St Croix River Road Ramblings

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Sunday, January 6, 2013

Fishy Business at the Cabin

Written the Winter of 2010 -- at a winter visit to the lake cabin
The spring runs into the lake keeping a small open
area that attracts fish to the oxygenated water
and in the old days attracting fishermen too

The snow is crusty and deep enough so you lurch along onetime on the crust, next foot breaking a foot lower—too deep to drive the tractor through yet.  The spring is a fascinating little world of its own.  Water comes oozing out of the ground over a boggy 100 square feet and concentrates into a little stream and trickles 100 feet from the spring knoll down into the lake edge. 

The spring stays open and above freezing all winter, attracting all sorts of animals coming to take a drink. The turkey tracks mix with deer, fox, coyote, and some I don’t know—it is like an oasis in the Sahara

In the spring are green short plants growing, protected from freezing.  Where the stream enters the lake, a small open pond forms with thin ice beyond.  Fish, short on oxygen in the frozen lake, come to the open to seek out fresh oxygenated spring water to get a burst of life in the midst of a long cold deep ice winter.

I saw no dead fish in the lake edge opening.  Usually by this time of the year, if there is going to be a lake freeze out, the bottom of the shallow open area is strewn with small dead sunnies and crappies.  None this year at all.  Only minnows swimming in the open water.

For as long as the lake has been here and the spring bubbling year round, people have come to the open water to fish in winter’s harsh conditions. Native Americans taught the white settlers and their boys how to spear and snag fish with bone hooks and spearheads. 

When Dad and Mom bought the land in the early 1960s from Ernest and Edith Armstrong, we boys explored the lake and began fishing there.  The neighboring old timers, the Nelsons, Orrs, Williamsons, Beckstroms, Hoffmans, Borups and other settlers had fished there for generations.  George Williamson, who grew up a half mile away, told me that many family winter meals were of fish caught at the spring only hours earlier.

We first explored the spring in 1963.  We walked from the road across the lake to where a few men would be gathered around the open water.  The thin ice had been broken back until it was strong enough to stand on right up to the open water.  Just back they made their ice fishing holes in the stronger ice.  We always found them fishing in the shallow water with their short ice fishing poles, always with a bunch of fish thrown on the ice nearby.  Usually crappies, sunnies and a bass or northern. 

After visiting and getting no hint as to how they were catching the fish, we left.  “Wonder how they are catching the fish?  You see each fish has a red spot on it’s belly.  Must be snagging them somehow.  They got cardboards and blankets too.  I bet they lay the cardboard on the ice, put the blanket over their head and snag’em.”  

We determined to try it ourselves.  We tied treble hooks to heavy fish line and waited until one day no one was around one day after feeding the youngstock at the barn across the road. Walking to the open hole, we saw the flash of dozens of fish fleeing back under the ice.  We made our holes, laid down the cardboards, covered our heads and settled in to watch.

The water was shallow, no more than 18 inches deep.  Sunlight from the open water spilled back under our holes so we could see into the water almost like looking into an aquarium, the water having a light green/blue shade, but clear and cold.  After just a few minutes, schools of minnows swam through under our faces, just inches above the water, on their way to the open spring water.  Next came dozens of tiny panfish also heading out into the open area.  Gradually larger fish came along so that in about 10 minutes the spring open water was full of tiny to small fish, and back under our faces, some decent sized sunnies and crappies.  Eventually, we began to see a few smaller northern, and a bass or two show up.  Finally, some monster carp came sucking in big breaths of water and blowing it out it out agitating the water in front of their huge mouths. 

We brought out our hooks to test fishing.  We lowered the hook, tried to swing it to the side under a fish and then give a yank.  The hook just slid off the belly—no fish at all.  Finally we gave up and just watched the fascinating show of fish coming through right below our eyes.  When a puffing carp came directly under me, in an inspired moment, I lowered the treble hook right in front of him and he sucked it deeply into his mouth.  I yanked and pulled up a 15 pound carp, flopping him onto the ice.  It took about 15 minutes for things to calm underwater and another carp to show up.  We got three, all giants!

We thought carp were junk fish as did most of the neighbors.  My grandpa, Eugene Hanson, loved fish of any kind.  We gave them to him.  “I smoke them and they are delicious,” he told us.  “You brought enough to last weeks!”  (One fishing hippie to another—“They say carp are good smoked.  Tried it once, but couldn’t keep it lit.”)  

Later we found the old timers soldered hooks to coat hanger wire and snagged that way.  It was an easy way to get a few fish, but a hard way to get very many, as with each fish the pond took a long time to settle and the fish come back. 

I learned a crappie was different from the rest of the fish.  If you saw a nice crappie below you, all you had to do was lower your flattened bare hand edgewise into the water along side him like another fish, then touch his belly as lightly as you could and he would sort of tip sideways a little and float to the water surface.  You followed him up with your hand – all like it was happening in slow motion, and as he broke the surface you gently flipped him out of the hole onto the ice.  It didn’t disturb the other crappies below so you could get another pretty soon until your hand went totally numb.  Touch any other fish and they were gone in a flash chasing everything else off.  Crappies seemed to crave the human touch. 

I know snagging fish is illegal, as is spearing them.  I wonder if hand patting them into your skillet might be OK?  Anyway, I quit doing it 30 years or more ago.  However, I did break the ice back last week around the spring and drilled a hole to look below again to see what fish are still in the lake purely for scientific reasons.  I am sure that if a fat big crappie swims and stops under my nose, I won’t be tempted to dip my hand in the water and lovingly stroke him into dinner.