In my ongoing quest to shake off my Florida roots and achieve the illustrious title of “Real Alaskan,” I recently managed to cross an important activity off the checklist: ice fishing.
We set out on the first Sunday in February. It was an average winter day on the peninsula – cloudy, cold but not excessively so, and with a brief gust of wind every now and again. I had bought an ice fishing pole and my 2020 fishing license from Walmart the night before and was scrambling that morning trying to think of what else to bring.
Layers. I knew that much.
Anything remotely related to outdoor activities, I was throwing in my backpack. For me that also included a couple of those tiny bottles of Jack Daniel’s that you find in hotel minibars.
Would we be out there a few hours? A few days? If you had looked in my backpack that day you would have thought I was planning for a three-day hike. Better safe than sorry though, right?
Boots. I had a choice between my low-quality winter boots that had recently gotten a hole in them and my XTRATUFs. In my head the XTRATUFs made total sense, because those are what I used for all the other fishing I’ve done here.
Then I met up with the rest of my friends and noticed they were all wearing something called “bunny boots.” They looked a lot more comfortable than what I had on.
No one told me what to wear, but then again I don’t think I ever asked. I try to keep my extreme cold-weather ignorance under wraps as much as possible, only to reveal it in the occasional column.
Someone needs to write a book listing all the little things that are common knowledge for born-and-bred northerners and are total unknowns to the sun-soaked lizards like myself who are venturing out of their southern comfort for the first time. If it hasn’t been done already, I guess I have my next project.
My friends, being the incredible and kind people that they are, went out of their way to make sure I didn’t feel out of place. Nicole let me borrow a scarf, and Dillon had an extra pair of lobster gloves for me. I just resigned myself to the fact that my feet would be a little cold.
After driving for what felt like an hour to the very end of the road somewhere in Sterling, we made it to a place called Paddle Lake and began loading our gear into the sleds. I knew we had a bit of a walk ahead of us, but I was ready and excited. Dillon had a spot in mind for setting up, and luckily for us it was only on the other side of the lake from where we started.
Lakes are not a new phenomenon for me. I grew up in a town named Lakeland, and my childhood home was situated in between two of them. The part that was a new and very surreal experience for me was walking across the surface of one.
This particular lake was about the same size as one that was close to where I grew up, and the whole time we trudged through the snow I couldn’t help but make that comparison in my head. I tried to picture myself walking across Lake Hollingsworth rather than around it as I had done hundreds of times in the past.
For some reason, part of me was still concerned about any alligators that might be in the water. I guess you can take the man out of Florida, but you can’t take Florida out of the man.
We caught our first fish before all the holes had been drilled. As we were scooping ice and dropping our lines, Victoria suddenly yelled out, “Oh, hey!” and casually pulled a decent-sized rainbow trout out of the first hole we had made. Immediately we were all cheering and high-fiving, and any trepidations I still had about the experience were gone in an instant.
Once we got a fire going, Nate cleaned the fish on the spot, stuffed it with butter and spices that he had brought with him for exactly this moment, wrapped it in bacon and foil and threw it on the open flames. A few minutes later the seven of us (plus one dog) were feasting on our glorious prize. Unfortunately that ended up being the only fish we would catch that day, but that one trout was enough to keep our spirits high the whole time we were out there.
I took a few opportunities to sit and fish in front of one the holes farther from the group so that I could fall into that quiet, reflective mind-set that can only be acquired when fishing. Staring into the icy water, I could barely see down far enough to spot my own line. I thought about how mysterious the water felt in that moment. There’s always an element of mystery to deep waters, but the added layer of ice separating us from what floats underneath made it feel like a different world altogether, with the holes we drill offering just the smallest glimpse.
When I wasn’t looking down into the dark abyss, I was looking around at the silent landscape surround us. I know I’m not the first to have this sensation, but I’m two winters in and the stillness that comes with this season never ceases to take my breath away. It was as if life had been put on pause, and any movement or sound that we made was noticeably disruptive to the rest of the world. We were the pebble hitting the pond, the branch snapping in the forest, the footprint in the snow.
After several hours of enjoying the company of friends and the absence of fish, we packed up our supplies and made the half-mile trek back across the lake. On the way back I kept thinking about how brazenly we as humans choose to defy the elements to do things like ice fishing or backcountry skiing, and the incredible payoff that comes from that arrogance, whether it’s the view from the top of Skyline Trail or the taste of a trout freshly plucked from frozen waters.
I’ll definitely be doing more ice fishing in the future, but I should probably invest in some new boots first.