Jan 15, 2013

Home On Leave

Returning to Wisconsin for Christmas and Ice Fishing 

 

By: Mike Yurk

     The Army called it Christmas Exodus. Just before Christmas all the trainees in basic training were sent back to their homes for the holidays. The drill sergeants marched the trainees over to the fleet of buses and put them on the right bus that would take them home. Then we locked the barracks and closed the company down until after the New Year. After having a couple of thousand soldiers marching around singing and shouting for months, it seemed strangely quiet. 

     I was the commander of one of the training companies at Fort McClellan, Alabama.  Once the trainees were gone, my drill sergeants and I had nothing to do either for next couple of weeks. So, I packed my family with our luggage and Christmas presents into the car and headed north to our families in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. 

     It had been a couple of years since we had been home, and now I had the time. I was looking forward to seeing everyone in the family and to the holidays. No matter how cold it would be, we were going to cook bratwursts on the grill one night. I missed bratwursts, and in those days they were impossible to find outside the Midwest. They definitely weren’t available in Alabama. Believe it or not, it was going to be good to see snow again. I might be living in the south, but I was a Wisconsin boy at heart and winter is part of our life. 

     In addition to seeing our families for the holidays, I wanted to go ice fishing. I actually missed ice fishing. I wanted to see a tip-up go over again and to see a bobber sink into an ice hole. I wanted to watch the snow snake across the ice as the winter winds blew. 

     This is where my friends down south were serious questioning my sanity, “Why go north?” They said. “It is cold up there.” Besides, they wondered, why would you leave a place where you can fish all year long out of boat to go someplace where you had to fish through a hole in the ice? If you ever want to get an incredulous reaction try to explain ice fishing to someone who lives in the south. They have a tough time comprehending lakes covered in ice to start with, and then they would ask why would you want to chop a hole in that ice to go fishing? It just didn’t make any sense to them at all. 

     We saw our first snow as we got close to Chicago. We were on day two of our drive and the three kids jammed into the back seat of the car were starting to lose their enthusiasm for car rides. “Are we there yet, Daddy?” 

Now I could tell them it was only about three more hours. 

     Finally, we pulled up to my parent’s house and we all gratefully crawled out of the car, stiff and tired but glad to be at the end of the drive and to be home. 

     The next few days were filled with the usual Christmas celebrations. We visited my wife’s family for some of the time and then my family for some more time. Presents were unwrapped, good food eaten and visits to other relatives and friends filled up the first few days. 

     The family obligations were now complete and we still had a couple of days left before we piled back in the car for the two day drive back to Alabama. It was now time for me to go ice fishing. 

     I talked to a few people and they suggested a Rapala jig to use. As I recall, Rapala ice jigs were a relatively new advancement at that time in the field of ice jigs. In my parent’s basement I found the bucket of jig poles, tip-ups, and the ice scoop I had left behind. Also hanging from a nail in the basement was the ice pick that my grandfather had made me some fifteen years earlier. There was the minnow bucket that I had bought from a junk shop when I was a kid and also the little tackle box with hooks, sinkers, and plastic ice floats that I used when I last ice fished some six years ago. I had everything I needed to go ice fishing. 

     I picked up minnows and carefully placed the minnow bucket in the back of the car so it would not flip over and spill. My wife was understanding of my wanting to ice fishing, but would have been less then delighted to find that I had minnows floating all over the back of our car. 

     I talked so much about ice fishing since we returned home, to the point that some of my family wondered if I was obsessed with ice fishing and I guess that I was. I was told that one of the best spots for ice fishing in the early weeks of the season was a place called The Carp Pond just north of Oshkosh on Lake Winnebago. 

     I knew the Carp Pond well since it wasn’t far from where I grew up and I had fished it since I was a young kid. The Carp Pond consisted of a small island that sat a few yards from shore with bridges from shore to the island on either end of the island. In my youth it had gotten the name The Carp Pond because the bridges also had wire mesh across them in the water that held carp that had been netted out of Lake Winnebago and I think were sold commercially. The Carp Pond also had the distinction of being the high school make out spot. 

     By now, in late December, it was way too chilly for high school sweethearts to be parking and the mesh on the bridges was long gone so the holding pond for carp was no longer there as well. However, the 

parking lot was filled with fishermens’ cars, and people were scattered across the ice, sitting on buckets or roving across the ice from tip-up to tip-up. 

     Most of my gear was in an old plastic pickle bucket from one of the fast food spots in town that I carried in one hand and in the other I had the ice pick and the bucket of minnows. There wasn’t a lot of snow on the ice so I gingerly shuffled across the ice so as not to slip. If I fell I might lose my minnows and that would be almost as bad as spilling them in the back of the car. 

     I slowly moved across the ice to what seemed like a good spot and dropped my gear and was relieved that the minnow bucket with the minnows made it without mishap. I took my jacket off because I knew that for the next few minutes I was going to be working hard chopping out three ice holes. 

     I chopped two holes about a foot and a half apart from each other and then walked out about another ten yards and chipped out the third hole. 

     I remembered the satisfaction of feeling the ice pick finally break through the ice and watching the water fill the hole. Then I needed to round out the bottom of the holes by chipping the sides and finally the big chunk of ice from the middle of the hole floated up and the hole was done with the exception of straining out the slush and ice chips until the water in the ice holes were clear. 

