Last year during J-Term I did an ice climbing workshop through the Middlebury Outdoor Program. A student a few years older joined our workshop because he was going ice climbing for his class. Intrigued and enthused, I decided I had to take this class. When it came time to register for my winter class this year, I eagerly emailed the professor, Peter, with a project proposal, and asking if there was still space. I decided I wanted to do something that was completely foreign to me. I wanted to go ice fishing, but knew nothing about anything related to the sport.
I received an enthusiastic response, including contact information for a local contact. Dave, a longtime friend of Peter’s, who had fished with students in years past. A few weeks later, my professor emailed again with another contact. He had been chatting with his UPS driver, an experienced hunter and fisherman, who also offered to take me onto the ice. I flew back to Vermont from California, unsure that there would be any, or enough, ice, but I was still excited to exit the “Middlebury bubble” and meet lifelong Vermonters, Phil and Dave.
In Search of Ice
“We have a bit of a problem,” Phil says when I call him for the first time, after I explain to him that I am not a telemarketer, but rather a student who wants to accompany him ice fishing and make a short film. At first not sure he was speaking of the obvious, unusually warm December and early-January weather, I was worried that he was rescinding his offer to bring me out onto the ice, or worse yet that something had happened to him or his family and I was calling at a bad time.
“The lack of ice?” I asked tentatively.
After a pause, he chuckled, “Ah, so you’ve noticed.”
Thus far, he’d only been able to go out onto the ice once. A combination of work conflicts and late-forming ice. 2015 was one of the warmest years on record. The pre-Christmas heatwave shattered previously recorded highs across the country, and Vermont was no exception. Yet, at this point a week into January 2016, he was fairly optimistic that in the next week or two we’d get enough cold weather to freeze the lakes and head out fishing. In late January, by the time we got onto Lake Champlain, the southern fingers had nine inches of ice.
Phil and his wife Joyce invited me over for dinner so we could meet before going fishing. I borrowed a friend’s car and made the 30-minute drive to their house. Scuttling up their steep and frozen, snow-packed driveway, I began to get anxious. Phil swung open the door, “I didn’t even see ya coming up the driveway!” He brought me inside and introduced me to his wife and 20 year-old son, Aaron and then quickly announced that he is quite camera shy, but that Aaron is a better fisher anyway, and that he’d be happy to talk. Their house is at the top of a knoll above a snowy, starlit, field. A seasonal, wooden patio with a built-in pool sits just below the house, overlooking the field. They built the house themselves 27 years ago on land that belonged to Joyce’s family. When her and her sisters were ready to raise their families, they divided the land into plots for each of them. Phil and Joyce raised their two kids on this land, surrounded by cousins and in-laws. Cousins and siblings were a constant theme of the dinnertime conversation, and very clearly an important part of their lives.
Before dinner, Phil and Aaron took me to the garage to see their shanties, jigs, and tip-ups. They don’t use the tip-ups anymore because they work best for walleyes, which aren’t abundant on Lake Champlain anymore. The bluegills, crappies, and perch that they go for these days are easily caught with small spinning rods. The benefits of jigging vs. tip-ups is widely debated in the ice fishing world. Tip-ups are a simple contraption attached to a line. When a fish bites, the line is pulled off of a nail, and the top piece of wood lifts up, signaling a fish. Jigging refers to a simple rod and line setup, similar to summertime rods. Although they primarily use jigging, Phil wanted to make sure I fully understood how the tip-ups work so he grabbed one, kneeled on the floor and mimicked a fish biting the bait. Most seasoned veterans agree that the most successful gear is dependent on the types of lake and fish, however, some fishermen swear by their methods, regardless of location or desired catch. Tip-ups allow multiple holes to be fished at once, though jigging allows the anglers to be much more mobile, which is effective when scouting for fish. With jigging, the angler can drop a line into a hole, fish it, and then quickly move on to a new part of the lake. Tip-ups require multiple holes and a stationary setup to be successful, which makes moving to find the fish more difficult and time consuming.
