by Steve Piragis
All my friends seemed a bit squeamish about early season ice conditions yesterday. It is early but the small lakes now have at least four inches of ice, so Jack our dog, also known as Mr. Happy, and I just got out some tip ups and bought some minnows and headed to our secret little wilderness lake to see what’s biting.
Tuesday was a near perfect early winter day; little wind, lots of sun and some fresh hope for the future in the air. The walk in is very short but this lake, just outside the wilderness boundary, seems to be rarely visited by other folks. We were alone again, and the feeling was good. Jack is always happy to be out and as a fuzzy and very cute bearded collie he is constantly aware of more of nature than any human can sense.
With ice chisel in hand, we poked our way along the shore ice till we got to the spot where a big boulder is a long stone’s throw offshore and headed out. I was wearing my paddling life vest and I had safety ice picks on a cord around my neck. I was as careful as all my friends had warned me to be. The thump of the chisel every few feet sounded solid, so we carefully made our way to the fishing hole that was so productive in summer, off the big gull nesting rock. It’s a good spot for northerns, crappie and bass in summer so why not in winter was the hypothesis.
In my humble opinion, the best time to ice fish is early in the season on a rare sunny day with four inches of ice to cut through instead of 4 feet of ice in January. At 30 degrees the minnow bucket doesn’t freeze, and the holes stay open and a human can relax and jig from the comfort of a camp chair while soaking up the rare natural vitamin D available in December.
The chisel chunked out big chards of ice that Jack found to be the perfect puck to chase around the ice and crunch on for kicks and refreshment. He seems to prefer drinking out of lakes and eating snow over drinking water from a bowl anytime of the year anyway. With a couple ice fishing tip-up rigs set up and baited with a fresh minnow we had time to play fetch the ice chunk. At a year and a half, it was Jack’s first time realizing that even a canine with four legs has a challenge trying to stop while running on ice.
With no action happening and feeling the thrill of being alone on a wild lake perhaps miles from the nearest person, I tuned up my wolf howl for fun. It’s worked well over the years, mostly at night but even in daytime occasionally. Not to sound like bragging, but one of my few talents in life is the ability to imitate the calls of birds and even a few mammals. On early morning walks with Jack, I have made more than a few ravens do a double take and circle back to check us out. I have called in whip or wills in white cedar bogs on Cape Cod and made a lot of loons curious about a canoe cruising past. “Poor Sam Peabody” is a specialty of mine. The white throated sparrows eat it up in June when I whistle the call, they all but attack me. I once imitated the high-pitched whine of a mother wolf and brought her three little pups out of the woods to greet me on a June run on old logging roads. When mom showed up to round up the pups her stare at me, hackles up on her neck from a few feet away is a moment frozen in time. So, howling into the wind on an open wild winter lake in not unusual for me. Jack thought I was a little crazy, but he is always forgiving.
The flag went up and we trotted over to the tip-up and found the line headed south and the tug of a fish on the end. I was hoping for a pike for dinner or even a walleye but up through the ice hole came a largemouth bass. Now, that’s a first for me in winter in northern Minnesota, catching a bass through the ice. Two pounds of golden floppiness lay on the ice for Jack to inspect. I believe he thought that was pretty cool. We let her go back through the hole she came up through swimming straight down in the murky depths. It turned out to be the only fishing thrill of the day.
The sun slides sideways in the north on a December afternoon. The angle of decent is as oblique as it gets in December as it slices towards the horizon oh so slowly. As Jack and I descended into the shadows of the big white pines to the southwest, I felt the first chill of the day. Maybe it was time to start packing up the gear? But, first a couple more howls to the distant hills and we can wind up the lines.
Facing the long length of the lake to the east there was some movement near the distant shore. I’ve seen deer on the ice there before and as day turns slowly to night deer are more likely to be out of cover and on the ice. Two animals at first and then four and they seemed to move more quickly and playfully than deer would naturally. There were soon more. The long legs could be deer, but the quality of their movements looked more like wolves.
Jack took notice. He made a half-baked move to run out there but seemed relieved when I told him to stay and get back with me. One little 50-pound beardie does not herd his flock of wolves without consequence.
The energy from across the lake suddenly picked up momentum. Four animals became six and more movement along the shore meant more. Were there really nine wolves in this pack? The lead group was coming closer and again the pack expanded. I counted many times and came up with 11 dark figures moving randomly but ominously in our direction. As they came closer the lead animal was darker than the rest and appeared much larger. He or she, likely the alpha, stood obliquely to us staring. Maybe my howling earlier in afternoon piqued their curiosity or maybe they perceived a threat to their territorial range. Whatever their motivation it was obvious Jack, and I were on the minds of 11 wild, awesome predators of the great north woods.
I had had a close encounter with a walrus once in the high arctic waters of Ellesmere Island. It was just curious I think but it bumped the bottom of my kayak lifting two of us out of the water a foot or two before appearing with tusks dripping ice cold water two feet from my bowman. With 28-degree water leaking into our skin covered boat from a hole made by the walrus, we had little time to take photos. We made it to shore before sinking along with the rest of our team in similar fabric covered kayaks only to have this mighty whiskered beast sit offshore a few yards watching this rarity of humans in a place long abandoned by Inuit centuries before. In a life lived outdoors there are moments that a person will never forget. The connection to nature is woven of experiences like this and so many others with the animals that live their entire lives in the constant drama of life and death. Our own lives are mostly not at risk in nature with a modicum of care but there are moments on the edge when it could go either way.
I never got out my phone to take a photo or video of this great pack of wolves on the ice; never even thought of it. I wasn’t really scared as I wasn’t rationally afraid of the mother wolf with pups two decades before. But there was adrenaline. Fight or flight was in my blood, but I reminded myself that wolves have never been aggressive towards humans in recorded history except for a questionable death up north in Saskatchewan a few years ago. 11 wolves however approaching even a quarter mile away is intimidating. One or two would be less so I think. 11 is a whole squad in any sport and we were easy meat. So, what to do? I pulled the homo sapiens card and instead of howling, I yelled at them to get lost. The ones in the back quickly retreated for the shore and the woods. The 2 or three in the front, including the biggest and darkest of the pack just stood there. Yell some more I think is what Jack suggested. I did and they all slowly moved south towards the shore and disappeared. One more indelible memory etched in chemical and electrical tangle of brain cells that will last as long as I do. May there be many more.