Given a choice between ice-fishing for panfish, trout or walleyes, I’ll take panfish without a pause.
My preference might be linked to my teen-age years when I spent nearly every free day chasing perch and bluegills on Madison’s lakes Mendota and Monona. I fished alone at times, but more often I spent the holiday break and every weekend ice-fishing with friends who shared my enthusiasm.
We spent our school days, of course, daydreaming about ice-fishing, or making plans to fish when we should have been studying. We spent Mondays and Tuesdays rehashing and analyzing the previous weekend, and Wednesday through Friday weighing our options for the weekend ahead.
That might explain why most of us ranked in the bottom half of our class when we graduated in 1974. We got more serious about school sometime later, but only after exhausting all other possibilities for jobs, careers and gas money.
One of my most stalwart fishing buds from the early 1970s was Tim Watson, who always seemed to be there for my most witless moments on the ice. We first teamed up as high-school sophomores after hearing a midweek report that perch were biting near Olin Park on Lake Monona.
By the time Saturday arrived and my mom dropped us off at the park’s frozen boat landing, our 15-year-old spirits weren’t fazed by strong winds and -8 air temperatures. I recall wearing an Army-surplus parka with a big hood and heavy wool liner, and pulling a sled with a peach crate screwed atop its wooden deck. The crate held my 6-inch hand auger, a couple of dropline/jigging poles with no reels, and a gallon-size coffee can filled with charcoal.
I don’t recall the wind-chill factor as we tramped out to the knot of fishermen a mile offshore. I just recall striking nearly every match in the book before lighting my charcoal, drilling two holes, and crouching over the heat as my tiny plastic bobbers froze into the ice.
Watson and I probably lasted only 90 minutes that morning, and caught only one 8-inch perch. We could have caught more, but after unhooking my perch from the drop-line, I let its monofilament leader hit the side of my coffee-can furnace. The leader sizzled and melted, vaporizing like spit on a griddle. My sinker, jig-hook and two golden-rod grubs shot back down the hole before my mittened hand could react.
I swore as only an unsupervised teen-ager can swear, realizing I had no backup tackle.
Then I stood cold and glum, my jaw hanging open like the mouth on my now-frozen perch. Watson and I took the hint, and trudged back to the park and over to the nearby VFW post, where we called home to summon a ride.
We vowed to never return to the ice without a portable ice-fishing shanty and large-reel “Mendota” ice-fishing rigs. The following Christmas, my dad gave me a huge piece of custom-sewn canvas, which I used to fashion a fold-down shanty atop a plywood floor and a pair of old wooden skis.
The shanty worked great until one Sunday morning in February when Watson and I pulled it onto the glare ice where Yahara River enters Lake Monona. We slipped, shuffled and jerked our way across the wind-swept ice, our feet struggling to find a foothold. (Only later in life did we think to buy ice cleats for our boots.)
After arriving at our chosen spot about a quarter-mile offshore, I lifted the shanty’s entrance wall, stepped inside its door with both 2-by-2 crossbeams, pushed open the back wall to pull the canvas sidewalls into place, and locked everything together with the support bars.
I briefly wondered whether my shanty might act like a sail as the wind rippled its canvas walls, but quickly dismissed such responsible concerns. When the shack stayed put 15 seconds, Watson and I began moving our gear inside.
And that’s when I learned the importance of an ice anchor.
A wind gust slapped the shanty’s rear end, sending it rumbling across the ice, bound for Olbrich Park. Within seconds the shanty was bouncing and careening through scores of fishermen, scattering and tangling every chair, bucket, tip-up and Mendota rig in its path.
Watson and I skated after the shanty in our Sorel pac boots, first grabbing its pull-rope and then its flapping door. We altered its course, but not its speed. Selfless fishermen also tried to help stop the fugitive shanty, but by that time it had harnessed the wind’s full power and knocked the would-be heroes aside like drunkards in a bar brawl.
By the time the shanty broke Watson’s grip, most anglers downwind of the four-walled sail frantically grabbed their gear and lurched from the storm track, shouting equal shares of advice, insults and obscenities.
Roughly 100 yards into the shanty’s escape, I scrambled back inside the maelstrom and landed on all fours atop its floor. Wobbling to my feet, I reached up and knocked out the shanty’s support bars to collapse its walls atop me as I crawled back out.
With its sails struck and me dragging on its reins, the shanty spun to a stop. Watson caught up about that time and—good friend that he is—helped me to my feet to retrace the shanty’s path through the debris field of gear and grumbling anglers. As we pulled my crippled shanty back to its launch area, we mumbled apologies while absorbing death-ray glares. We then gathered our remaining scattered gear, and trudged off to the refuge of my parents’ station wagon.
Embarrassed? “Walk of shame” doesn’t begin to describe our humiliation. Nearly 50 years later I still blush at the memory.
Still, we weren’t long deterred. After consulting with our ice-fishing friends, we found a 15-inch steel pipe, attached a 3-foot rope, and fashioned an ice anchor before returning to the ice the following Saturday.
Watson and I have ice-fished without much incident since, maybe because he’s often fished alone or with anyone besides me.
Tim Watson still chooses to ice-fish with Patrick Durkin nearly 50 years after seeing Durkin’s ice-shanty nearly wipe out a large gathering of perch fishermen on Madison’s Lake Monona.