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Photos by Federico Pardo

Sometimes I just stand on the ice, caught between the poles of the present and the past. The cold winter air does that to me. All that sunlight, all that snow.

I will never be a great ice fisherman and have no ambitions as such. I auger my holes by hand. I don’t own a shack. But each December, my son and I check the morning ice on the way to his school. We estimate its thickness, brave our feet across it, inch by inch, until one morning, miraculously, there we are standing on it. Winter has arrived.

Ice fishing is different for the singular difference: You’re standing on the freaking water, and the fish are below your feet! It’s insanely physical: I hear the crunch of my feet. I feel the burn of cold on my face and nose. If we are briefly blessed with black ice — clear as glass — I watch as my boy looks into the pond at the autumn leaves and branches, the dead stalks of lily pad shoots. He holds an expression that might be awe as the pond flows beneath him in silence.

We hear the ice shift, expand. Ice grows, I tell my boy. But even I am not fully used to that sound. From one end of the pond to the other, the sound is almost electric but isn’t, almost like thunder but different. At night, the noise is haunting.

When we finally decide to fish, to drill our holes, we listen as the auger bores with its sharp blades. And then begins the ever-repeating routine of checking our tilts, our holes, our baits. This is ice fishing. I often give my sets a fair amount of thought. I try to lay them down a change of depth. It is not as easy as pulling the anchor if I want to move. So I choose carefully — as best I can.

When the fishing is good, you can’t keep up, can’t move fast enough between holes. In this, it’s no different than any other type of fishing when the bite is on. But this is never my goal with ice fishing. If it happens, good; if it doesn’t, that’s fine, too. I am there more to observe, less to score. With ice fishing, you have more time to think — or the winter landscape draws thought out of you. In the warmer months, when I’m fishing for stripers or black sea bass, I don’t become a reveler, an Edgar-Allen-Poe type. But ice will do that to me.

Then a fish appears. One of the baits is taken. The flag trips and bounces. We race over. Out through the ice it comes. And in bare hands you feel the temperature of the water in the fish itself — that you are, in fact, holding the pond in your hand. There is a density to this. The fish feels thicker. Maybe that’s because your hands without gloves have also grown denser, the blood thicker, slower. But there is a warmth in the color of the scales and fins. Winter fish are more like a festival — the color is in direct contrast to the ice you stand on, the monochrome. If we are to take a fish home, we leave it on the ice. My son stands there and studies it. He never does this when we’re fishing from the boat in the ocean. For some reason, the starkness of the fish lying on the ice, preserved as if indefinitely, like a wooly mammoth, gives him pause.

When the fishing is good, you can’t keep up, can’t move fast enough between holes. In this, it’s no different than any other type of fishing when the bite is on. But this is never my goal with ice fishing. If it happens, good; if it doesn’t, that’s fine, too. I am there more to observe, less to score. With ice fishing, you have more time to think — or the winter landscape draws thought out of you. In the warmer months, when I’m fishing for stripers or black sea bass, I don’t become a reveler, an Edgar-Allen-Poe type. But ice will do that to me.

Then a fish appears. One of the baits is taken. The flag trips and bounces. We race over. Out through the ice it comes. And in bare hands you feel the temperature of the water in the fish itself — that you are, in fact, holding the pond in your hand. There is a density to this. The fish feels thicker. Maybe that’s because your hands without gloves have also grown denser, the blood thicker, slower. But there is a warmth in the color of the scales and fins. Winter fish are more like a festival — the color is in direct contrast to the ice you stand on, the monochrome. If we are to take a fish home, we leave it on the ice. My son stands there and studies it. He never does this when we’re fishing from the boat in the ocean. For some reason, the starkness of the fish lying on the ice, preserved as if indefinitely, like a wooly mammoth, gives him pause.

There is ice that I seek. I am not interested in a thousand shacks and a thousand faces. I don’t want a social scene of barbecues and snowmobiles. My favorite sheet of ice is spare, almost serene. I see the houses along the bank, the chimneys and the smoke from wood fires. I see the winter trees. I see the shacks and a few lone shapes making their rounds to check their tilts. I see people with heavy coats staring into holes, hands in pockets, rocking on their feet.

Ice fishing is a memory. It’s an American winter. It’s pond hockey with the boys. This is ice. We step onto the ice to fish, and we think about a brother or sister, about Maine and Vermont. We think of nighttime snow and stacks of cord wood. We wonder how many winters we have left, not in sorrow but in love.

I see my breath. My hands are cold. But I’m fine with that. It’s good for the heart, cleanses the blood.

I put the hook through the back of the shiner. Does that hurt? my son asks. He stands there in the afternoon sun. His body, still small with youth, casts a shadow a dozen feet long. In the middle of the pond, you feel as if you could be in the middle of anywhere. Minnesota, Michigan. At any moment you feel as if you could walk off into oblivion, just keep going, the crunch of the ice and snow.  

Galaxies, Stars & Mitochondria

The holes that ice fishermen cut in a lake refreeze overnight, creating fertile ground for nature’s wild, artistic side, says photographer Erik Hoffner, whose Ice Visions series of images are part of an exhibition at the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center in Brattleboro, Vermont. These perfectly augured circles become worlds at once interstellar and cellular, dreamlike and tactile. In the morning light, with tiny bubbles from below fixed almost magically in place among new ice, these scenes come to life as eyes, galaxies, stars or mitochondria when rendered in fine detail in black and white, according to Hoffner, who has spent 20 years exploring New England lakes and ponds with a camera.

Colombian-born photographer and part-time Vermont resident Federico Pardo in 2016 began documenting ice shanties on a frozen floodplain of the West River in Brattleboro, known as the “The Meadows.” Over the course of two winters, Pardo photographed shanties using long-duration exposures, beginning his work after sunset and continuing long into the night. The resulting images, lit by both sunset and moonlight, carry a surreal quality of blended night and day. Pardo’s work comprises the museum’s Ice Shanties: Fishing, People & Culture exhibit, presented in partnership with Vermont Folklife Center.

“When I came across the shanties, photographing them in broad daylight didn’t seem fitting,” Pardo says. “At night, however, a whole new world is revealed: the absence or presence of moonlight, the color of the night, the city lights and traffic, the frozen tracks of life on the snow, and the connection between the shanties and the ecosystem.”

Ice Shanties: Fishing, People & Culture and Ice Visions run through March 6 at the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center. For more information, visit brattleboromuseum.org.

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