Saturday, February 5, 2011


photo courtesy Corby Walsh

 I've only fallen through once, on a small lake north of here.  We had gone out ice fishing, three friends and me.  We didn't have snow machines, and had trudged a mile and a half to the far side of the lake to where we thought we could find some jumbo bluegills.  We managed to catch a few that day.  While it was only late December, quite early here in the ice fishing season, we had drilled a couple of holes to check the thickness and quality of the ice, to find that there was a good twenty inches- normally enough to drive a pickup on.  I'm a hole puncher, I get bored watching a rod do nothing, and so was walking around keeping myself occupied, when suddenly, the ice gave way.  I'm not sure how I had the presence of mind, but I managed to lunge forward instead of straight down and only got one leg wet.  We fished for another hour after that, but I had to walk that mile and a half back, with the clothing on my left leg freezing solid, swinging my leg because it didn't want to bend.  Other friends of mine have gone all the way in- the one saved himself only because he held on to the rope of his sled, and had attached a couple of short screwdrivers or awls to his coat which he was then able to stab into the ice edge and pull himself up.  I can't imagine those awful moments- the terrible shock of the cold, like being hit by a sledgehammer, the terror of staring up at the green bottom of the ice, the struggle to haul yourself back out as your muscles begin to instantly stiffen, the ghastly frigid walk back to shore, fumbling with your keys at your vehicle with fingers that no longer want to work, desperately trying to get the doors open, the truck started, the engine warm enough to get some heat.

Storm on Little Traverse Bay
My friend Terrance has some of the worst ice fishing tales I've ever heard.  He used to fish Sturgeon Bay, back when it was justifiably famous for limit catches of jumbo perch-a distant memory, by the way.  You could catch some fish near shore, but the best fishing was five to six miles out into Lake Michigan, near the pressure cracks.  He would ride his three wheeler out there and load up on perch that were 15 to 18 inches long.  His tales are of the cold and wind, whiteouts on the ice, weird mirages reflecting off-shore islands in mirror image, fog so thick they had to navigate by sound, getting home by dead reckoning, his three wheeler spinning crazily across the wind scoured ice when he would burst through the drifts, hands numb from cold, frostbit from having to keep a thumb on the throttle.  He talks of motoring all the way to the edge of open water where the bite was best, out to the outer edge of the islands.  How in spring the surface ice and snow would melt, turning the ice road into a river of water, and finding a hole or crack, the water would eat away at the ice until it would become open whirlpools four feet across.  They called them the Black Holes.  He told me about the day that the wind shifted to out of the east- lake ward.  They hadn't felt it yet, but even the slightest draft pushes on the ice like a giant sail.  The first sign of trouble, he says, was that their lines no longer pointed straight down the hole, but back toward shore.  Everyone started shouting at once, pulling lines and tossing gear onto their machines.  He yelled at two men fishing nearby who were still busily pulling jumbos out of the water, but they ignored him.  Terry then had an hour long, white-knuckle race to shore, first finding the separation crack, and, seeing blue water between him and shore, speeding parallel to it until he found a place to cross.  Those other two men weren't so lucky- the Coast Guard had to fly out and rescue them.  They only rescue people, not gear or machines, and they lost everything but what mattered- their lives.
Terrance is a bit of a practical joker- I won't even tell you what he did last week to the visiting nurse.  (It involves a urine sample and coffee). One year, some clients hit him up to get them in on that jumbo perch action on Sturgeon Bay.  He had a jeep then, and when he got a little ways off shore he stopped, took the doors off and then proceeded to put on a life preserver.  They asked him "Do you really think that would save you if we went through the ice?"
"No" he replied, "I just want them to be able to find my body so my wife can collect the life insurance."