Before returning inside for dinner, Phil glanced at his shanty and sled and his eyes lingered on the propane heater, which prompted him to assure me that come Saturday morning, it would be my best friend. Ice fishermen have developed portable shanties, ranging from boxy canvas tents to insulated cabins with bunks and a stove for cooking, that can be dragged onto the ice and flipped up to keep the wind out. The more portable structures are often moved from lake to lake in the wintertime and the more permanent structure often stay in one place for the duration of winter. While they aren’t necessary, the shanties make the whole experience more enjoyable, especially for those who make their living from selling fish. As the shanties have gotten more popular and advanced, governing bodies have had to regulate their use by determining an allowable timeframe for the shanties to be on the ice. Without the regulations anglers put the shanties on the ice too early and leave them up too late, and when the ice inevitably melts, the shanties are sent to the rocky lake bottoms. When I asked if they had ever fallen through, Aaron mentioned with a chuckle that he has fallen through more times than he can remember. Stories of falling through prompted Phil to reminisce about springtime on his sister-in-law’s camp on Lake Bomoseen. When Aaron and his cousins were younger, they would cut holes in the ice, diving into one and coming out another. They’ve never had trouble with their shanties though, as they use ultra-portable shanties attached to plastic sleds for easy movement and don’t have to worry about melting through in the same way that the more permanent shanties do.
Saturday morning came at 5:45 a.m. when my alarm started incessantly beeping. Though technically by the time I was actually aware of my surroundings, it was 9 minutes later after I had wishfully snoozed the alarm in my sleep. I trekked across campus with the camera bag slung across my body as the tripod awkwardly clunked along my leg and I tried not to spill my freshly boiled tea water. Phil greeted me at 7 a.m. at the ferry landing with hand warmers to put in my gloves. I had been fishing the weekend before and hadn’t been very cold so I wanted to believe that I didn’t need the heater or the hand warmers. I still thought he was over-exaggerating the cold. A short 4-wheeler ride across the ice later, and I was positive Phil was the smartest man I’ve ever met. The harsh wind stung my face and chilled my whole body, yet I decided to take off my gloves to turn the camera on. Bad idea. The cold began working its way up my stupidly-bare fingertips, and lingered even after I put the gloves back on.
Phil drilled two parallel holes and dragged his shanty to face them. He turned on the heater, pulled down the top, and invited me inside. We sat with our lines dropped in for a bit to no avail. He wondered aloud why we weren’t fishing in closer to the bank, though he admitted that he had never fished there before and his buddies who chose the spot fish there every day. Originally we were going to go to Larrabees Point, just east of Ticonderoga, New York, but there was a tournament that day that Phil wanted to avoid. Ice fishing contests happen around the world. They vary in size and duration, but attract people from all walks of life. Often they have a registration fee and prizes for the most fish caught. Phil predicted that this tournament would attract “all sorts of dirt bags,” a subset of fishermen who he was quick to distinguish himself from.
We mostly sat in silence, but occasionally Phil would give me tips or pull out his phone and call Aaron to see if he was catching any. He was. We flipped up the shanty walls and moved north on the ice. Phil offered to leave me in the shanty while he drilled more holes but I came along because I wanted to get more video of the ice. Again, I was shocked by the blustery cold that wormed its way into my body heat. Once Phil got set up, I jumped at the opportunity to get back inside. After a few minutes of holding our lines in with no bites, it was decided that I should go fish with Aaron. Phil, with love and frustration in his voice, told me how much better of a fisher Aaron was, despite Phil having taught him everything.
We shuffled across the ice to where Aaron and his 7 year old cousin were fishing and Phil insisted that I sit with Aaron. At first hesitant to let me help drag the shanty and drill across the ice, Aaron relented and we trudged away from the bank, hopeful to get more bites. Aaron had caught three thus far, more than Phil and I, but still less than our other two companions on the ice. There was little talking between their separate shanties, though occasionally they would yell shouts of advice to Aaron and I, suggesting different tackle colors or changing locations. Despite their friendship and history of fishing and hunting together, there was a sense of competition among them and a slight reluctance to share their tactics.
After moving a few times, with Aaron, I got my first bite on the ice. I temporarily forgot everything that was happening and madly reeled in my line. It was a yellow perch, measuring about 6 inches and we decided to throw it back. I was beginning to learn that especially on slow days, there’s a lot of sitting and waiting in ice fishing. Aaron and I chatted about college and life. He told me about a business he’s starting with his friend and what he’d been up to after graduating college. I got lost in the conversation and then out of nowhere I got my second fish! Even though it wasn’t my first bite, I still freaked out when I felt the tug, and furiously splashed my line around as I pulled it out of the ice. It was another perch, roughly the same size as the last, and I dropped him back into the hole. Aaron was determined to help me catch a bigger fish so after my two perch, we set out toward the middle of the lake where he said there were more likely to be crappies and bass.
