By Clark Fair, for the Redoubt Reporter
When I was very young, my father was so eager to share with me his love for ice fishing that he was willing to make me miserable in order to help me enjoy the experience.
Actually, Dad didn’t intend to make me miserable, but he was prepared to let me suffer a bit if it meant he could fish a little longer.
That description makes him sound somewhat mean-spirited, and he was not. My suffering usually stemmed from the following facts:
1) I was rarely dressed adequately for the conditions, especially when exposed to those conditions for several hours. Red rubber boots, even those lined with lamb’s wool, and tiny mittens enclosed in plastic shells hold up poorly to the cold emanating from the surfaces of frozen lakes and the frigid air of winter.
2) Telling my father that I could no longer feel my hands and feet was tantamount to whining.
3) Because whining meant that I was not tough enough, and because whining interfered with fishing, whining was not appreciated.
So beneath my flimsy coverings, my dainty digits iced up.
This is not to say that I didn’t enjoy ice fishing. I did, and I still do. But benumbed, grossly whitened fingers and toes hampered my ability to fully revel in the experience. Consequently, I began each adventure with enthusiasm but often concluded it in despair.
Dad was typically apologetic after we had finished trudging to the car from Scout Lake or one of the many lakes along Swanson River Road. When he had removed my boots and mittens and saw what appeared to be Raynaud’s phenomenon, he’d at first say something like, “Why didn’t you tell me it was this bad?” — as if I had been purposely concealing the extent of my misery. But then he’d set about comforting me, rubbing my ghastly extremities, cranking up the heat in the car and
jamming fresh wool socks over my feet and hands for insulation as I thawed. If I looked pitiful enough, he might even dig out a snack for me from his fishing pack.
But I must admit that, despite the cold, Dad did instill in me a love for ice fishing — not quite the same intensity of his own mania, but a love nevertheless. And I did eventually toughen up, and mature enough to learn to dress myself more warmly.
The oldest photo I have of my father and me ice fishing comes from March 1962, the month I turned 4. Dad is pounding at the lake surface with a long-handled ice-chipper. It must be fairly warm because, although his feet are covered with bunny boots, he has removed his thick jacket and is wearing only thin gloves as he hammers away. I, on the other hand, am wearing red mittens, a thick jacket and baggy insulated pants, and my red rubber boots are sheathed with what appear to be the felt liners from a pair of Sorels. I do not yet look miserable, so I must surmise that we had only recently arrived.
Over the years, I have some fond memories of ice fishing, particularly with my father and brother. I have also enjoyed introducing my children to the activity, watching the sheer joy on their faces as they jerked gymnastic trout through a hole the circumference of a coffee can. The last time I ice-fished with them, we drove all the way out to Paddle Lake, where on a sunny March afternoon both kids caught bigger fish than I did, and there was not a hint of whining to be heard.
One of my first “dates” with Yvonne also involved ice fishing, as we dragged a sled full of gear through some very deep snow out to a remote lake and returned (exhausted) with a mess of tasty rainbows and Dolly Varden to cook up with rice for dinner.
When we decided to move to Dillingham, I’d heard so much about the amazing fishing here that I was compelled to pack my winter gear in addition to my rods and reels for unfrozen days. Then, once we arrived, I grew concerned that a lack of access to the best fishing spots might prevent me from wetting a line through the ice. That problem, however, was solved in January when we learned that huge schools of rainbow smelt were traveling the 20-mile length of the Wood River to Lake Aleknagik and could be caught through the ice shelf covering part of the lake.
Rainbow smelt look somewhat different than the hooligan that make their way up the lower Kenai River each spring, but the taste is quite similar — and delicious when dredged in flour, sprinkled with salt and pepper and fried quickly in butter.
So, although years of watching the trucks, tents and fishermen on the tenuous Kenai Lake ice shelf just above the bridge in Cooper Landing had prompted some reluctance, I decided to bury my fears and hope for the best.
At the end of Aleknagik Lake Road we were informed of the best means of access by a kind north-shore resident, who assured us that, with the warm weather we were having at the time, a few holes would surely be open and available to us. We were pleased to hear this since we had no auger, axe or ice-chipper.
Soon we were tromping through slush covering ice less than a foot thick and dotted with snowmobiles, fishermen, open holes and scatterings of smelt. The water beneath the ice was about 3 feet deep and clear enough for us to see the bottom, the view of which was interrupted with great frequency by the darting bodies of fish.
Down each hole we dropped a single egglike bead pegged above a small single hook, accompanied by a tiny lead weight to urge the bait to sink. We watched the smelt attack both bead and weight, and thus began the liberal removal of fish onto ice.
It became a mesmerizing, almost Zenlike activity — the stare into the hole, a sudden tugging, the rod bending, smelt ascending. Repeat.
The fish began to pile up. And we left with our 5-gallon bucket perhaps two-thirds full.
Although I’d like to say that Yvonne caught more than I did because I spent time taking photographs, that would be dishonest. The truth is she out-fished me, at times extracting two or three smelt for each one I pulled from my hole. The majority of the butchered smelt now packed like giant sardines in our freezer can be attributed primarily to her skillful smelt annihilation.
My father was similarly adept as a fish whisperer, seemingly able to draw trout through the ice of any lake, no matter how frustratingly barren I might find that particular frozen body while fishing only a few yards away. Dolly Varden Lake — if I were arguing my point at trial — would be Exhibit A. I have been skunked at that lake almost as many times as I have caught fish there, but it was one of Dad’s favorite close-by places to try our luck. His luck was always good, while mine was often bad.
I’d have whined about cold feet at Dolly Varden Lake, but by the time we began fishing there regularly, I was old enough to dress properly and to know that whining would make no difference.
Clark Fair, a resident of the Kenai Peninsula for more than 50 years, is a lifetime Alaskan now living in Dillingham.