     I set the tip-up at the single ice hole. I scooped up the slush from around the hole and made a pile of it and sunk the base of the tip-up in the slush. I knew it was going to freeze solid within a few minutes. I also slipped my jacket back on. I was sweating underneath the heavy shirt but I knew from past experience that if I didn’t get the jacket back on soon that sweat would start getting cold in a hurry. 

     I clipped the lead depth finder on the hook and dropped it down the hole until I felt it hit bottom. I guessed that I was in about ten to twelve feet of water. I pulled it back up, making sure that I laid the dark black line carefully on the ice so that it wouldn’t knot up. I slipped a minnow on the hook and dropped it down again. It seemed like it had been a long time since I last set up a tip-up. 

     Back at the other two ice holes, I dumped out my gear on the ice and turned over the bucket to sit on with my back to the wind that was drifting the light snow across the ice. In one ice hole I baited a hook under a bobber. In those days we still called them bobbers and not floats. In the other hole I dropped the new Rapala jig. Again in those days there didn’t seem to be a lot of colors available but there had been some different colors. I chose the silver and black. It was my favorite color for Rapalas that I used in open water so I figured that color would work for ice fishing as well. 

     Everything was set so I now poured myself a cup of coffee from the thermos. I was now ice fishing again. It didn’t seem like it had been six years earlier that I had last done this. I worked the jig, bouncing it up and down, and kept an eye on the bobber and tip-up. 

     In those days ice fishing was fairly simple yet. The explosion in ice fishing technology was just beginning. Jig rods with reels were just catching on, but if you were sitting outside like I was, the old jig sticks were still the best. I had two short fiberglass rods with the line wrapped around a line holder. Ice would build up on the line forming a gob of ice right where the line went into the water. When a fish hit you just set the hook and pulled the line in hand over hand. 

     Then it happened. I felt a jolt on the jig rod and I pulled back to set the hook.

 

The ice rod was bent in half and I felt a fish pulling back on the line as the rod tip plunged. I shook off my bulky mittens and began to pull in the line. It felt good to feel the weight of the fish as it jerked back while trying to run off. The fish was coming through the hole. It was yellow and it seemed to fill the hole as I slipped it on the ice. It was a fat yellow perch that Lake Winnebago was so well known for. 

     I felt thrilled. I had just caught a fish through the ice and it was just as exciting and fun as I had remembered it to be. The fish was left on the ice, the start of what I hoped would be a pile of fish that I was going to catch. 

A few minutes later I looked over to my bobber. It was sunk half down the ice hole. Again I tore off my mittens, grabbed the jig stick and waited until I saw the bobber sinking further down the hole and set the hook. Again I felt the thrill of feeling a fish on the other end of the line as I pulled the line in by hand. This time the fish was silvery and I flipped a crappie on the ice. 

     From then on it seemed like I didn’t go long between strikes. Some I missed,and some I got. I was catching a mixture of crappie and perch and my pile of fish on the ice was growing. The fishing was fast enough that I often forgot about my coffee and would find it cold and sometimes slushy when I picked up my cup. I looked up to see the tip-up start to go up.

For a moment I was in shock. It had been so long since I last saw that.

 

It didn’t take long for me to spring off my bucket to slip and slid across the ice. By the time I got to the tip-up it was almost all the way over. Dropping to my knees next to the hole I pulled off the mittens and grabbed the line. I could feel the pressure of a fish on the other end and jerked the line back to set the hook. The fish was on solidly and I slowly brought the line in hand over hand, perhaps prolonging it a little to enjoy the feel of the fish. The fish came through the hole splashing on the surface as I lifted it on the ice. It was a walleye. It wasn’t particularly big but it was a keeper fish and the first walleye I caught in over six years. I felt very satisfied. Walking over to the pile of other fish I caught I dropped the walleye on top and grabbing the minnow bucket went back over to the tip-up, baited the hook and dropped it back down through the ice hole again. 

     For the next couple of hours I continued to fish and got strikes and added some more fish to the fish pile. It was a fun afternoon but I soon felt a cold edge to the wind and looked around to see the sun sinking into the trees behind me. I checked my watch and knew that it was time to leave. I pulled in the two jig rods and then the tip-up. I turned the bucket right side up and first threw the fish in the bottom. It was a mixture of primarily perch and crappie with a couple of walleyes. I had over a dozen and a half fish as I recall. I was already looking forward to the fish fry. As I shuffled back across the ice back to the land and the car, I stopped by a father and son who also were starting to pack up. They took my remaining minnows since they were going fishing again the next day. 

     That would be my last ice fishing trip for that leave. We had the fish fry and they were good. On the last night before we left to return to Alabama, I fried bratwurst on the grill. I know some people thought I was nuts for doing that, but they didn’t realize how much I missed eating a bratwurst. I had missed the ice fishing too over those years.  It felt great to once again see a tip-up go over, and to see a bobber sink into an ice hole, and to see a fish come up, splashing through that ice hole. 

     The next day the family got back in the car for the two day drive back to Alabama. When we finally got back, we found that northern Alabama, where we lived, had gone through an unheard of cold spell. Temperatures dropped to five degrees. My friends in Alabama were shocked. “How can people live in this cold?” They asked. Then I told them again about ice fishing. “You people are nuts,” they said. 

     But I missed ice fishing and how can you explain that to someone who has never done it? How can you explain the joys of seeing a tip-up go over or the sight of a fish coming though an ice hole? I didn’t try to explain that. I was just glad to once again have another day on the ice.