It seems like it should be warmer. The sun is out, though low in the sky, and there’s nary a cloud. But it’s January, and the temperatures in January in Indiana are more often than not on the wrong side of freezing. Today it’s even below zero, and the wind is driving it further down the scale. Yet there are at least 30 people out here with me. Out here on top of a frozen lake—ice fishing.
When I was a kid, my grandpa took me ice fishing a couple of times. While I loved walking out on the lake and being able to see things I never could during the summer, I never really took to the fishing part. Sitting on an upside-down bucket for several hours, trying to stay warm while staring at a hole in the ice, just wasn’t for me.
There are, however, men and women who enjoy layering themselves with a multitude of wool, fleece, down, and Gore-Tex® (or at least Carhartt® overalls and a hoodie), and heading out in sub-freezing weather to catch their fill of fish. In the winter, Summit Lake—a state park near where I live in Indiana—is teeming with folks out doing just that. Many have popup nylon shelters to protect themselves from the biting wind and blowing snow, but others are hardy enough to sit outside—braving the elements to watch that little bobber floating in a 4″ round hole in the ice—hoping to catch a mess of bluegill, crappie, or perhaps a walleye or two.
For the most part, it’s a friendly group of people. My opening line was almost always, “Doin’ any good?” and it doesn’t take long to start talking about what other guys are catching and where, how cold the weather has been, and how long they’ve been doing this—both for the day and for their lives. It’s an easy conversation—just shooting the breeze, really—and only occasionally will they ask me why I’m out here, too. I tell them I’m shooting for a magazine story and a few are impressed, but most just grunt an acknowledgement, as if to say, “That’s nice.”
Of course, you have to pick your spot, which on this lake can mean near the trees that still protrude from when the Big Blue River was dammed and the lake created in the early 1980s—if you’re looking for bluegill or crappie. That’s where I found Jim and Bill—out in the fresh air, layered in camoflage (though I’m not certan why), and watching their respective holes intently from atop their inverted buckets. They’d caught a few bluegill, but were still looking to catch their quota.
If you’re after bigger fish, you’ll want to be near to the dam itself, where deeper water fish like white bass and walleye tend to hang around. Some of these guys have “special” places on the lake; places they won’t talk about with their best friends, let alone a guy out here with a camera. But the guys out by the dam were more than happy to talk about the white bass they were catching and the walleye they hoped to, but weren’t. Most of them were buddies, even hanging out together online on ice fishing discussion boards to talk about the latest gear (of course) and tips and techniques.
It’s not as easy as it might seem to do this, especially if it’s very cold and windy. Once you’ve found the right place, you have to clear off the snow, auger the hole in the ice—the diehards have power augers—and clear out the snow and ice chips from the hole, just to get started. Then you need to set up your shelter, if you have one, or turn over your bucket, light up your heater or lantern and settle in. Finally, you need to pick the appropriate bait, put it on the hook, and drop it into the 4″ hole. Then sit… and watch.
There are several women out here, too, even seasoned veterans. One woman in particular (“My name’s Taylor,” she said, right away.) was out here with her boyfriend and ice fishing for the first time in her life. She said she was pretty cold, but she’d also caught her first fish today, too, so it was a good day. When I asked if I could take their picture with their catch, she promptly held up her white bass and gave it a big kiss. Douglas, her boyfriend, decided not to do the same.
Some folks make it a family affair and bring children and grandchildren along, many, like Taylor, for the first time. The kids tend get bored pretty quickly, but some really do take to it. A brother and sister came out with their dad and granddad to try their luck, helping dad scoop the ice and snow out of the hole and learning from grandpa how to jiggle the pole just right—reminding me again of my grandpa and the time he spent trying to convince me this was fun.
As the sun sets, many pack up and head home, but a few die hards hang around just to see if they can get a couple more bites. Eventually, though, the crowd clears and night sets in—giving the fish a respite before dawn comes and the augers start up again.
In memory of my grandfather, Walter Rhine, and my uncle, Richard Rhine—fishing together eternally.
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