some first ice jumbos

First and last ice are the most tempting, as the fishing can be almost feverish at those times.  I'm never the first one out- I like to see activity for at least a week before I'll go.  Seeing snowmobiles out there is reassuring.  Last ice can be even more problematic- how long do you push it?  In April here, the ice can be 20 inches thick, but needled up and punky.  It firms up at night when temps dip below freezing.  Ice that was solid at sunrise can quickly become hazardous by 10 a.m. On the Big Water the stakes are even higher- ice that stretches to the horizon can blow out in a day, leaving nothing but a few bobbing floes to remind you.  Terrance had this happen to him once- he was fishing Little Traverse Bay near Harbor Springs with a realtor friend (yes, realtors are people too) in April, when the wind came up and the ice started breaking up all around them. It was another frantic race to shore, jumping from floe to floe; by the next day the bay was nothing but open water.

My memories of ice in Michigan are not so much of danger and drama, but of beauty.  I used to visit my mother when she lived in Elk Rapids, at the north end of Grand Traverse Bay.  Winter gales with waves up to 25 feet had pushed the ice on shore, piling it 20 feet or higher.  Subsequent wave action and freezing sculpts sea caves big enough to walk into, some complete with blowholes, just like the ones in Hawaii.  Once the storms subside the lake will freeze solid, allowing safe inspection.  Waves, cold, and windblown rime conspire together like some demented sculptor, leaving goblinesque statuary, crenellated towers, and icicles that defy gravity, growing sideways, guarding the entrances to these caves.

I’ve spent quite a bit of time on the ice over the years.  Spearing pike through the ice is a popular- and legal, winter pastime for many.  It is actually more interesting and challenging than it sounds.  You have to black out your shanty entirely.  You have a hole the size of a big-screen TV, the light coming through the surrounding ice making it look like you’re watching, well, TV.  Schools of fish parade by, bugs you never knew existed twitch their way across the hole, foot-long salamanders crawl through on the bottom.  You lower a wooden decoy on a string and twitch it occasionally to attract the pike.  You can watch it for hours waiting for something to happen.  It’s all very sudden- they’ll streak right in and grab the decoy, shaking it savagely, other times they slide in right up to the decoy and inspect it, or cruise right through and keep going.  Most often they just materialize, a large menacing head in the corner of the hole.  Carefully you lower the entire head of your spear into the water- it only takes a quick flick of the wrist to connect, but if the spearhead makes the slightest bubble or splash their lateral line will sense it and they will always, ALWAYS, dodge your throw. 

Breakwall in Petoskey, Winter '07

 My favorite form of ice fishing is for whitefish on Little Traverse Bay off of the break wall in Petoskey.  Great Lakes whitefish are a local delicacy served at the best restaurants; delicious fried, baked, broiled, poached or smoked.  They grow to 14 pounds, but average 1 ½ to 6 pounds.  They typically stay in deep water- we’re fishing a hole that is 90 to 110 feet deep.  They have tiny sensitive mouths and large eyes that see everything.  This means that you need light fluorocarbon tippet, not more than four pound test.  While not blazingly fast, they are extremely strong and long-winded; between the light line and their papery mouths you can’t horse them in.  I’ve had battles go on for 45 minutes, and have lost most of those.  You’ll get a large fish almost in only to have them make a run and peel off more line than you’ve started with. 

But the fishing is never the point- it’s the drama.  Sometimes the bay will freeze, only to be pummeled by wave action and ground into slush which in some years is 12 to 18 feet thick; it can take 2 hours or more to clear a hole.  A lot of your fish become lodged in the slush and are lost.  Other years, the bay has frozen up solid only to have it broken, windrowed by the storms and refrozen.  Slabs of this ice freeze in place vertically and through your hole you can see broken shards of it extending 20 feet down in the clear water, like icebergs.  My first winter out there, a couple of abnormally calm and cold weeks produced extremely clear ice 24 inches thick.  It buckled in places, but wouldn’t break.  We then experienced a freak warm spell that dumped large amounts of rain on top, and it puddled in the low spots.  During the day the ice was eerily clear, the closest I will ever come to actually walking on water.  At night it was a horror, the ice being invisible under the layer of water, the puddles ankle deep over ice crystalline in its clarity.  Walking off at midnight, I had to remind myself constantly that I was treading on over 20 inches of solid ice, hard as stone, and not stepping into open water.

