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  • Patrick Durkin

Winter Getaways Fortify Friendships, Gratitude

Skeptics question whether ice anglers really need to drill a score of holes before bouncing between them like a trick-or-treater, their left paw clenching a jigging rod and their right paw a sonar flasher and dangling transducer.


Serious ice anglers, after all, enjoy drilling holes with souped-up battery-powered ice augers as much as they do jigging for perch, bluegills or crappies. If you doubt that, innocently ask how many holes they need to start fishing. They’ll reply: “Around 20 holes, give or take a few. That only depletes my battery about 25%.”


Hmm. We asked about fishing requirements, not battery performance.


Experienced ice drillers get especially giddy when a friend or loved one follows them hole to hole with a skimmer, dutifully clearing each watery shaft of shaved ice. I can’t cite scientific surveys, but they probably enjoy that teamwork as much as they do chainsawing trees into firewood while others hoist, haul and stack the chunks. Both tasks let them play with their toy while others endure the tedious work.


Either way, thoughtful ice-drillers treasure skimmers who simply do their job without questioning the driller’s authority or the drill’s battery life. Yes, all skimmers churn internally, but they keep dipping and flicking like obedient soldiers, knowing they’re doomed to clear holes till noon or dead battery, whichever comes first.


At least that’s what I was thinking Feb. 5 while following my friend Tim Watson as he tirelessly drilled holes into a backwoods lake in central Ashland County. Relief warmed my chest when Watson finally turned south at midlake and drilled the next hole 15 yards closer to John and Brenda Maier’s pop-up ice-fishing hotel and convention center — a Clam “Garage” ice shelter big enough to lodge a Ford truck.


“Oh good. We’re headed for the barn,” I thought. “We’ll be fishing soon.”


My relief died seconds later. After drilling the next hole on the lee side of the Maier Hotel, Watson turned right and started drilling another line of holes to the northwest, away from shelter and the promise of actually fishing.


And make no mistake: Feb. 5 near Clam Lake was not a good day for standing outside and jigging tiny panfish baits tied to thread-like lines. Forecasters predicted a midafternoon high of 16 degrees, with winds gusting all day out of the northeast at 15 to 20 mph. The forecast also included snow, which arrived as we harnessed up like dim-witted oxen to pull our sleds across the lake around 10 a.m. The snow didn’t end until we returned to our trucks five hours later.


Therefore, I plunked gratefully into a chair in the far corner of the Maier Hotel after completing my chores outside. My chair put Karen Watson, Brenda Maier and my wife, Penny, between me and the nearest door, ensuring I couldn’t be easily uprooted for further duty outside.


Yes, that makes me sound soft, but a confident man worries not what others assume.


Tim Watson, meanwhile, grabbed his jigging pole and electronics, and started assessing his network of ice holes. I didn’t see him much the next few hours as I fished a tiny tungsten jig with a waxworm near the bottom 11 feet below. Still, I tracked Watson’s movements by his curses and disgusted grunts as he fished our perimeter with his back braced against the wind.


He later reported fishing only about half of the 20-some holes we drilled and cleared. He said it was too much trouble continually cleaning them of ice and snow after my initial skimming. The slush buildup was horrible, he said, continually hampering his jig’s descent and action. If that wasn’t enough aggravation, the wind constantly blew his hair-thin line into a sideways “U” that snagged ice, crusted snow and all other edges.


Despite those frustrations, Watson outfished those of us lounging inside the shelter with Mr. Heater’s Big Buddy space heater. When I cleaned the group’s catch that evening and counted three perch and 13 bluegills, we estimated that Watson contributed at least half of the ’gills. We thanked him for his service, of course.


Watson’s only concession to the wind-driven snow and slushy holes came shortly after lunch when he fished a hole just outside the shelter, mostly out of the wind. Though he was no farther than three yards from Penny, Watson pulled three straight 8-inch bluegills from the hole while those of us inside sat idle.


The action inside and outside, however, came and went with passing schools of fish. Maybe we could have boosted our success by spreading evenly across the shelter’s interior, but no one would risk discomfort by moving over two arm’s lengths from the heater’s orange glow.


And unlike Watson’s eternal drill battery, the Maiers’ heater died twice after consuming two 1-pound propane cylinders. We quickly recognized both deaths. One minute we talked and laughed with unobstructed views of each other. The next minute our arms grew chilly as condensation from our breath hovered all around. We happy anglers, we band of wimps, then whined before sighing contentedly when Brenda Maier unscrewed the frosted empties, replaced them with freshies, and relighted the heater’s pilot light to renew the warmth.


After fishing we returned to Tom Heberlein’s old shack near Cayuga, rekindled Old T’s woodburning stove, and restored warmth to the shack’s interior. The Watsons first made this annual winter trek with us to “Old T” in February 2006, and we’ve only failed to return twice: once for an emergency dental procedure in 2019, and then for Covid-19 precautions in 2021.


We assume we’ll return next winter, but we know better than to presume it will happen. The pessimist notes we missed two of the previous three winter trips, while the optimist notes we’re 15-2 overall.


Either way, our repeated presence at Old T forges stronger friendships and sustaining gratitude, no matter how many holes we never fish.

Karen and Tim Watson arrive in the snow and cold for a day of icefishing near Clam Lake in northwestern Wisconsin. — Patrick Durkin photos

Brenda Maier unhooks a yellow perch while icefishing Feb. 5 in central Ashland County in northwestern Wisconsin.

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