After a long hike across the lake, I finally came to the spot. The moon was low and the glimmer of false dawn reflected on the gray snow, giving the area the look of a battlefield: an old fire had blown ash across the surface of the lake, the florescent pink of Pro-Cure and the blood of recently caught fish stained the snow.
It was hardly the relaxing day I prefer — spent inside an ice shanty with my portable heater turned up. My destination required enough miles of hiking that towing the shanty was a luxury to forego. But there’s an adrenaline that keeps diehard fishermen warm. It’s something that distance runners have described when they break through the barrier and running becomes as easy as breathing.
The point is, when we push ourselves past our normal capabilities, when we go just a little farther and for just a little longer, there may not be guaranteed success, but there is a reward in expending all of our energy every day. Because when the epic fish we’ve been after finally bites, we’ve earned our dinner.
I was looking to catch a winning rainbow for the 13th annual Trustworthy Ice Fishing Derby, going on through Sunday. Catching rainbows is usually easy, since they bite readily. I’ve literally caught a rainbow in my sleep. I was jigging for hours with an orange spoon and fell asleep in my camp chair. I was woken up by a 15-inch rainbow that didn’t need any special invitation to dinner.
Since the weather had been warmer, the ice fishing holes weren’t frozen through, and it was easy enough to auger through the few inches of ice. The edges were jagged and the snow around the hole was stained with fish that had rolled the muck from the bottom of the lake off their skins just a day earlier.
Stains around a fishing hole are a good omen. I half expected a rainbow to bite before my lure hit the bottom. It didn’t happen that way.
Hours later, the adrenaline had worn off. I wasn’t the marathon runner breaking through the barrier anymore. My posture had aged 40 years as I bent over my rod, barely moving my wrist to jig. It was too cold to sleep, and I imagined I was getting carpal tunnel in my left hand so I had switched to my right. When the fish hit.
My spine snapped to attention. I stood up and started reeling. Too fast for the 10 feet of water I was fishing. The lure hooked the bottom edge of the ice and the rainbow swirled around just long enough for his body to reflect up the hole, a silver curve of fish I speculate was 2 feet long.
The line went loose and my lure dropped back down the hole, lifeless. I won’t repeat what I said, but it rhymed with hit, huck, ham.
I slumped back into my old-man posture. I tried giving myself a pep talk that the same fish might bite again, as they have before, or that there were probably other fish coming through. But I couldn’t convince myself through the devastation and spent my thoughts speculating how big the one that got away must have been.
Minutes later I got another bite. I wasn’t going to lose this one. It was a heavy fish and fought with 3.67 pounds of muscle. She zigged and zagged and ran the surface. I kept my line tight and when I saw her swim by the hole I pulled up my rod, simultaneously dropping to the ground, reaching in the water and pulling her up by the lure.
Her body thudded on the ice. A hog of a fish. A beautiful fish. And I had the feeling of elation that runners often describe when, after 24 or so miles, they cross the finish line.
Christine Cunningham was born in Alaska and has lived on the Kenai Peninsula for the last 20 years, where she enjoys fishing, hunting and outdoors recreation. She can be reached at email@example.com.