Ice also “sings” and nowhere does it belt out a chorus better than on the bay.  Deep water must make for great acoustics.   Think of the ice as a giant diaphragm, or a drumhead.  It flexes with wind and barometric pressure changes, and in the process, it cracks and creaks and groans like an old wooden ship.  On clear, calm nights when the barometric pressure changes it sings with a metallic whine; if you’ve ever heard someone tapping on the far end of a piece of sheet metal, metal pipe or culvert, you know what this sounds like.  Whitefish bite best at night, and for years I’ve worked all day and then driven straight to the bay to fish until midnight or 1 a.m.  There is typically a sundown bite, then a lull, then a bite that seems to come in building waves. Speaking of waves, one of the most alarming events I've experienced out there was a seiche- a barometric low preceding a storm that produces a bulge in the lake and, subsequently, waves.  I was having an outstanding night, catching fish after fish.  The weather was calm, but suddenly the ice began to heave violently, and continued to do so for about fifteen minutes.  Water gushed 15 inches high in and out of the holes, flooding my portable shelter, soaking my clothes.  I was too afraid to leave, and when I did step out, one of my rods jerked down the hole.  I did what any reasonable person would do- I reeled in the fish, and then reeled in several more, riding the ice like a bucking bronco.  It ended just as suddenly as it began, and so did the bite.

the whitefish hole in a slush year

Recent years have been too warm- I don’t expect that the bay will freeze up enough to fish for my beloved whitefish this winter.  There has been an alarming upward trend of deaths on the ice- lakes that freeze up later and later, and anglers both novice and experienced, who lose their lives going out on ice that in years past would have been solid.  At least one vehicle has sunk to the bottom of Burt Lake this year.  My father told me that once, while finishing work at a house on Little Traverse Bay, he happened to look out on the ice and see a snowmobile idling on the ice off shore, next to a hole.  The locals knew that the ice had just formed that week and was thin, fragile.  A light coat of snow made the surface look like any other lake or field in the area.  He was from downstate and the body was not found until spring.  On a lighter note, another one of Terrance’s Tales O’ Sturgeon Bay is about a man who tried to drive out despite warnings that the shore ice was no good.  His truck went through the ice about 60 yards off shore in water that came up to the level of his seat.  Soaking wet and cold, he somehow got a wrecker to come out; they then had to bring in a back-hoe to break up the ice around the truck.  The wrecker winched it out all right, and in the process managed to destroy every body panel, the exhaust, the suspension.  Terry says the man then got his key out as if he was going to start it up and drive off, but a wave of water poured out once he opened the door.  Cautionary, is it not.
I don’t ice fish much anymore.  Like I said, I don’t think the bay will freeze enough to fish. I don’t enjoy sitting on the inland lakes when I know the fishing is slow.  Fly fishing has consumed my attention outdoors:  I tie most of my own flies now, so if the weather is bad, I tie and dream of the coming steelhead runs, or things that go bump in the night.  If the weather is good I’ll go out after winter steelhead on any stream open enough to allow it.  I still try to get out and experience the ice from time to time, even if it’s just to go for a walk after dark on the local lake, the sky lit up by the ski resorts and the Aurora borealis.  I’ll follow the coyote tracks until I’m tired and cold and then head home.

Sturgeon Bay, early spring.  Photo courtesy  Corby Walsh


  1. I had to put on three layers of clothes just to read this! Good job!

  2. Thanks Cofisher! Just trying to give people a glimpse into life up north. FR

  3. thanks for the tall glass of ICED tea~

  4. That was a hell of a post. A great, refreshing distraction. The last sentence wrapped it up perfectly too.

  5. @Koz- anything I can do to help alleviate this heat.

    @fishingpoet- thank you, I love your work, so thank you.

  6. Very well done.