Snow and ice covered the earth in a crystalline glaze. Thick fog poured in like chowder. Impossibly horizonless, it was a world cloaked in white—every sense grasping for reassurance that this place adhered to the laws of the nature. Dragging sleds full of gear up and over the rim of the lake, three of us, the only punctuation on an otherwise spotless page, marched a half mile offshore. The perfect flatness of the ice sheet underfoot was the only way to know we’d left solid ground and now walked on water.
The freshly carved ruts left by snow machines made the early going smooth. We followed them blindly, the way packhorses do along trails in unfamiliar forests. Searching for adequate depth gauged solely by distance from the faint shoreline, we veered off the frictionless path onto an unproven foundation. Here, we interrupted a thin crust trying to refreeze itself after a string of sunny days trapped enough heat to start a temporary thaw. Punching through the top layer, a breathless instant lingered until thicker ice below stopped the free fall. It was like walking on a massive ice cream sandwich, but with higher and hypothermic stakes.
Reaching a satisfactory spot, Andy dropped the tow rope of his sled and reached for the auger it carried. Biting the index finger of his glove to free his right hand, he pumped a small, rubber bulb to prime the motor. He pulled back the starter rope and with a smoky belch, the heavy drill came to life. Engaging the gear, Andy put weight on the auger’s ten inch bit. Spinning, the swirly steel gained purchase and plunged through a foot of ice revealing the liquid realm beneath. Andy bored twice more making a row of three. Our picket line established, we set up a bottomless, pop-up tent over the holes. Insulated, complete with flaps that covered clear plastic windows, we stepped out of white into black and began our watch by rigging the gear we’d set inside.
Andy pressed a few buttons on his sonar fish finder. The display indicated a depth of fifty-two feet and plotted three diagonal lines as our lures began to sink. Settled into my chair, I took a sip of coffee. We were fishing now, though the transition from sitting to fishing is subtle. Like playing a video game, we stared at the screen, each of us fishing different portions of the water column in the first ten feet off the lake’s soft bottom. The graph looked like an echocardiogram as we twitched baits up and down, the only thing you could do to attract passing fish through a ten inch hole of slush.
The fishing we do in the warmer months is all about casting: upstream, downstream, across currents, presenting flies to likely lies or sighted fish at a distance. Ice fishing is all about gravity and faith in things not seen. No left, no right, no far. There is only down.
Time passes slowly on the ice—long periods of waiting on the improbable. Then, in a moment, the virtual heartbeat became frantic as a black streak smudged the graph. Twitch turned to struggle as erratic tension grabbed hold of the line. Hook set, hook set, crank. Unwillingly upward, a lake trout revealed in the fractional arctic light that glowed above unfathomable depths. A miracle of sorts, since the fish chose your cubic foot of water from the twenty-eight billion available. Such is the justification of faith out on the hard water.