Sitting on the ice with my short jigging rod is the perfect place for focused meditation. The movement of the rod produces a lulling effect like counting sheep, but instead of causing me to nod off – although that has happened — I am alert to the slightest changes in the water below.
The particular hole I fished only yielded about 5 feet of water. Unlike Steve, who drills multiple holes to “find the fish,” I pick one spot and set up “house.” My beloved green pop-up shanty is 10 years old and smells fishy. It has off-green patches, replaced multicolored rods and at least one window with a missing square of plastic to allow a breeze to come through.
I turned on the propane heater and tucked a good book in the side pocket of the tent. Ice fishing makes me feel 5 years old and 80 years old at the same time. It’s easy to learn and hard to forget. It can be as simple as drilling a hole and sitting on a bucket, spending time around a fire on the lake with friends and family, or spending a day alone in a tiny house on skids with a television.
This year, I entered in the Soldotna Trustworthy Ice Fishing Derby after taking several years off. The derby brings another childlike aspect to fishing. I might get my name on the board or win a prize for my fish. Bringing your fish in to get weighed is a chance to see the cute kids with their Minnow Division catches and get firsthand reports of fishing across the Kenai Peninsula.
I never took my book out of the pocket. The small amount of water gave away the fact that fish were moving beneath the ice. The water level in my hole moved periodically, and I sat on the edge of my seat as I felt my lure bump fish or the pulse of near misses.
Rainbows are my favorite fish to catch through the ice. More than any other species, they seem to stalk the lure. Before almost every bite, I have felt the fish either move my lure or pass it in the water.
Some of my thinking tends toward fish fiction. Just to be sure there were real fish below, I covered all of the windows in my shanty and lay out on the ice to peer down the hole. Yes, there are underwater cameras for this sort of curiosity. And they help figure out what is below before you drop your line. I was too late for that kind of help.
Several big rainbows lolled in the water beneath me. I jigged my lure and watched their reactions, which ranged from disinterest to repulsion. Maybe I had lulled them to sleep.
I changed my jigging pattern but not my lure. While Steve might switch lures if one isn’t producing results, I stick to one. As much as I prefer one spot, my single-mindedness includes a favorite lure. If it doesn’t work, I read a book to pass the time while I jig. Obstinance only works as a fishing strategy if employed over an extended amount of time.
Fortunately, I have been lucky to catch as many fish as Steve has by using what I’ve learned about being lost in the woods (stay put). There have been times he has caught more fish switching lures and drilling as many holes as it takes. He has also managed to navigate us out of the woods.
After 15 years of fishing together, I trust my lucky lure and the zen-like peace of an easy day tucked away in my shanty. I sat back down in my camp chair and reached for a snack — a surefire ice-fishing tactic.
The water in my hole began to slosh, and I continued to jig, dropping my lucky snack and holding the rod with both hands. My lure felt heavy, and so I reeled up. The fish had knocked my 1-ounce spoon over the hook. I shook it loose and sent my tackle back down to the same spot.
I have lost plenty of fish on the bottom edge of the ice when fishing in shallow water. When I set the hook, it catches the rim, setting the fish free.
I steered my line to the center of the hole. The water surged just as my rod tip slammed down. I stood up and kept my line tight but didn’t reel. This isn’t open water, I told myself. You’ve got that edge to worry about, and the fish is 5 feet of line below a chunk of ice. Just line it up and pull it out.
Down the hole, the fish swirled, and its colors lit up the ice in a magnified silver and purple. It wasn’t a big fish by Kenai River — or derby — standards, but it was a dinner-sized fish. When the rainbow’s head centered in the hole, I brought it up.
It shook, and worms flew across the inside of my shanty. That’s a gross reality I tend to forget about fish in the Swanson River drainage. They sure have a lot of worms. I bonked the fish and called out to Steve.
He was across the lake, and after I made the trek to show him my fish, I saw he had found a structure built of ice blocks and abandoned by another party.
Inside the personal-size ice house was the best of two worlds — indoor and out. The light came through the enclosed space that evoked what my old shanty did — the childhood tree fort, the shelter hand-built in the woods, the duck blind of weaved grass cared for over time.
After years of ice fishing the same lakes, I realized no matter how you go about it — exploring the lake in the midday sun or relaxing with a book in a tiny hut — the individual effort has a value all its own.
Ice fishing is my favorite kind of fishing because it’s not as serious as other types. It’s easy to do on your own — it’s for the kids and for grumpy old men. There is less pressure for it to be anything but what you make it. It takes you to those vibrant years of youth and old age in which each moment is less obligated and more yours.
It’s pure winter fun.
Christine Cunningham is an avid hunter and lifelong Alaskan who lives in Kenai.