We are minimalists; we are action-, not research-oriented; we have no useful knowledge of ice-fishing. We bought a couple of fishing licenses and trundled off to Madison’s Lake Monona, 10 minutes from the house, with the following gear:
1. The same two casting rods on which we caught salmon and Dolly Vardens all summer in Alaska.
2. Two buckets.
3. Some tiny little jigs I’m told are the sort of thing bluegills like, and some waxworms, aka mealworms. They come packed with sawdust in a little orange prescription pill container, as if the doctor had ordered me to go get some bluegills for my health.
If you are savvier about ice-fishing than I (this is not hard), you have anticipated some gaps in my list, such as:
4. Actual ice-fishing gear
5. An auger
Put that aside for the moment. Come with me and W. out on the ice, as we join the dozens of others on Lake Monona. I had imagined myself in a vast lonely expanse on a smooth lake, with my breath and steps the only sounds. Ha. Look down; the ice is not slippery, but rough with footprints and long grooves from sleds dragged over it when it was slushy this week. There are little holes everywhere. They are being made constantly by fishermen, who apparently are never satisfied with their current hole. A few are augering by hand, but most have the kind with motors. BZZZZZZZZ! Another one starts every few minutes. The fishermen and their tents are clustered like an army camp. They’re constantly dragging sleds full of equipment from one hole to the next. Some guys down the way are cooking hamburgers, so the whole place smells like meat. The gear is different, the shoes are different, but this is an unmistakably urban milieu. W. and I assess the crowd dubiously. It’s hard to imagine there could be any fish left—but if I know urban fishermen, they wouldn’t be out there if they weren’t catching anything. And the limit is 25. These bluegills must breed like rabbits.
One of the advantages of urban fishing is always that you can see everyone else’s fish, so you know whether you’re doing it right. Another, specific to ice-fishing, is that you don’t need an auger, because the holes have already been made for you. In fact, I’m not sure why these guys are so auger-happy. Is it disgraceful to scavenge prefab holes? That’s what we did. We were, of course, already marked as novices by our long rods. We set our lures in the holes, waited for them to float down, and worked as best we could around the unwieldy poles.
We sat. We caught nothing. We got cold. I was not wearing enough socks. We tried new holes. We caught nothing. We watched other people pull up fish near us. We got colder, and hungry. We went for pho.
On our way out an old man clued us in: Our line was way too thick. The fish could see it, and they weren’t fooled. Frankly, I had no idea bluegills were so well-informed.
After lunch, we stopped at a more appropriate bait shop. The kind that has beer. We bought $8 ice-fishing rods that are even smaller than the Disney Princess and Superman rods we started with in Alaska this spring. They are the opposite of macho. And they are ingenious. They have invisible two-pound test line and they come with a jig already tied on. They have little metal bobbers at the end, marked in bright orange so you can see a bite. They have stands. As W. said, the only thing they lack is a beer holder.
I also put on more socks. We went out again. We cracked our beers, stuck worms on our tiny little jigs, and confidently let them down. The fish began to bite. Those little bluegills don’t have much fight in them. You just pop them out of the hole. But they are pretty. I also caught a pretty little white bass, with broken stripes on blue-silver skin. We caught six in all, around sunset.
We brought them home still flopping. We cooked them in the method recommended to me by the half-dozen fishermen I asked (also the one cooking method that truly brings all cultures together): deep frying. I was a little worried. The last time I caught bluegills (from the Yahara River, two blocks from my house), they tasted like Yahara River. But these bore no strange flavors. They were mild to a fault, bony and skinny, but still fresh fish. And easy enough to outwit, now that we know how. They’ll do.