Misery Loves Company

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“Ice fishing is such a cold, miserable waste of time...”

If you’re like me, you pause every once in a while, to question your sanity.

Come on. You must have that one thing you return to, time and again, even though it rarely provides satisfaction and often ends in humiliation. I probably have several of those things, but only one I’m willing to talk about: ice fishing.

On paper at least, I don’t have what it takes to be an ice fisherman. I’m intolerant to cold, I’m easily bored, and, most significantly, I quit drinking more than 10 years ago. And yet, I’ve been out four times already this year, with predictable results. In more than 12 hours on the ice, I have a grand total of zero bites. Not just zero fish, zero bites. What’s more, the average feels-like temperature for these outings has been well below 20 degrees. Each time I left my house with high hopes and a spring in my step, and each time I returned dragging cold feet and hoping only to get the feeling back in my fingers. 

Insanity, right? My friend Dave summed it up best with this text he sent after our first trip of the year: “Ice fishing is such a cold, miserable waste of time…can’t wait to do it again!”

The text was sent to a group of four of us sufferers. And although I think Dave was partially kidding, the rest of us immediately responded that we would be up for trying again the following Sunday. It was on that next trip that I began to understand what fuels the insanity. It’s primarily two things.

First is what I think can be properly called “pike envy.” As one of freshwater’s apex predators, northern pike have a special allure. They viciously attack baits, regularly use their razor-sharp teeth to cut through line, and can get very big.

It also seems that the really big pike are often caught under circumstances where you would least expect it. Take the case of Leslie Slater, who tied a state record last summer by catching a 46-inch pike that weighed 29 pounds. Leslie was fishing for trout from her kayak, in a lake where pike were not known to be present. Let that sink in. She caught a state record pike in a lake where even the Connecticut DEEP was surprised to find a pike.

These are the kind of things that trigger obsessive behavior in guys like me and my fishing buddies.

When news of Leslie’s catch came out, a friend described his thoughts this way: “On the one hand, I want to be happy for her. That’s the catch of a lifetime. On the other hand, I hate her guts. It’s not fair given all of the hours I’ve spent specifically targeting pike and having never caught one of any real size.”

My response: “I’m going to spend a lot more time fishing that lake this year.”

That’s pike envy in a nutshell: the belief that, if you’re catching pike, I can too; and that, no matter how big yours is, I can catch one bigger. Call it confidence or delusion, it drives us to do things we normally wouldn’t.

So, when we got reports that pike were being caught at a local lake that has managed to produce trophy-sized fish, we had no choice. We were going ice fishing, even though forecasts called for bitterly cold winds. Which highlights the second source of ice fishing insanity: the need to be miserable. Or, more accurately, the opportunity to experience someone more miserable than you.

There was plenty of misery to go around that day. The forecasts were accurate: the wind was constant, and gusted at over 30 miles per hour. Holes in the ice began to freeze over shortly after being drilled. My line immediately froze to the side of the hole, or to the guides on my jigging rod, or sometimes to both. Twice, I was blown to my knees.

We watched in awe as the wind blew a shelter across the lake, with one fisherman inside dragging his feet through the door in a desperate effort to slow the disaster, and another running helplessly after him. When the shelter finally slammed into the opposite shore, we all laughed as somebody said: “He’s going to have to break that down to get it back across the lake, and even then, it will take him hours.”

But in the end, it was Dave, our ace in the hole when it comes to misery, who made the day worthwhile.

All week Dave had been texting about how bad he wanted to catch a pike big enough to keep and filet. So, he was thrilled when a young man we were fishing with offered to let him keep a large pike he had just pulled through the ice. “Just be sure to measure it and double-check the regulations to make sure it’s big enough.”

I watched Dave measure it: 28 inches. And then I watched him pull the regulations up on his phone. “Yes,” he declared. “The minimum length is 26. Fish fry tonight!”

Dave let the fish rest on the ice as we continued fishing. Every once in a while, he would get out his tape and remeasure the fish. “Twenty-eight inches, clearly legal,” he confirmed at least twice.

When it was time to go, Dave placed the fish in his sled, on top of what seemed to be a hundred pounds of gear. There it lay, openly and majestically, as we stepped off the ice into the parking lot, where we found a DEEP officer checking to make sure everyone had a valid fishing license.

A number of fishermen were leaving the ice all at once, so it took a couple of minutes for the officer to reach our group. When he did, we each, in turn, dutifully handed him a copy of our license. I don’t think any of us spoke until he got to Dave, who was last in line. To Dave, he said: “Nice pike.”

“Yes sir,” Dave responded.

“It doesn’t look big enough to legally keep. How long is it?”

“Twenty-eight inches. I measured it several times to be sure. Twenty-six is the minimum.”

Then the officer asked what seemed like an odd question: “Do you have a copy of the regulations with you?”

“No,” Dave answered, looking and sounding perplexed. But he added confidently, and to his credit, respectfully: “I checked on my phone. I was very careful. I would never keep a fish illegally.”

“Pull the regulation up on your phone for me.” There was a tense moment or two when Dave had some trouble getting a signal, but he eventually handed his phone to the officer.

“Hmm,” the officer said as he handed it back. “Go ahead and measure it in front of me, using your tape measure. I have one, but I want you to use yours.”

Even I, who watch a lot of North Woods Law, began to wonder where this was going. Dave, again respectfully and confidently, dug out his tape measure and laid it by the pike.

“Yep,” the officer confirmed, “28 inches. Here’s the deal, though. This is a Pike Management Lake. There are special restrictions that apply here, and this time of year, a pike needs to be at least 36 inches.”

For Dave, who I know to be extremely conscientious when it comes to following the fishing regulations, the misery was real. Even though this clearly topped the suffering I endured because of the extreme cold, I felt bad for him.

“I think you made an honest mistake, so I’m just going to issue you a warning. But I can’t let you keep the fish.” The officer scooped up the pike and headed to his truck to do the paperwork. Although he was being eminently reasonable, there was a distinct air of authority to both his voice and movements.

As we waited for him to return, Dave said: “That sucks. They should make the rules clearer. Even he wasn’t sure what the applicable minimum is.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“That’s why he had me pull it up on my phone and why he had me measure it in front of him. He’s up there now confirming whether I was right.”

“I don’t think so,” I said. “I think he was just testing whether you really were diligent about trying to comply.”

“I guess you’re right. He’s being a little preachy, but this could have been a lot worse.”

The officer returned, and with the same air of authority, said: “Again, I could have issued you an expensive citation. It’s your responsibility to know the regulations, even if they are hard to find on your phone. I strongly recommend you always carry a hard copy with you.”

“Thank you, officer,” Dave said.

“There’s one more thing,” the officer said as he looked coolly at Dave.

“Yes sir?”

“You have dog crap on your boots. You should wipe it off before you get in your truck.” Then, he spun on one heel and headed on to the ice to check for more licenses.

It took everything I had to avoid falling to the ground and laughing hysterically. That is the kind of someone-else’s-misery that can inspire dozens of ice fishing trips.

“… Can’t wait to do it again.”