As we tucked ourselves into the shanty, Aaron reminded me that my car was a short four-wheeler drive away and that I could go whenever I wanted. I was determined to get a bigger fish, though, so I decided to wait give it another little while. Soon after, I was rewarded with a huge tug on my line. I madly started reeling in but the pull was so strong that I couldn’t bring it up fast enough. I looked into the hole just in time to see a big white crappie letting go of my line as it turned to swim away. It all happened so fast and after I had seen it I was determined to catch another one. I waited for another 30 minutes with no bites and decided to call it a day. Aaron in the meantime had caught a succession of 4 inch crappies, and released each of them back into the icy water.
It was a slow day for everyone and Phil and Aaron didn’t last much longer after I left. I spoke to Phil later and he enthusiastically invited me to go with them again, specifying that we’d make sure to catch more next time around.
Fish for Food
When I first spoke with Dave, he was similarly jovial to Phil about the lack of ice. I told him about looking out the window as I flew into the Burlington airport on a Saturday night early in January and seeing the reflection of street lights bobbing up and down on the windy swells of Lake Champlain. A second later, I realized the scene wasn’t as peaceful as it looked. As Dave put it, “Wait, I should be walking on that.” Dave remembers winters with less snow, but in all his years in Vermont, could not recall a winter as warm as this year. He had yet to go fishing this season because of the warm temperatures, but knew that some lakes had enough ice, and was optimistic that we would find them.
A few hours later Dave called me back, exclaiming that he had great news. “Ice on Dunmore!” And with the temperatures predicted to stay low this week, he assumed that by Sunday we’d have enough ice to go on our first outing.
Dave grew up in a cluster of houses next to the local hospital. Almost every house on his street belonged to relatives of varying closeness. His memory is filled with fond recollections of running on his street and having the freedom to play in almost every house on the block. His childhood was filled with family, and he still lives in the same cluster of houses that he grew up in though most of his family has moved away by now. He first ice fished when he was 10 or 12 with a friend of his dad. These days, he hunts and fishes both for fun and for food and has three grown children. He is a carpenter by trade but in reality, Dave does a little bit of everything, and has the rugged, hard-worked hands to show for it. He told me with humor how he has done the trim work in the college president’s house twice, once for each recent president, because they each wanted it their own way. Growing up in Middlebury, a relationship with the college was inevitable. When he was younger his family leased space from the college to run a grocery store in town. And, taking advantage of the locale, Dave occasionally sat in on Italian classes at the college. As we discussed the college and campus today, I told him about the house I live in this year. He looked at me with a funny and incredulous smile as I told him the cross streets. “My ex-girlfriend used to live there!”
On the weekends in addition to hunting and fishing, Dave is an avid primitive biathlete. Primitive biathlons are sporting events where participants follow a wooded track on snowshoes to three target shooting areas. Dave says he’s not very fast but that he’s a good shot and that some biathlons take off five minutes of your time for every target you hit successfully. As his pickup truck rattled down Route 7, and then onto State Route 53, our conversation alternated between ice conditions and primitive biathlons. The one he’s been doing for the last 20 years got cancelled this year – something about the insurance. There are a few that happen in New York but Dave doesn’t want to travel that far so he waited for one in Vermont. On February 6-7 that he will participate in. The weather has been so warm that he will undoubtedly be trudging through the muddy track in boots, rather than snowshoes, but he was still excited at the prospect of getting out into the woods.
The first time we met, Dave came to the student center on campus. It was 6pm and he had just gotten off of work. He walked into the building, pulling out his flip-phone as he came through the door to call me. I was the only student there, but to him, I could have been anyone, as Middlebury students tend to all look relatively interchangeable. He didn’t fit that mold though. Sporting a full, graying beard, work boots, and a heavy, weather-beaten jacket, I knew it was him right away. The next weekend he picked me up from my house on campus in his pickup truck. It was the kind of truck that you can tell has been used for just about everything it’s capable of. Messy inside, but not to the point of misuse, and weathered on the outside, but not in a way that affected its performance.
We took a detour to check the ice on Lake Dunmore, and when we arrived at Fern Lake he got right to work, dragging the sled out and searching for holes drilled earlier that morning that we could kick in and use. Out on the ice, our conversation trickled in and out. Between the echoes and wind, it was hard to hear one another. He quietly told me about his three kids and what they’re up to. Clearly proud of what they had accomplished, but also respectful and humble.
