Sunday, April 25, 2021

Cutting Teeth

It’s hard to know exactly when the last day of ice season will be. You can tell when it’s getting close, but the thought of sneaking in one more trip is always there. When it’s finally over, after the auger and tip-ups have been tucked away, it’s good to look back on how things transpired. This past season I was fortunate to get on the ice nine times with friends, old and new, and witness some memorable catches. The highlight, though, was introducing my daughter to the pastime that consumes me each winter.

Cora is no stranger to fishing. She’s been joining me on open water trips for panfish, trout, and snapper blues since she could walk. Ice fishing is a different ballgame though—conditions are harsher, drives are longer, trips start earlier. Cora had been inquiring about hardwater for a while. Now six years old, it seemed like the right time. The season is brief in Connecticut, and circumstances don’t often allow a youngster to tag along, but it happened this winter—twice—and I’m grateful.  

There was a learning curve for both of us. More planning and preparation involved than a normal outing. Each of our patience was tested. It takes time to get set up on the ice before you’re actually fishing. Then there’s no guarantee the fish cooperate. A few things helped keep Cora interested—the first was going with other kids her own age. A friend brought his two boys and they had a ball exploring while us dads put lines in the water. Another way we kept them engaged was assigning tasks to help with. It turns out that keeping ice holes clean of slush with a ladle is a perfect job for six-year-olds.

Keeping busy.

Lucky for us it got cold enough this past winter to lock up a tidal cove of a large river close to home. The cove is deep and full of fish, nothing I would dare ever eat, but there’s always potential for lots of action and the occasional surprise trophy. Flags started popping immediately as yellow perch zeroed in on our live shiners. A couple of the perch were pretty large and all of them were fun for the kids to pull up by hand and proudly display.

Cora hoisting an eater-size yellow perch (that we can't eat due to PCBs).

A Hali jig tipped with a wax worm will catch almost anything through the ice

We didn’t know it then, but the next time the kids came out with us turned out to be the last trip of our ice season. It was a cold start that morning with temps in the 20s, but never once did Cora complain of the cold. Her first pair of merino wool base layers helped, as did the hand and toe warmers. I also busted out the trusty pop-up shelter where she enjoyed a hot oatmeal breakfast, which made it worth the effort.

A big mistake I made was not buying ice grippers to strap under Cora’s small boots. We lucked out with crunchy snow on the ice for her first trip, but the surface was super slick for her second outing and she was falling all over the place, to the point I was worried about her getting hurt. Thankfully our host that day brought an inner tube to lug his gear out and I gladly towed Cora around in it, including to a few fish flags.

Enjoying breakfast in a warm, albeit worn, shelter.

Cora with her first black crappie.

The highlight of the day, in fact the highlight of my ice season, came just before 9 a.m. that morning when the flag of our farthest tip-up went up and, like a sled dog, I hauled Cora a few hundred yards over the frozen terrain. The spool was spinning at a steady clip—I pulled the trap, set the hook, then proudly watched my daughter fight, hand-over-hand, a heavy smallmouth bass. It was the first smallie I had seen from this spot more known for northern pike, so it was a welcomed surprise and a moment to celebrate, one neither of us will soon forget. Cora’s fingers went numb from handling the cold, wet Dacron, but her grin stretched from ear to ear, and so did mine.

A fine fish and proud moment.