The Shivering Angler – Reflections on Ice Fishing
In his 1843 essay “The Fish I Didn’t Catch,” John Greenleaf Whittier writes about the joy of his boyhood fishing excursions with his brother and uncle.
The famed 19th century poet describes walking the Brandy Brow Woods near his Haverhill home in search of fish in what he refers to as the Pond and then Country Brook, which flowed into the “great river” before heading out to the “great sea.”
“I have been happy many times in my life,” Whittier writes, “but never more intensely so than when I received that first fishing-pole from my uncle’s hand, and trudged off with him through the woods and meadows.”
For many of us who have grown up in the Lower Merrimack Valley and gained an affinity for its network of lakes, ponds and streams that feed the Great River, Whittier’s scene is easy to imagine more than 17 decades later. It is in these same secluded woods and on these waterways that we might have become hooked on the pastime ourselves.
But while Whittier describes a summertime landscape, the calling around here to step into nature and outwit a fish doesn’t end with the falling of the leaves. If it is peace and solitude you seek from your fishing, which so many of us do, I will see you in July. However, if it is a day of catching fish that you are after, winter can be the best fishing season of the year.
To most people (including my wife), the concept of standing in the cold on a slab of ice waiting for a fish to bite sounds more like masochism than machismo. But if you really think about it, fishing in February only makes sense.
Ice fishing allows you to walk on water, set more lines and enjoy more company. If the weather cooperates, fishing derbies on lakes and ponds in Amesbury, Newburyport and Newton, N.H., draw hundreds of entrants, many of them with coolers and even grills in tow. Some would say these additional supplies are as important as the hooks and bait.
But the fun comes with a tinge of fear, as well, or it should. The ice must be at least 4 inches thick, you should never go alone, and it’s worth packing some rope on the off chance there is a weak spot. Several derbies have been canceled in recent years due to a lack of ice. Safety matters, and common sense is required.
When the ice is thick and snow hasn’t left access nearly impossible, the fishing itself is far less complicated than it might look. The apparatus that holds the line is called a “trap,” which is essentially a piece of wood or plastic that holds a spool that trips a flag when spun by a fish. To prepare it, you drill a hole in the ice with a hand- or gas-powered auger and set the line depth by sending a weight on your hook to the bottom. From there, just attach a minnow and let nature do the rest.
Because licensed fishermen are allowed as many as six traps at once in New Hampshire and five in Massachusetts, the odds of getting a bite are quite good. Still, the lure of fishing is in its mystery — you don’t know when a fish will bite, what that fish might be and whether it will still be attached to the line when it is pulled through the ice.
The stronger the pull of the fish, the higher the stakes. And until that fish is back on the ice, the catch remains in considerable doubt.
Which brings us back to Whittier’s eloquent experience in the Brandy Brow Woods, and the lesson shared within. Casting a fake frog lure, the young Whittier yells out in celebration when a pickerel grabs his bait: “Uncle … I’ve got a fish!” His uncle responds, “Not yet,” and as he speaks the fish gets away.
With that, he offers a life lesson.
“But remember, boy,” he says with his shrewd smile, “never brag of catching a fish until he is on dry ground. I’ve seen older folks doing that in more ways than one, and so making fools of themselves. It’s no use to boast of anything until it’s done, nor then either, for it speaks for itself.”
My fishing friends are neither poetic nor empathetic over such a loss. “That’s why they call it fishing, not catching,” they’ll say with a laugh. I tend to agree with them. With due respect to Whittier’s noble metaphor, fishing isn’t always about the catching; the experience is worth celebrating because the result is often in doubt. But it’s a lesson not always heeded.
Despite its relative simplicity, the act of catching a fish is capable of eliciting a complex and competing set of emotions like few other “fun” things in life. It is ultimately an exercise in patience and persistence, yet it is woven with moments of heart-pounding excitement mixed with soul-crushing defeat when “The Big One” gets away.
When a trap’s flag goes up, the anticipation begins. It could be nothing. It could be a small perch. Maybe it is a razor-toothed pickerel capable of slicing the line with one shake. But in the back of the angler’s mind is the endless optimism that a goliath bass has met its match. It’s like a lottery ticket — hope springs eternal until the mysterious creature comes up through the hole or the line goes limp.
It is not uncommon for a lost catch to leave a grown man shaking with rage and self-loathing, agonizing over what could — or should — have been. While one could argue the amount of intellectual disparity between an ice fisherman and his underwater adversary, fish often win this battle of wits.
But it’s that fleeting moment — as success and defeat hang on a moment in time — that lures me back into the beauty and cold of a Merrimack Valley winter. I know it’s down there, roaming in the dark, cold water under the ice. This time it won’t get away — that fish I didn’t catch.