When I was a little kid in Newfoundland, Canada, I followed dad on the adventures he thought we should go on – adventures to far off places and strange country that I now know were neither far off nor all that strange. We went up and down streams for mud trout, drove down to the bay for tom cod or just pulled pillow-case nets through tide pools for stranded sea life that needed closer examination.
Then one winter day, we found ourselves beside the road, pulling the toboggan, home-made jiggers and an ice auger out of the trunk. We waded down to the pond through snow as deep as I was tall and dad went ahead with the shovel to clear a patch for a hole. I helped by removing the blade cover from the auger which resulted in a deep razor slice across two fingers. Dad wrapped the wound in cloth and I lay on the toboggan waiting for death to take me. This was the beginning of my love of ice fishing.
Time passed, I got a little taller and I found myself looking out across a wintry Wood Pond near our new home in Jackman, Maine. Here’s how this scene makes its appearance in my book, The Dying Fish:
December finds the mountains of western Maine covered deeply in their perennial snow blanket and finds hundreds of lake surfaces newly hardened. Each morning sunlight spreads slowly through the valleys and across the frozen lakes accenting the pervasive bluish cast. The cold can be seen almost as acutely as it is felt. If you were there, and almost no one is, the silence would be complete aside from the occasional loud snap of a maple or poplar freezing or the percussion of growing ice. A full day on one of these lakes would include intermittent wind building through the day and changing light as the sun completes its arc westward. A small herd of hearty mountain deer might cross the lake at some point. Around the lake’s perimeter a snowshoe hare might relocate to evade a fox, but you’d never see the hare. In late evening the wind dies as an occidental sun falls from sight and the stark black and white of the afternoon gives way to a sparkling and textured snowscape beneath a salmon western sky. For hours now the darkness will remain complete. It might happen at about midnight but sometime, and in silence, a single cloud-like wisp of light might be seen moving, undulating, across the myriad stars above. And then the full aurora breaks in waves of light, curtains spreading, rippling past and dissipating near the horizon. Like the vernal mayfly lofting skyward to finish life in a brief wind-inspired dance, this light show is ephemeral; marvel at it while you may, it won’t be seen again. If you were there to see it.
Into this idyllic setting trudged a snowsuit clad boy of twelve, homemade box sled in tow. I was learning to ice-fish solo, trying to find where the trout were in the winter and struggling to make holes through three feet of ice with a long chisel. It challenged me mentally and physically. I was a scrawny kid, just unusually passionate about discovery and wild places and swimming creatures. Standing on the edge of Wood Pond and panning across the cold expanse, I felt invigorated; not because I was certain the lake would give me a fish today but because all before me was mine to explore, mine to make the best of and, if I caught a fish today as sometimes happened, it was because of my choices: where to put a hole, what time to fish it and which lure or bait to drop into the black depths. Those things were within my control. The playing field was always fair and never fair. Not at all in my hands were the wild winds that might suddenly rush in from Quebec stranding me in a white-out, the movements of the brook trout below my boots or the cycle of daylight and darkness. This wasn’t like at school. I was all that limited me here. If I couldn’t walk to the other side of the island then I couldn’t fish there. And to twelve-year-old me, that left a feeling that, with determination, the whole snowy world was within my reach—I just had to figure out how.
These days I don’t strive to recruit friends into ice-fishing (aside from you, Nigel). Ice-fishing is, in the truest sense, my passion. It’s followed me here from childhood – from Newfoundland and Maine.
It’s in my blood and I can’t, by any transfusion, expect to implant the longing for lonely white expanses into others. I can offer advice on location, technique and the fish themselves but the passion for hard water is visceral – a part of me.