I pulled my gear on a sled as a mid-winter sun sprayed red streaks across the skyline.
I had heard the best time to catch walleyes in Minnesota is just as the sun is setting, like dangling a smartphone in front of a teenager or coaxing people with freshly-made beef jerky. The fish don’t know why they are transfixed, they plunge and ask questions later. It might be the atmospheric pressure or the daylight fading below the surface of the lake—who knows?
I’m not an expert in winter fishing. I’ve snagged hundreds of walleyes in the spring and summer, seasons that don’t force you to wear thick gloves and a winter jacket in order to catch your supper. Many years ago, I took my elementary-aged son on an ice-fishing expedition that led to one of my first published stories—eventually included in a book anthology. (It was mostly about his speech apraxia; ice fishing served as a good analogy for the childhood disorder.)
There’s nothing too complex about this winter sport. You drill a hole in the ice and lower your line into the murky depths. As I found out, even a third-grader can do it. Yet, the process is also elusive, frustrating, and mysterious. I decided I wanted to become—not so much an expert in ice fishing as someone who can at least brag to the guys at my local Trails and Tales bait shop (yes, it exists) about catching a few impressively sized walleye and not dying in the cold.
It all started with a company called Frabill.
Even though the name sounds like an agricultural herbicide, you quickly discover they have a corner on the ice fishing market. I suppose that’s like “owning” the Christian dating market or Sudoku strategy guides, but it’s also a smart place to start shopping. I didn’t feel like I was ready for an ice shelter that has bunk beds, a working stove, and a built-in electric heater. The company sent me their Bro Series Hub ($350) instead, a pop-up tent-like structure that can accommodate three people (or two large men) but also works fine for women and kids.
Let the bromance begin, right? I knew from the YouTube videos that the Bro is remarkably easy to use. You pull a few cords and it suddenly unfolds itself in the snow, fully formed. There are two entrances and three windows; inside, there are plenty of pouches for your gear. I half-expected there to be a working HDTV and a refrigerator.
I also borrowed a Strikemaster Lazer Pro Auger ($607). The names they come up with! This oversized drill is neither precise nor professional, but it would save me from using a hand auger. It works like a lawn mower. You pull a cord, snap a lever, and drill into the ice. At a basic level of understanding, you need an ice shelter, an auger, and a hook with some bait to ice fish.
I had to dress for the role, however. I used a Patagonia Merino Air Hoody ($149), a base-layer shirt with a hood made from a tightly-woven polyester material. To stay warm on the journey to my fishing spot (and inside the Bro ice shelter while I fished), I used a Stio Men’s Shot 7 Insulated Jacket ($440). It’s filled with “responsibly sourced” down and is 100% waterproof. I added some snow pants, gloves, a hat—and prayed for a low wind chill.
The boots you wear will dictate your happiness level on the frozen tundra and determine how long you can withstand the elements. I used the Icebug Sorix2 BUGsole boots ($195) because they use something called a thermostatic sole. It blocks the cold from coming up from the bottom of the boot. I knew I had to stay warm no matter how successful I was on the lake. I had the basics—the ice shelter, the auger, and a few pieces of tackle. I added a tip-up from Walmart that has a plastic spool for the line and a flag that pops when you catch a fish.
When I arrived at my spot on the lake, I drilled a hole with the ice auger. I might have fudged up the oil and gas mixture slightly, because the Strikemaster didn’t start so easily. It’s also a bit confusing because you have to prime it, use the choke, then press the compression button in just the right order before using the pull start. I ended up wishing I had a hand auger.
Next, I set up the Bro Series Hub in about three minutes, then placed it over the hole. You really do just unfold it like a tent and pull out on the sides and top.
I felt warm and cozy inside with a soft breeze lilting in through the windows. The sun was already setting over the tree line. I was committed to the cause. I added a sinker, a hook with a bright red head, and a minnow to the tip-up. A chill set in, mostly because I had to take my gloves off to use the tip-up, but I hunkered down and got to work.
I lowered my line and placed the tip-up over a metal bracket. If a fish struck the line and started pulling the spool, the flag would pop. That gave me some time to set up a Therm-a-Rest Quadra portable chair ($120) and a BioLite stove ($130) I planned to use for cooking some raw meat. I had some cheese, a few macadamia nuts, and a thermos of coffee with me as well.
There’s a peace you feel in the middle of a frozen lake that’s unlike anything else. You are alone in winter, a vast expanse of white stretches far into the distance. You’re in The Revenant. There’s a chill…but there’s also the thrill of knowing you wouldn’t last long without a shelter. You’re in survival mode. If you succeed, it will be due to your own resourcefulness.
Sadly, I ended up failing. Maybe it was the wrong time or the wrong place. Maybe I used the wrong color head for my hook, or my crappie minnow wasn’t up to the task. I had the right gear but possibly the wrong strategy. The good news? I’m trying again tomorrow. And the next day. And this weekend. I don’t want to become an expert. I mainly want to feel the tug on the line, proof that there are fish within the shadows of that infinite underworld.
And, I want to honor my son, who has since overcome his speech apraxia. (If anything, I can’t get him to stop talking.) I’ll take him with me next time. And I’ll bring better gloves.