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Brad Dokken: Noisy ice is always unsettling

We could see the ice was safe—at least 6 inches thick—judging by the depth of the tiny fissures that spidered across the crystal-clear surface of the frozen pond.

Still, the sound of the ice groaning and popping as we took our first tentative steps, checking with a spud bar every few feet to make sure it was safe, was just as unsettling as I remembered it.

The ice was in a talkative mood that afternoon.

I've spent hundreds, if not thousands, of hours on the ice over the years, but I'll never get used to that sound.

So it was Saturday, Nov. 18, when four of us ventured onto a shallow body of water to set a few tip-ups in pursuit of northern pike. Last year, we probably could have launched a small boat, but cold weather descended early this year, presenting the opportunity to ice fish earlier than I have in several years.

The spot we chose to fish on this cold, windy afternoon is among the first places to offer walkable ice.

In my experience, at least, ice is noisiest on cold days, expanding and contracting like a living organism, which I guess in many ways it is.

The sound is difficult to describe, sometimes rumbling across the surface like thunder, other times sounding more like high-pitched shots.

Still other times, it seems to approach like a fast-moving train.

That'll make your hair stand on end.

Others had been here before us, venturing even farther onto ice that appeared as smooth as glass. Ice cleats were an absolute must, and more than once, I found myself wishing I'd brought my ice skates.

It's not every day, after all, that you can fish and skate at the same time.

As fun as that may sound, skating would have increased the temptation to let down my guard and venture to areas of the pond that might not have been safe.

Instead, we chose to stay close to shore on proven ice, even though the best fishing spots loomed in the distance beyond our field of bravery.

The first ice fishing trip of the year usually presents a few kinks that need working out, and this trip was no exception as my fishing partner fought with a couple of tangled tip-ups.

My auger, though, ran like a charm.

Gas augers and I have had a stormy relationship over the years, which can be a problem for those of us who aren't mechanically inclined. A couple of winters ago, I decided to end that relationship for good when I splurged for an ION electric ice auger. Powered by a rechargeable lithium battery, the auger is good for about two dozen holes through 2 feet of ice before it runs out of juice.

I'll never go back. No spilled gas. No exhaust fumes. No sputtering engines that won't start.

Getting the ION revved up for the season was as simple as popping in the battery and pressing a switch.

The ice was a consistent 6 inches everywhere I drilled that afternoon, and a dozen tip-ups soon dotted the surface of the pond.

We settled in with our backs to the brisk north wind as we watched and waited for a flag to pop. Hopefully, a few hungry pike would find the smelt we dunked for bait to their liking.

Not much happened for the first hour or so, but then we had a flurry of maybe a half-dozen flags in a period of 15 to 20 minutes. We landed two pike that would have been big enough to keep if we'd wanted to keep fish, and three or four other pike managed to take the bait without getting hooked.

We'd landed probably half a dozen pike by the time the wind and cold drove us to warmer surroundings.

I'm not sure there was any connection, but the fishing seemed to pick up about the time the ice got used to us walking on it and decided to quit groaning and popping.

As loud as it sounded on the surface, I can only imagine what it sounded like under the ice.

Brad Dokken

Brad Dokken is a reporter and editor of the Herald's Sunday Northland Outdoors pages. Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and joined the Herald staff in 1989. He worked as a copy editor in the features and news departments before becoming outdoors editor in 1998.  A Roseau, Minn., native, Dokken is a graduate of Bemidji State University. 

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