The solid sheet of ice beneath my feet stretched out to the horizon, where Sheep Mountain slumbered beneath a cerulean sky.
With civilization behind me, I felt like an Arctic explorer on the edge of the world.
It was not a quiet place.
The ice groaned and popped as if it bore the weight of the world on its back.
“That’s the sound of ice expanding and contracting,” Bill Brinegar said, pulling me from my reverie. “Sometimes, it will be so consistent, it will sound like a hum all day.”
We listened in silence for a moment before Bill shattered my fantasy altogether by pulling the ripcord of a gas motor and augering a new fishing hole through 9 inches of Lake Hattie’s icy lid.
Taking a day off from his job as a Wyoming Game and Fish warden, Brinegar smiled when his auger punched through the ice and water billowed out of the hole.
The motor cut out, and I gazed once more at the mountain before Alex Jameson, a fishing guide and employee at West Laramie Fly Store employee, started whooping and hollering about all the fish appearing on his flasher, a sonar device designed to read the density of objects in the water.
With a heavy sigh, I trudged back to the sleds filled with food, fishing gear, warm coffee and a menagerie of other amenities. I ignored the warmth offered by the bright red hut pitched near the sleds and turned away from the row of houses lining the shore a few hundred feet away.
Pulling my winter gear tighter against the bristling 5-mph wind, I jutted my chin into the 45-degree weather and decided I’d just have to make the best of a day spent braving the elements with my fellow adventurers as we valiantly pitted ourselves against mother nature in a battle to provide our families with fish tacos that night.
“Sure is a nice day out,” Alex opined, nobly ignoring the conditions. “It’s a shame Ike will be ruined on ice fishing after this.”
My chest swelled with pride upon hearing my companions put my experience above their own well being.
I might not be much of an angler, but I learned early on the key to ice fishing was not in the sonar, jig or gas-powered drilling equipment we dragged halfway across the frozen waters.
The key was in not paying attention to your line, or even better, not caring about catching fish at all.
For instance, I was happily engaged in a conversation with Ray Bredehoft, who also works for game and fish and owns part of Two Dogs Guide Service, about the shenanigans our teenage sons were getting into when I caught my first fish. Or, more accurately, when I observed Bill and Alex holding their hats as they ran across the ice toward the jaw jacker, a mouse-trap-like device a person uses to trick the fish into thinking they don’t care to catch them.
Apparently while my back was turned, some yellow-bellied perch had the gall to go impale himself on my red-skirted glow jig with a red worm for bait. It was a bold move that proved to be the fish’s undoing.
“You gotta keep an eye on these things,” Bill said, handing me the stunted rod to reel in my catch. “You didn’t hear the bell go off? We put the bell on the tip of the rod so you can hear when the jaw jacker takes a fish, but they can get off the hook pretty easy, so you got to get to them fast.”
I was suspicious of Bill’s intentions. Given my perch was the largest caught in those first few hours, I thought he might be trying to throw me for a loop. But I liked Bill, and part of his job is to know about fish, so I decided to try things his way.
I’ve heard tales of men who chase phantom fish of extraordinary size or rarity. But for Bill, the fish were secondary to “the channel.”
“An old timer told me about a shelf he used to fish out here,” Bill explained. “It’s a channel where the monster fish like to hang out. He said he’s too old to get out here anymore, but I figured I’d try to find it based off his stories.”
While the fish at our base camp proved plentiful, Bill shrugged off the success, gathering his gear and heading northward across the lake in search of the old timer’s fabled fishing hole.
I didn’t bring a yard stick on our expedition, but Bill and I seemed to trek endlessly across the frozen waste for the next couple of hours.
Time was not exactly relative to distance, however. And many times, I found myself thinking we could get to the other side much faster if Bill didn’t stop every 10 feet to drill a hole and measure the depth with a portable sonar device.
Every once in awhile, we would stop and set up the jaw jackers, fishing a line of holes that stretched out straight from our camp. The first couple of times we stopped, we were close enough to hear Alex and Ray hoot and dance when they caught something. But as the day dragged on, we moved far enough away not to be distracted by their tomfoolery, which was a relief, because their success made it a real challenge to focus on catching fish like Bill taught me.
I was a good student, though. And I tried my best to care about catching the fish, despite the fact they seemed not to care about being caught.
“You gotta jig your rod a bit, so the rig has some action to it,” Ray instructed after he got tired of catching fish and decided to join us in our search for the channel. “The perch are eating crawdads right now, so you want to kind of simulate their movements with your line.”
At this point, I was sure they were pulling my leg. The jaw jackers’ held the line perfectly still and I could see Alex in the distance racing from one contraption to the other as he tried to keep up with all the fish biting at his bait. But, I followed Ray’s advice and tried to imagine how a frozen crawdad would swim if he didn’t want to get eaten.
The opposite shore was only a few hundred feet away when Bill declared the auger too dull to continue his search.
“Well shoot, Bill,” Alex said. “How do you think a new auger like that got dull so quick when all you were doing was drilling a bunch of holes through dirty ice all the way across the lake?”
Bill shrugged, guessing it was likely due to the fact he didn’t store it properly in the off season.
With their curiosity satisfied, Alex and Ray started the long journey back toward the hungry fish. But I decided to stay with Bill and help him fish the last few holes.
The ‘hot hole’
It was noontime, and the sun warmed our backs enough we shed a few layers.
The fish weren’t interested in our rigs, but we weren’t bored.
The ice now sounded like a mixture of bacon sizzling and dozens of steel wires snapping. The occasional sudden shift beneath our feet provided plenty of excitement.
“I know that channel is out there,” Bill said, reeling in his line. “But I suppose we should head back and see how the others are making out.”
Back at the hut, Alex asked me to relieve him of the “hot hole” so he could pay more attention to the other holes where he was catching fish.
The lack of fish and our search for the phantom channel had taken its toll on me, so I was a fair bit tuckered out and forgot to focus on catching the fish when I got my first nibble. The action should have jarred me to attention, but I was busy contemplating life’s finer philosophies such as “I wonder if my boss will say anything if I stay out here a couple more hours” and “I bet my wife will be so happy I caught a fish for her that she’ll clean it for me.”
I was on the edge of recalling what my wife needed me to pick up from the store when the tip of my rod started jumping.
“Reel it in, reel it in,” Alex shouted, startling me to action. “You got one!”
Ray was quick to his feet, running over to the hole and rolling up his sleeve so he’d be ready to scoop the catch out of the frigid depths.
“Look at that action,” Ray said. “That’s gotta be a trout.”
I reeled in the unlucky fish, and to our delight found a football-shaped 12-inch perch on the other end.
“Holy crap,” Alex squealed. “That’s a real Hattie fatty.”
A huzzah went up from the whole of our camp, and each of my companions encouraged me to stay and catch another. But with two fish in my creel, I figured I’d stop on a good note.
Besides, I knew then I would only catch what I didn’t think about, and with the biggest catch of the day to my name, I wouldn’t be able to stop thinking about catching the next one.