“When you catch a fish, you give it a kiss,” I tell my husband, Ryan, proudly waggling a silvery rainbow in his general direction. It flops and I set it down, thankful he’s the one doing the dispatching. “Will it be OK for a while before we leave?” I ask, thinking about fresh-caught trout sizzling on a buttered cast iron. He looks at me. Not my brightest moment. “I don’t know, I mean, we are literally on a block of ice.” I nod, accepting his volley. We’re standing, faces mercilessly exposed to the wind, on a frozen body of water, trying for the very first time the fabled winter sport of ice fishing.
I’d wanted to try for some time. Why not, I’d said. It’d be fun, I’d said. How could we have grown up in Montana and never tried the goofy sport? I’d said. But it had been one of the few outdoor pastimes my husband considered with disinterest. That and cross-country skiing—he says he can walk faster than I ski. But despite his qualms—something I suspect has to do with a childhood fear of water and nothing to do with the fear of being cold—he diplomatically agreed to indulge me if I planned the whole event. We’d be perched on some measure of ice, after all.
So we’d loaded up gear borrowed from the folks: a holey spoon that resembled a colander with a long handle, a spiraled auger whose hand crank looked forlornly well-used, and my trusty dusty blue bait rod, broken and pieced together when I was in the prime of youthful bliss.
It was an unseasonably warm winter—do you remember last year? But the ice was thick, solid, and clear. They say clear is good; it usually means the ice is hard, as opposed to clouded areas where the ice may be weak or soft. We’d done our homework and knew, by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks’ recommendations, that we were safe on ice at least 4 inches thick. And while we hadn’t drilled test holes yet, a handful of pieced-together fishing huts lined a stretch of the lake about 300 yards from shore.
Still, stepping from the rocky shore onto ice polished by a ceaseless wind screamed against the over-cautious introvert inside of me. In my mind we held hands when we made the move and tenderly stepped out onto the lake. In reality I think my down-gloved mitts clung to my rod and bait while Ryan pulled the sled. We moved inches at a time, reached the line of huts, and set about drilling holes.
We dropped the baited lures down through the ice and huddled behind a vacant hut to escape the chilly wind. I kept my eyes directed at my rod, seeing images dance through my head of fish pulling the rod down through the hole. It wabbled in the wind, causing several false starts as I darted to its rescue. My heart beat, my eyes blinked, the wind howled, and yet the rod remained propped against the ice, awaiting piscine delight. Patience. It goes against our human instincts, but patience indeed is a virtue. We waited, watching our little rods in the wind, and we endured.
When the rod tip bobbed, I dove across the ice, for the starting flag had really dropped this time. The rod tip dipped toward the ice, bending and bobbing like the curve of a human finger. It was uncharacteristic speed, but I did grab the rod and I did spin the reel. And as I made a slow but steady gain, I wondered how a fish would ever make it through that hole without breaking the line. Despite valiant efforts on the part of the fish, it emerged from the frigid lake depths, the silvery belly and spotted tail glistening against the ice and snow.
Back home in the kitchen, my nose is red but my toes have thawed. I slide the trout into a heated cast iron, accompanied by slices of lemon and butter pats. It’s a ritual of my childhood, though my very first ice-caught fish. In the spirit of self-reliance, I flip the fish, taking care not to flop it out of the pan.