward to when the weather starts to get chilly. So go refill your cocoa, then let me tell you why you should also give it a whirl.
Reason 1: You get to go outside in the winter.
You know those people who say they hate winter? How many of them like to do stuff outside in the winter? I really think that what people hate about winter is being cooped up for three months out of the year (or, if you live in Michigan, six months out of the year). I know it sounds like a lot of effort, but once you’re out breathing that fresh air and watching the snow sparkle across the lake, you’ll get it. Just make sure you wear the right clothes so the cold doesn’t get in the way of your enjoyment. My guideline: pretend you’re in elementary school and you’re going out for recess. This means boots, snow pants, coat, hat, mittens, scarf, the whole nine yards.
Reason 2: You spend time with family and friends.
“But, Lynette,” you are about to say, “I can do that inside!” Yes, you can, but how much will you actually talk to these people when all you’re doing is sitting on the couch and watching Elf? Setting up an ice fishing site takes teamwork. Plus, once you’re settled and you’re watching the lines, you will be forced to speak to the person or people you are alone with on a frozen lake. This is why I argue that ice fishing makes the perfect date night.
Reason 3: It’s an inexpensive way to have fun.
Visit any fishing outfitter and you’ll find a ton of ice fishing gear. The truth is, you don’t really need much of it. Ice fishing poles are relatively simple and inexpensive. You can get a cheap rod-and-reel combo for $15 and it will work fine. Lures are also fairly cheap: get an assortment so you can find out what works best in your spot. There are special “ice ladles” that are sold for scooping ice chunks out of your hole. These are no different from the slotted spoon that is most likely in your kitchen drawer as we speak. Just bring the slotted spoon. Beyond this, you really only need buckets to sit on and an auger to drill a hole in the ice. Manual augers are cheaper and are a great option if you have someone in your group who is strong enough to operate one. If you don’t, you might have to shell out for an electric auger. This will make you the most popular person on the ice because everyone will want to borrow it. Top secret information: You don’t even actually need an auger. My husband and I forgot to sharpen ours once and we just chopped a hole in the ice with an axe.
Reason Four: You see wildlife that you otherwise would not.
While winter may not come to mind as an ideal time for wildlife observation, it provides some truly special opportunities. When I go ice fishing at my favorite spot, the blanket of snow around me is like a page from a storybook. It is covered with tracks that tell who has been there and what they did. I see vole tunnels snaking across corners of the lake. Deer tracks show me where the best spots are for making one’s way from one side of the lake to the other. I spot lodges of mud and cattail where I know that muskrat families are waiting out the cold weather. If I stay out until dark, I am more than likely to hear the call of a barred owl coming out to search for mice. While all of these encounters are technically possible during a winter hike, I am much more likely to take note of them when I am still and observant.
Reason Five: If you’re lucky, you get dinner out of it!
Come home with a stringer full of bluegill or perch and you’ve got yourself a feast. Last winter, my husband and I had several ice fishing outings with friends that were immediately followed by a fish fry at our house. You can find some great instructional fileting videos on Youtube. We like to coat our fish with a mixture of flour, salt, pepper, and paprika, and then fry it in a pan with olive oil and hot sauce. Just make sure that you have a backup plan like pizza or hotdogs in case the fish aren’t biting…
I have pursued ice fishing through all kinds of conditions. These have included snow, wind, bitterly cold temperatures, and my pregnancy last year. Seriously, I was lugging myself out onto the ice when I was 8 months pregnant! Although I felt a bit like a walrus, it was totally worth it. That should tell you something. I have gone with my husband, my dad, friends, and even my two-year-old nephew (who surprised us all by having a fantastic time). It’s a part of my life, a rich tradition that has made me tougher, braver, and more alive. So, I dare you. Put on your snow pants. Get a fishing license. Find some ice that’s at least 4 inches thick and pull some fish through it. Before you know it, you’ll love it as much as I do.
Lynette Schinke is a writer and proud mama who lives with her husband and daughter in Ortonville, Michigan. She loves hunting, fishing, hiking, camping, backpacking, and anything else that gives her an excuse to be in the woods.