He taught me the basics of jigging – how to wiggle the line, up and down, just off the bottom. We dropped our lines in pre-made holes for a bit, and then decided to drill our own. He pointed to the nearby bank and told me about a tree he used as a marker last season. It has since fallen into the lake and we could only see the lower portion of the trunk before it disappeared below the ice. He then motioned to the far side of the lake and painted the boundaries of an island with his fingers. From our vantage point, I would never have known the island was there, but it was clear that Dave knows the lake well.
Dave likes the peace and quiet on the ice but is ultimately there because he likes to eat fish. I was sitting in the shanty when he got his first bite. He called to me to get to my camera but I could not get out of the shanty fast enough and he lost the fish. Without a single complaint, he was just apologetic that I didn’t get it on film. Later, he reminisced about the time he almost moved to Colorado. It was an “almost move” because he was leaving behind his grandma in Middlebury. He had already sold his house, but on the drive out he realized he didn’t feel right about leaving his grandma alone in Middlebury, so they moved for the summer and then returned to Vermont.
For most of the afternoon, Dave and I were the only ones on the lake. We occasionally heard voices and dog barks echo across the lake, but for the most part, it was just us and the fish. Or given the number of bites we got, maybe just us. There was barely any wind so we stood shanty-less on the ice. After fishing in some of our own holes and some from earlier that day, we found a grid of holes in a small inlet. We each fished in five different holes with only one bite. The layer of ice covering them was thin and Dave surmised that someone had drilled the holes in the last few hours but hadn’t found any fish, or else they’d still be fishing.
The temperature began to drop as the afternoon wore on, and every once in awhile, between bouts of conversation and silence, a loud snapping noise would echo across the lake. The first time I heard it I must have jumped a bit, because Dave was quick to assure me that the ice was not in fact cracking, as it would seem, but rather, that more ice was forming. He explained that since water expands as it turns to ice, the new ice was forcing the old ice to shift upward, creating a loud, echoing pop.
As the pops got more frequent, the temperature started to drop. Dave and I decided after two fish to turn in for the day. I asked him why he thought we were so unsuccessful, and proceeded to have a similar conversation to one I had with Phil as a follow-up to my day on Champlain. They both speculated that it had something to do with the warm weather and recent ice formation, but as non-scientific experts, they couldn’t put their finger on precisely what it was.
My parents were nervous when I told them I was going to go ice fishing. Growing up in California, none of us had ever done anything like that. Having seen the unusually warm temperatures on the weather reports, they were nervous that I would fall through.
I had made the mistake of telling them a story that Dave mentioned during our first meeting. He was working on a house on the northern shore of Lake Champlain when he saw people fishing. Lake Champlain flows north, and the northern end rarely ever freezes because of the moving water. A strong gust of wind came up, blowing a strong current under the ice, and cracking it off into the flowing water. Once the ice is broken off, it quickly continues to break into smaller and smaller pieces. A helicopter eventually had to come and rescue people off of room-sized pieces of ice.
My parents were not amused. But once I had returned safely from both my outings, they eagerly questioned me on all aspects of my excursions. Friends were curious too, but most Middlebury students have done similarly cold or adventurous things and were less intrigued by the absurdities of it all. I was repeatedly asked how fun and cold it was. I replied that it was fun. And also very cold. But then I started thinking, and fun wasn’t the word I wanted to use. It was fun, and I enjoyed and appreciated the whole process, from getting to know Phil and Dave, to walking on a frozen lake — something I had never done before. But when I use the word fun, I think of something exhilarating and adrenaline-rush inducing, which ice fishing was surely not. I found myself unable to communicate to my friends and family what was enjoyable about being out on the ice, if it wasn’t fun. It was more relaxing and meaningful than “fun,” as I had previously thought about it, but as I was driving back to campus after my last day, I realized how happy I was. I had gotten up at 5 a.m., trudged across the cold and darkened campus, driven to a lake 45 minutes away to sit on the ice for 4 hours, and only catch three fish the whole time, yet I was in a ridiculously good mood and I didn’t really know why.
It wasn’t until I sat down and listened to Phil’s and Dave’s interviews to make my final video that I realized how peaceful and serene I found the ice. It was a reason for me to get off-campus, meet new people, and try something completely new and different, and I realized that despite its lack of exhilaration, ice fishing had helped me redefine my understanding of what it means for me to have fun.