To say I’m not much of an angler is an understatement. I get how fishing is kind of like hunting — particularly, say, permit or bonefishing, where you literally stalk the animal, as if with a bow or gun — and I can see how reading trout streams might be a little like reading a contour map, or a forested cirque, a north-facing slope, a gentle ridge with aspen — there, and there, and there, is where they might be, let’s go see — and yet: Most of the time, or so I understand, you don’t see the animal. There’s an extra layer of separation, of distancing. (Or, it could be argued, an extra layer of faith.) So I understand there’s opportunity for crossover, but I’m just wired hard for hunting, and not so much at all for fishing.
So you’d think ice fishing would be way, way, way down on my list of things to do. Like maybe even at the bottom. And it does not even hold for me the curiosity of novelty, for I’d been once before: a not-very-good experience up in Fairbanks, in late January, in the recklessness of youth. It was 38 below, and there was some beer involved and a black Lab who played with the fish we caught, the fish freezing as solid as sticks of wood. I had never seen a dog retrieve fish before, and I went home as soon as I could.
But my longtime hunting partner, Bill — a Midwesterner, an Illinoisan — bighearted, exuberant, generous, sweet and tough — wanted to go, was getting northwest Montana cabin fever, which as far as I can tell runs only a degree or two lower than, say, Fairbanks cabin fever. He’d had an artificial hip put in the day before Thanksgiving, and here it was mid-January — Lowry, my 18-year-old, was heading back to college, at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, had never been ice fishing before — and so it was a no-brainer; it would be Bill’s first post-surgery outing. A ceremony: the new life, the new Bill. Bill returning to the old Bill.
He asked if we wanted him to pick us up at 8, and we said how about 9 or 9:30? I could tell by his face that maybe ice fishing was better in the morning, though that made no sense to me. Wasn’t it cold down there, and dark? Why would a fish, an ice-fish, care what time it was, and wouldn’t it be colder at dawn than midday?
Bill’s a sweetheart. “All right, 9:30, sure.”
I love how simple things are in the Yaak. His old 1970 GMC pickup. For seats on the ice, two plastic buckets, and for Bill a real folding chair, as Sue — Bill’s wife — insisted. A ladle. Some tiny ice-fishing rods, looking like children’s toys. A tackle box with a few plastic jigs. A Styrofoam container of fat little worms. An ice chest of cheap beer.
Sue had found some old Yaktrax ice grips for his boots, and we started up the trail slow and easy. It had been a cold year so far, but one of the driest; there was not much snow down, which was preposterous for northwest Montana, and January. It made for good walking, and we were at the lake in no time.
How wonderful it is, that condition of life when things are still new. Bill, in his 60s, with a new hip; me, in my 50s, working an ice auger for the first time, and in my home valley, looking up at the high ridges and mountains where I had hunted, and killed, deer and elk before. Lowry, still in her teens, for which so much of the world — perhaps the bulk of it — was still new. Not everything, but still, a lot: working that auger herself, and ladling out the floating ice, and dropping a line. Settling in on her bucket perch, and waiting.
Time, then, for stories, from one of the valley’s elders, one of the finest storytellers in the valley. For some reason, I can’t remember what, Bill’s got Raymond on his mind — Flamin’ Raymond, named for the time his car caught on fire, inexplicably, but he just kept on driving it, right on into town, like the proverbial bat out of hell. Maybe he thought the wind would eventually put the flames out, but more likely, he just didn’t give a damn.
Low’s laughing. The three of us, out on the smooth ice, mid-January. Nothing, just each other.
Flamin’ Raymond was bad to borrow things, Bill said. He had this weird tic or something, where if he didn’t return it to you after about six months, he figured he owned it. So you had to go over there and ask if you could borrow it back. Whatever it was. Electric drill. Maul. Spark-plug wrench. Whatever.
“I went over there to re-collect my sockets one time,” Bill says. “He was busy fastening this metal ammo box to the floor of his Jeep, to use like a glove box. He was wearing this big old Colt .45. I didn’t know if he’d borrowed that from someone or not.
“His toolshed wasn’t 20 steps away, but evidently he didn’t feel like walking all that way to get a drill, so he just pulled that gun out and shot four big holes in the floorboard of his Jeep, blam blam blam blam. I thought I’d be deaf forever. He shoved those lag bolts into the bullet holes, screwed the nuts on, and that was that.
“He used to burn tires outside and cook over them, the way you or I would cook on an outdoor barbecue grill,” Bill says, shaking his head. “It wasn’t right. I was over there one time, he was grilling a deer leg over those burning tires. He asked me if I wanted any. I said ‘No, thank you.’ ”
Stories, while we wait. I believe Bill could fill eternity with stories, and with none of them ever having to take place outside of this relatively small valley — the million-acre fishbowl of it, with the high, snowy mountains helping separate us from the rest of the world, and shape us, over time, into something more akin to the valley. It’s a ragged fit, for sure — just ask Flamin’ Raymond — but it’s a fit, nonetheless, or the start of a fit, and an amazing thing to realize, to witness, to participate in. I’m so glad Lowry’s here, getting to hang out with Bill, and listen.
We don’t get to listen long, as it turns out. Fish on the line, the sudden and lovely tug-and-arc that you don’t have to be an ice fisherman to understand. What to do about it, I’m not sure, however, so I sit there watching the rod dance and buck, and, not wanting to get Bill too excited, wanting to stay cool and mellow so that he doesn’t leap up and blow out or otherwise unstring his new hip, I point to the rod and say, as calmly as possible, as mild as pudding, “I believe something is happening.”
My equanimity has the opposite of its desired effect. Bill springs up and toward the rod, in the process unstringing something — a wrench of pain crosses his face, coupled with an oh-crap-I-just-made-a-mistake look — but he makes it to the rod in time, sets the hook and reels it in, expertly keeping the fish in the center of the ice hole: And what a lot of fish it is, a big bullheaded humpbacked cutthroat, close to 2 pounds, Bill says — pleased and surprised, even in his pain — and the smile on Lowry’s face, the rabbit-being-pulled-from-a-hat disbelief — this one big lake, this one little hole, and a fish, a big fish, came up out of it — is one of the sterling images, sterling memories, of a long, white winter.
Just before the fish was killed, it rolled and thrashed in the snow, writhing and twisting, and was quickly caked in snow, snow like the piling of a fleece jacket, white as cotton — it looked warm, like that, against the great cold, and even bigger, too; furred, almost like a mammal — a husky, a malamute — and we grinned at one another and settled back into our seats, ready for the next, and, of course, for more stories.
Only one more fish presented itself that morning — an even larger fish, from the same hole, and it, too, was reeled out and killed, placed next to its comrade. We would each be able to take one home; the morning was essentially complete. Not that the success of any outing, any journey, can or should be measured by productivity — that damnable word — what is the productivity, for instance, of a story, or a friendship — but still, there was a nice symmetry to it, the twoness of the big fish, snow-clad and paired like that.
We drilled a dozen more holes that morning, perforated the ice, Swiss-cheesed it to the point where we joked about falling through ourselves, but we never caught any more fish. Two more bites came, also from that same initial hole, but we weren’t able to bring them in — one a giant, by the weight on the rod and the look on Bill’s face when it slipped the hook — the previous winter, someone had caught a 5-pounder in this lake — and soon enough it was early afternoon, time to walk to the edge of the lake and gut the silver fish and pack up and walk back through the woods, meat-laden, and being cautious on the downhill, with Bill’s new hip.
In the morning Lowry and I would drive to the airport so she could fly back to college and learn things.