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Open windows in the ice

Snug in their shacks on Minnesota's frozen lakes, winter fishermen watch a quiet world and harvest a variety of game fish

In the cold winter the lake country of Minnesota is deep in snow and seems lost in sleep. The stillness can almost be felt; the quiet is almost absolute. The ear must be tuned fine to pick up the sly sounds of winter. The powdery surface snow softly hisses and sighs as it scurries from drift to drift. Along the lake shores the wind rattles the bare sprigs of popple and sings faintly in the feathered tops of the jack pine. Beneath the snow the ice on the lakes moans and grumbles—in midwinter the ice on each lake is a growing giant, restless, cramped and forever complaining.

To the summer fisherman, used to louder, more logical sounds—the splash of water, the voices of exuberant fisherman-liars, the burps and growls of boat motors—the lakes seem beautiful but dead in winter. On a good Minnesota lake there is always one sure sign of winter life—the shacks of the ice fishermen. Yet even today, when ice fishing is becoming a tourist attraction, when more than 300,000 fishermen are proving that a good Minnesota lake never dies even in the coldest winter, there are still many summertime anglers who regard ice fishing as something closer to self-torment than to sport. Actually, the angler who cringes over a black hole in the open air on a subzero day, as many Easterners do, is letting himself in for some unreasonable misery. Usually, on his first day of ice fishing in the open, the novice angler should expect to get a few small perch and a bad head cold.

In the Minnesota lake country around the resort town of Park Rapids, the noon temperature may stand at 30 below, but on Fish Hook Lake, north of town, inside Bill Wiese's angling house, the temperature is 70 above. Bill Wiese's angling house sits on three feet of ice a half mile out in the lake over a rocky drop-off where crappies bite as thick and fast in January as they do in July. On a typical winter fishing day Bill Wiese and his wife Margaret are seated at a card table in the angling house, playing hucklebuck with Helen and Bill Knowles. The arrangement within the house is simple. There is a hole in each corner so all four card players can fish. The player seated south, however, must be a little careful when taking a fish. If South swings a fish out of the hole too vigorously, he may knock over the coffeepot that gurgles atop the oil heater. Crappie fishing and card playing go well together, but not perfectly. In the middle of a hand the cards are sometimes thrown down when fish hit two or three lines simultaneously. And there are times when a crappie takes the bait, swallows it, sets the hook for itself, and tugs and tugs and tugs but is ignored by the Wieses and Knowleses above while they play out an exciting card hand.

By sundown the Knowleses and Wieses have kept a dozen fat crappie and bluegills and put back a dozen runty ones. No one has caught cold nor even felt cold. Bill Knowles announces that it grieves him to lose 30¢ to such a mediocre hucklebuck player as Bill Wiese, but that is as much as anyone suffers on the subzero afternoon.

While the Wiese party fishes for crappie, Chris Ley, in another angling house farther east, is baiting with live minnow, hoping for big walleyes and northern pike. The first fish that takes the bait feels more like a walleye than a northern. It turns out to be a largemouth bass. By the common laws of ecology, bass are not supposed to feed in water colder than 50, but a good number of the Minnesota bass apparently do not know this. Largely from the catches of ice anglers, biologists have come to realize that, while fish generally slow down in colder water, the fresh-water game fish do not by any means lie around all winter like mudbound carp. One three-pound pike dissected in the winter of 1956 had 208 small bluegill in its stomach.

There are today two special breeds of sportsmen who have a privileged view of the world under ice. One of these special breeds, the ice divers, while above water, can feel the cold as much as anyone. However well a diver may be padded and sealed in rubber, the blasts of subzero wind evaporating water on his suit can carry the cold right through him. From above, the hole through which the diver descends looks as black as death. But below, the diver finds a fairly comfortable soft green world. Below there is no wind, no evaporation. The temperature never gets much below freezing, and under three feet of ice there is enough light to read by. The diver's air bubbles race like quicksilver across the jade-green ceiling. The cracking ice sounds like a heavy sea rolling on a distant reef, each new crack shining for a moment like a ragged ribbon of silver. The fishes' winter world, in brief, seems ugly only to those who do not know it.

Since the Minnesota subsoil temperatures range in the 40s and water reaches maximum density at 39.2, there is a stable layer of water that remains at 40 all winter on the lake bottoms. On the harshest days of winter, the poor fish locked below is 80 degrees warmer than the poor Minnesota people in the air above.

The other breed of sportsmen who look into the world below ice are spearmen, who are allowed by Minnesota law to take one game-fish species, the northern pike. Such a one is 20-year-old Tom Wermerskirchen, who, while the Wieses and Knowleses are angling in their house with the sun streaming through the windows, sits in his light-tight "dark house" off the north shore of Fish Hook waiting for pike. Once Tom's eyes adjust to the dark, he looks through a window frame of shining ice into a glowing green world. Each ripple in the sand, each strand of eelgrass shows clearly nine feet below. Tom can talk and stir about so long as he makes no sharp noise. His lure, a 10-inch sucker hooked through the dorsal, swims four feet below. Several small perch play for a while under the hole. A big sucker noses through the grass; a four-pound walleye swims past. Then for an hour there is no movement except the current of the Potato River gently stirring the eelgrass. And as so often happens, about the time Tom is almost hypnotized by the soft scene below, the dark, shovellike snout of a pike pokes into the window. The sucker lure swims frantically to the opposite side. Like some placoid throwback emerging from Devonian time, the pike slides slowly across the window. Tom's face is only six feet above the pike, but hidden from it in darkness. Tom slowly lifts his iron spear and slips the five tines slowly, slowly, into the water. The slightest splash would send the pike off like a rocket. In one fast thrust Tom impales the pike, pulls it up and throws it flopping into the snow outside the house. In a minute the pike is so stiff in the cold that it can be stuck like a stick in the snow. Before the sun is down Tom has three pike standing in the snow—fitting totems of the lake country, sure signs that the lakes are alive in winter.


At 35 below zero, a half mile out on Fish Hook Lake, fisherman Tom Wermerskirchen posts his third northern pike in the snow as a reassuring sign to fellow spearmen that the pike are moving under the ice.


Ice fishing in the cozy comfort of a winterized shack on Minnesota's Fish Hook Lake, angler Chris Ley gingerly plays a largemouth bass through hole in ice three feet thick.