I keep a pair of binoculars on my desk by the bay window, mainly to keep an eye on the ice fishermen, a half mile out on Sunset Bay.  They’re a quirky lot, these men who huddle over holes in the ice, freezing in the chill of wind waiting, hoping, praying for a plastic stick to dip.  They’re not the smartest breed on the face of the lake and I would know … I used to be an ice fisherman.

When I first moved to the north shore of Lake Erie, I had this romantic notion of joining the boys of winter on a frosty February afternoon and returning home in time for a supper of fresh-caught yellow perch.

To be an ice fisherman, you need an auger, which is a five-foot long ice drill — the kind of instrument you imagine the dentist will whip out after he grins and says the words “root canal.”  You need a strainer to remove floating ice from the hole you drill with the auger.  You need hooks and spreaders, tip-ups and tiny poles, a bait bucket with a minnow net and above all — bobbers.

Bobbers are small, red and white plastic floats that clip on the top of your line, suspend your baited hook off the lake floor and, most importantly, when the fish bites at the bottom, the bobber bobs atop your little hole in the ice.  A bobber, to an ice fisherman, is like a puck is to a hockey player, a stone to a curler, a joint to a stoner.

Ice fishermen spend hours a day standing stupefied and staring into a dark hole watching red and white bobbers not bob.  I quickly discovered that if you jump up and down real hard right next to the hole, you can make the bobber bob, but after a while, the excitement just isn’t the same as a real bite.

When a fish does bite and the bobber does bob, you instinctively yank the line to set the hook, then haul the line in, hand over hand, until you hoist that perch out of the hole and onto the ice’s surface.  This I’m sure of, because I have seen others do it many, many times.

Besides watching my bobber not bob and the hole freeze over every 15 minutes, I mastered yet another technique of ice fishing – lying to other fishermen about your catch.  “I already ate them” is a tough one to swallow.  “No, no … true sportsmen … catch and release is my game.”  “I’ve been robbed” never ever worked.

Some fisherman erect ice fishing huts out there, for protection.  Really?  The one I was in had three holes, a kerosene heater, a food basket, lawn chairs, a battery-operated television set with the ball game blaring.  These are not ice fishing huts, these are halfway houses for wayward husbands.  Show me three guys whooping it up in an ice fishing hut here on Sunset Bay and I’ll show you three Wainfleet wives storming around the house complaining that the garbage never gets taken out.

So ice fishing is like that — a little beer, no bites, more beer, bobbers not bobbing, rebait the hooks, “A beer?  Yes, and thanks for asking,” and staring into dark holes, freezing your cheeks, knowing you can never pull a toque down that far on your body.  Talk about nothing happening at a snail’s pace – it’s like watching government workers on valium.  Ice fishing is a sport the way snoring is opera.

Now, near spring when an off-shore wind whips up, Miller Time turns to search and rescue and fishermen get to see their tax dollars in action as the Canadian Armed Forces helicopter swoops down from Trenton to pluck them from their island of ice, now approaching Dunkirk, New York.

On the day the copter hovered above a guy from Welland who was attempting to mount the rope ladder while still holding on to his auger:  “No equipment,” came the order from above.  “Get on the ladder!”

Again he tried to climb up, the auger in his hand.  “No equipment!  Leave the auger!” bellowed the officer with the bullhorn.

That’s when the guy waved the helicopter away and yelled:  “You might as well leave me here.  It’s my brother-in-law’s auger and if I don’t bring it back, he’s gonna kill me anyway!”  After they stopped laughing, the boys in uniform hoisted him aboard, auger and all.

At some point — oh yeah, it was the day I was standing at my kitchen door with frost bite and a few fish slightly larger than the bait I used to catch them, scraping dead minnows off the bottom of my boots and trying to staunch the bleeding after removing a non-twist beer cap with my bare hand— I gave up ice fishing for good.

It took about three years to figure out that I could phone for a great perch fry from Minor Fisheries in Port and have a beer at The Belmont while waiting for my order.  And that’s why I still like to pick up the binoculars and keep a close eye on those guys.  They make me very, very nervous.


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