Dad could hardly wait for the lakes to freeze enough for him to go ice fishing. You could have sworn he was part or all Eskimo because he loved the cold and never wore a hat to cover his ears. He had extra-large and tough hands, most likely from doing concrete work in summer months. He especially hated wearing gloves or mittens. The only time he would bother with gloves was when it was way below zero and then only for a short time. My Grandma said she could never keep anything over his ears or on his hands as a child during winter months either. He didn’t seem to care as he could spend many long hours out in the cold like that.
Dad had very little gear during his first years of ice fishing. In fact, early on he didn’t even have a way to make a hole in the ice. He was an “auger-less” fisherman that wandered around until he found an abandoned hole to fish in. Sometimes a layer of ice had formed on top and he had to use a chisel to break through, but one way or another he was going to get a line in the water! Dad did have a heavy carhardt jacket with big pockets – and a pair of huge leather gloves for the moments when he did actually want to protect his hands from the cold. He would take a sandwich along wrapped in a bread wrapper in one pocket and his clear plastic containers of waxworms in another pocket. He’d occasionally use spikes & mousies for bait, but his favorite to catch Perch and Crappies with was waxworms.
He often created his own gear and had to improvise on making a few items. His chair was a 10-gallon pail with a seat he attached on top. He cut a piece of wood a few inches bigger than the top of the pail, padded it with a piece of an old blanket, then stapled vinyl or leather-like material under the wood. That padded piece was then placed on the top of the pail for his seat. He could store a beer or two under the seat in the pail or even his fishing tackle – so it served more than one purpose. It might sound uncomfortable but he often used it for hours on the ice.
Dad’s favorite fishing spots were either Lake Monona or Lake Mendota. He could move his little fishing poles, rigs, and 10-gallon pail/chair easily to open holes that other fisherman had augured out and left. He didn’t even have an ice auger the first few years, so unfortunately that was the method he had to use. But he did have a long-handled ice scoop to help keep ice chunks out of the holes. One other important thing he did have was a good pair of heavy rubber boots with felt liners.
Years later he came up with the idea of having a wooden sled with a room sized ice shanty attached. He built the sled and had Mom sew a heavy canvas room complete with clear plastic windows and a sleeping bag like zipper for the opening. She left open a space in the top where Dad could insert a small piece of pipe for ventilation when he used his propane heater to keep warm. He nailed the canvas to his sled and then folded it flat. It turned out to be a perfect ice shanty except for one problem – the weight made it extra hard and heavy to tug out on the ice. By that time Dad invested in one of many hand crank ice augers that only added to the weight he had to drag. For whatever reason he never upgraded to a gas auger.
When Dad’s two nephews found out about his new handmade ice shanty they started coming to join him on the ice. Both nephews were about 10 years younger than him and lived over 30 miles away on the opposite side of the lakes. Because of this, they’d often meet Dad on the lake and were no help in pulling the heavy sled. After a couple winters of dragging the heavy sled, he decided to go a different route. He bought a cheap plastic and lightweight ice fishing sled that had a leather-like seat and places to store and haul all of his gear. After he bought that his two nephews and two of their friends wanted his old wooden sled so he sold it to them extra cheap. They continued to use Dad’s homemade shanty for many winters after that while he enjoyed using his new lightweight sled.
I started joining Dad on the ice about the time he and Mom built the shanty. My memory is a little hazy (maybe from freezing some brain cells out on the ice), but I was probably about eight years old. I had already been fishing with Dad during the summers with my cool Snoopy fishing pole. He must have somehow convinced me that I wouldn’t freeze to death out there and we’d actually catch fish. So off we went.
For some reason I thought I could imitate Dad by not wearing gloves or a hat – but I was lucky to last a few minutes that way. I generally looked like the Stay Puft Marshmallow man from Ghostbuster in my snowmobile suit with big jacket and flannel shirt underneath. I had about the same range of motion as Stay Puft – if I fell over a crane would have been required to get me back up.
At least in the shanty I could wriggle out of the snowsuit because Dad’s Coleman heater was intense. Dad would joke that we were inside sweating and outside the temperature was unbearable. On Sundays if we stayed out long enough we’d be listening to the Green Bay Packers on the radio. It made for a long day since we usually were out on the ice before the sun came up. Even though I had a great time ice fishing with Dad, by high school I went less often and eventually just stuck to summer fishing.
Dad had kind of a knack for making friends under strange circumstances. At one point he came home with stories about a guy with long hair and kind of scruffy looking on the ice that sat not too many holes away. Every time Dad moved to another hole the guy seemed to follow him but would never say anything. After weeks of this the guy finally did talk to him and ended up his ice fishing buddy and lifetime friend.
Of course when you catch fish, you clean fish – sometimes for hours after you’ve been out on ice all day. It wasn’t always Dad’s favorite thing to do, but he always enjoyed putting fish in the freezer for future meals. Often these baggies of fish would last our family until summer when he could go out in the boat and catch more Perch. Dad made the best fish batter – much like a Friday fish fry supper club – and was always the designated “fish fryer” so we enjoyed many extra good fish suppers all year long. If he caught just a handful, he’d offer what he had to others short of their limit – and would often find someone to take his fish. The “please take my fish offer” would occasionally come Dad’s way as well.
We didn’t care much for eating Northern Pike but his two nephews did. They had a friend nicknamed “Whiskey Walker.” His last name was Walker, but was a big time Whiskey drinker, so that’s where the nickname came from. Don and his nephews loved to go Northern fishing with Walker because he was such a joker. After their tip-ups were in place they would all stand back and wait for a northern to bite and cause the red flag on the tip-up to pop up. Every time it happened Whiskey Walker would do a cartwheel and holler, “TIP UP!”
One time on Lake Mendota a guy asked Dad if it would be alright if he took a picture of him and interviewed him about ice fishing. Dad said it would be ok because the guy promised him the photo and interview would be in a magazine and he would send him a copy. Dad did get a copy of the black and white picture but he never received the magazine. For some reason the name of the magazine never came up in the conversation. You can see the photo below after this story.
As years passed, Dad began to try to stretch the ice fishing season as far into spring as far as possible. A few times he could lay claim to being one of the last out on the ice, but admitted it wasn’t always safe. By that point winter jackets had been ditched and most of the time he’d be fishing in a bay not too far from shore. But through all the years he ice-fished he never broke through the ice or fell in.
Dad had to quit ice fishing late in life due to health problems such as bad legs, but had many good memories of all the fish he caught and the ones that got away.