A night out on a frozen river

The smelt ran beneath our feet as the ice heaved with the tide.

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    Ice Fishing: Anglers drop midwinter lines into the icy waters of Lake Sakakawea near Bismark, N.D. Ice fishing huts often include a stove to keep fishermen warm while they wait.
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Ice fishermen's huts have begun to dot the little lakes where we live. I'm glad to see them – from a distance. In the 1970s, my boyfriend at the time and I visited his sister in Maine. Her husband, Biff, a gentleman-outdoorsman, relished hunting and fishing in a way I knew I'd never understand. But I could see his passion for it ran deep, fed by something he found truly fulfilling about the outdoors. I respected that and even found it somewhat intriguing.

So, one evening when we were all sitting around the wood stove, the phone rang. It was a friend of Biff's, announcing that the smelt were running. Biff's eyes flashed. He began to gather up his things. And he invited us all to come along – ice fishing.

My boyfriend turned to me. What did I think? I wasn't entirely comfortable with the idea, but we had nothing else to do, and I figured it would be an adventure. We put on extra layers of clothing and climbed into the back seat of the car, which rumbled and bumped over mile after mile of back roads in the dark until it stopped at the house of an outfitter who lived near the mouth of the Kennebec River.

The next thing I knew, this outfitter – a tall, jovial man in a well-padded snowmobile suit – stood beside his loudly purring machine directing us to get into the sled behind it. I sat on the floor of the homemade wooden contraption and grabbed the sawn-out handholds in my mittened fists. The outfitter straddled his snow machine and revved up the engine, spewing exhaust that made me hold my breath. Then we roared off into the chilling blackness, lurching and swaying over invisible terrain. Where were we going?

The ride smoothed out when we got onto the frozen river. Our guide parked beside a small gathering of rough wooden shacks lit with gas lanterns, one of them already occupied by Biff and his wife, who had been shuttled here just ahead of us.

"Here you are," the outfitter said, showing us the inside of one of the huts, just big enough for the three of us to stand in. He swung the lantern up and hooked it on a nail. Briskly, he pointed out the amenities – the rusty pot-bellied wood stove (ahhhhh, heat!), the hole in the ice, the fishing lines hanging from the ceiling with little flags at the top to indicate when the fish nibbled. Then he took a small round container out of his pocket.

"You been ice fishing before?" he bellowed.

"No," we both said. I hung back a bit.

He opened the container and picked out a piece of the writhing mass inside – a very fat, very red worm.

"These are blood worms," he said, and demonstrated how they got their name by baiting a hook. I squirmed. He dropped the baited hook into the hole in the ice and took out another worm.

"Want to try it?" he asked, amused.

I declined and my boyfriend did the job instead. Satisfied we were in business, the man bustled out of the shack. Soon one of the flags trembled. My boyfriend pulled up our first catch – a silvery little smelt, about six inches long. I tried not to notice the fish flapping around in the bucket, and I definitely did not volunteer to rebait the hook. My boyfriend didn't rush to do the job, either. He had discovered the burly worms actually had teeth. After a few more catches, he hesitated even longer before rebaiting. We looked at each other and laughed. This might be a long evening.

We caught a dozen or so smelt. Apparently, there were so many of the slim little creatures swimming up the river that night, even reluctant fishermen like us couldn't avoid catching some. But mostly we spread our hands before the hissing fire and talked.

After awhile Biff came to check on us. "How many have you caught?" he asked, looking into our bucket. "That's all?" He and my boyfriend's sister had filled two pails already.

"Yeah, well, we're not trying very hard," I confessed. Then, not wanting to disappoint him, "but we're having fun anyway."

Not long after he left, the sharp sound of ice cracking split the darkness outside our hut. Then we felt movement under our feet. My boyfriend headed for the door.

"Don't worry," somebody called, "it's just the tide."

Maybe it was nothing to worry about – this natural process of the river ice yielding to the rhythm of the tides. But the cracking sounds and the shifting ice kept us on the edge of our wooden bench until Biff asked if we'd like a ride home, early.

We had fried smelt for breakfast, and they tasted pretty good. I never had the desire to go ice fishing again. But somehow I feel a little richer for having spent a black night in a lantern-lit, fire-warmed shack on a gently heaving frozen river while the smelt ran close together beneath us. And maybe Biff's longing for a place in nature was not so different from what makes me think back to that night on the ice with surprising pleasure.

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