Meditation on ice: Waiting for crappies to bite


The morning's first grudging light had just begun to slip over the land as our train of anglers ventured forth. Four of us, well-Thinsulated and wearing ice cleats for purchase, trundled onto the surface of Fish Lake seeking crappie dinners.

We knew the ice was good where we were headed, to the little island maybe a half-mile away. Some among us had been there a few days earlier. A skim of snow covered much of the lake, but where it had blown the ice clean, we inspected the cracks. Yep. We could see the ice was a good 6 or 8 inches thick.

We know this making of ice happens every year, but still, on these early trips we cannot help pausing to peer down through it. It was mostly clear and black, with intersecting fractures of white. It was like looking at a really big X-ray.

We set up over about 16 feet of water, each of us holed up in our personal shelter. We might have all fished from one larger shelter, but that is not our style. We value independence and flexibility. If you're not getting enough fish, you just pull up stakes and move.

This created an interesting social dynamic. We were all fishing together, sort of. We were alone in our one-, two- or four-man shelters, just within shouting distance of one another.

A conversation:

"Whattay have for depth over there?"


"Any action?"

"Saw a couple. Wouldn't bite."

Understand, we didn't actually see the fish. We "saw" them as orange or red bars on our sonar flashers. We could "see" how deep the fish were. We could raise or lower our jigs to put the minnows right before the fish. Sometimes they bit. Sometimes the red and orange bars disappeared, meaning the fish had moved away.

It was like playing a video game. A very slow video game.

Every now and then, one of the fish — crappies — took one of our offerings. They put up a little struggle, but we cranked them right up until the golden-flecked beauties were flopping at the surface. We would grab a lip and welcome the fish into the propane-powered warmth of our little world on the ice. They didn't seem to appreciate it.

The crappie limit is 10 each. Terry nearly always catches the most. Terry is a better fisherman than the rest of us. He has proven this many times from Fish Lake to the border-country lakes where we paddle and portage each summer. We aren't sure why he's better than the rest of us. He just is. He doesn't make a big deal about it. He's serious but humble. He would catch 10 crappies that morning.

I suspect there's a Terry in every angling gang.

Mostly, we sat in silence, listening to the purr of our flashers, sipping coffee or hot chocolate. Occasionally, the ice groaned, reminding us that we were plopped atop an evolving, organic entity. A raven or two squawked past, no doubt marking the spots where they would return for frozen morsels of minnows after we had left. Like the four of us below on the ice, the ravens were just on the hunt for another meal.

I twitched my jig and minnow, pondering the simplicity of this endeavor. Despite all of its refinements, ice-fishing remains a fairly simple art: A hole in the ice, a hook and line, a wriggling minnow.

I was pondering that simplicity when something vibrated in my pocket. I had received a text from my daughter. In Kenya.

The irony of that moment wasn't lost on me. I retrieved my phone. The crappies could wait.

SAM COOK is a Duluth News Tribune columnist and outdoors writer. Reach him at (218) 723-5332 or Find his Facebook page at or his blog at