In the winter I’m usually a pretty indoorsy guy. But here I was, outdoors, sitting on an overturned 5-gallon bucket, staring down a hole through two feet of ice, flicking the fishing line to make the maggot on the hook appear alive. In the near pitch-dark of our ice shack, three other idiots sat on buckets, flicking their maggots.
Welcome to an elaborate intelligence test we like to call ice fishing. Three friends and I were huddled in a canvas ice shack about the size of a phone booth. The air was foul with coffee breath, body odor, egg salad farts, and Brokeback Mountain jokes. We were sitting close enough together to predict the movement of the occasional fish who’d swim by to investigate the four evenly spaced maggots that seemed to be having spasms in the frigid water of Georgetown Lake.
“Ooh! There’s one! He’s checking me out…nope, turned up his nose. He’s heading your way, Benny, about six feet down.”
“Yeah, there his is! I think it’s a salmon. He’s cutting across, Tim, heading straight for your hole.”
Straight for your hole. This comment launched a fusillade of Santorum jokes, and in a couple of minutes, the fish was gone, perhaps realizing that housefly larvae doesn’t naturally occur in a frozen mountain lake in February.
Every winter, usually in the cold limbo between the Super Bowl and the Masters, a half-dozen of us will drive up to Ron’s cabin at Georgetown Lake for an ice fishing weekend. Ron has nothing to do with this madness, and spends the daylight hours skiing the back side of Discovery. Ron is no dummy; he prefers to ice fish in the summer. When it’s warm.
Kevin, our ice fishing guru, joined the fray a few years back. He owns the ice shack, a gas-powered auger, all the stubby ice fishing rods, and a seemingly endless supply of Crown Royal.
Before Kevin came along we were total pikers, dragging our sorry pile of gear out onto the ice in a kid’s stolen plastic toboggan, looking for some abandoned hole we could dig the slush out of. Then we’d lie on our bellies, trying to see down the hole while being whipped by 50 mph arctic blasts, going deaf from the loud chorus of our chattering teeth. We’d give up in fifteen minutes and run back to the cabin, where we would drink beer and play poker for two days. Georgetown’s trout population remained safe.
But now, thanks to Kevin, we have all the comforts of home and the best equipment. Kevin fishes first class. In fact, on this last excursion, he treated all of us to a round of martinis from his thermos as we stood around outside the shack during our lunch break, enjoying the morning sunshine.
“Great martini,” said Benny, with an appreciative smacking of the lips.
“My olives are frozen,” I complained, shivering.
“Just hold them in your mouth for a minute,” said Kevin. “They’ll thaw out.”
“Number one, I ain’t talking about these olives,” I said. “And B, if I could do that, I’d never leave the cabin.”
A few lame Brokeback jokes later, our butts were back on the buckets as we tried to bolster our position atop the food chain by plucking a few more 8-inch Kokanee salmon from the lake. Nobody seemed able to hook a trout.
Before long, Dan arrived and knocked on the shack.
“Stimpy!” I said to Tim, in my best Ren Høek voice, “Answer the flap!”
Dan stepped into the funky, dark shack, made a face, and gave us a progress report on his cooking project back at the cabin: a molé-rubbed pork butt. Dan is the wine buyer at a local market that purports to sell good food, and is also involved in the cooking classes. The man knows his way around a kitchen.
“Pork butt?” asked Kevin, trying to talk around the maggots stored in his lower lip. “That thoundth kinda thekthy. When we get back, can I thtick my finger in it?”
“Sure,” said Dan with a shrug. “That’s how you tell if it’s done.”
Sensing an onslaught of Brokeback comments, I cut in with a stale old joke about how an Eskimo traps a polar bear. I’ll spare you the set-up, but the punch line is: “…and when he comes up to take a pea, you kick him in the ice hole!”
Even in the darkness I could feel their eyes rolling.
Someone cut a crisp fart to break the awkward silence. The fart reverberated like thunder through the five-gallon bucket, causing a momentary panic because we thought the ice was cracking. I think Kevin even swallowed his maggots.
“Hey, can somebody pass Bob the Crown Royal?” said Tim.
Doug left to return to his pork butt, and we fished for a couple more hours. Kevin’s cousin had beat us to the lake and parked his ice shanty on Kevin’s usual spot, and what appeared to be a second tent next to it turned out to be a pile of trout he and his boy had pulled through the ice. Seemed everyone out there who’d started fishing before 10:00 caught a lot of fish early in the day.
At 10:00 we were at the Club Bar in Philipsburg, drinking red beer, asking for the Shake-A-Day dice.
So it wasn’t the most productive ice fishing trip, fish-wise. I think we caught eight dinky salmon between the four of us. But, like hunting and going to college, it’s really about hanging out with your buddies and drinking beer and playing poker and reverting to the 15-year-olds all men really are.
Dan’s pork butt smelled incredible. He even dressed it up in a pair of Dallas Cowboy cheerleader shorts, which was a nice touch. We also had some garlic mashed potatoes and a big pot of chili I’d made ahead of time.
While we sat around the table playing cards, waiting for the pork butt to finish, Kevin was at the cutting board, making a huge bowl of guacamole. Dan was sitting on a chair in front of the oven, glass of wine in hand, watching the butt cook through the little window in the oven door.
“Hey, Dan—can you get ESPN on that thing?” Much laughter, then sudden concern as we began to dig our chips into Kevin’s guacamole.
“Dude, what’s in here?”
Kevin answered with a mouthful of guacamole, tears running down his cheeks, a stray maggot crawling across his chin. “Avocados, of course, tomatoes, and some onion. And some lime juice. What do you think? Too much lime juice?”
“How many avocados?” I asked him.
“How many onions?”
“Seven,” he answered. “No, eight. There was an extra one on the counter.”
We ate it, of course. There was plenty of bitching and moaning, a little bit of crying, and we had to open a second bag of chips to finish off the bowl. That’s how guys are. But later that night, after all the beer, more martinis, garlic mashed potatoes, potent chili, and spicy pork butt, the air became so rank that I began to long for the relatively pleasant aroma of the ice shack.
Everyone dragged himself out of bed the next morning, and Tim was already busy cooking a big fry-up—English bacon, home fries, eggs scrambled with sharp cheddar cheese, and a big stack of Birdman toast. We sat around the dining table and shoveled the food in, our hangovers peeling away like so many onion layers.
“Hey,” I said, “you know what would go really great with this breakfast? Some pan-fried trout.”
Have you ever had a big spoonful of mostly onion guacamole forced down the front of your pants? It burns. It burns real bad. I love being a sportsman.