I took my son William on his first ice fishing trip out on Etna Pond. It was February 2013, and it was his first time fishing at all. (Aside from fishing in a little pool of water at a campground that was stocked with brookies, for young campers to take, when he was three.)
It was a risky venture, as I had never fished Etna Pond before, and I had no idea where the productive parts of the lake were. I consulted a depth chart, found where the deepest part of the lake was, and that was where we headed.
I set our ten traps, in a bull’s-eye pattern, with five on the outer circle in the shallowest water, four in water a little deeper, and one in the center in the deepest water. I was impressed that I had actually managed to find the deepest section. My fifth grade teacher would have been proud to know I remembered the orienteering skills he had taught me.
For a first time outing, things couldn’t have been better. It was a warm day, partly cloudy, with a few breaks of sunshine, nearly 40F and no wind.
As I was setting the last trap, I told William to keep an eye on the other traps, and let me know if a flag popped up. I scooped the slush out of the hole, grabbed a sounding weight, attached it to the hook, and sent it to the bottom. Once I found bottom, I pulled up a foot of line, and set the shirt button I put on my lines to mark the depth, and I set the flag. I set the trap on the ice, and reached into my bait bucket, when I heard William shout “FLAG!”
I dropped the minnow back into the bucket, and looked back at William. “Flag? Where?” He starts laughing, and points, “Right there! Next to you!” I had set the trap down a little too hard, and I had popped the flag.
I swear! It was his first time ever ice fishing, and he pulls the most classic, and the most jerkwad prank ever! I was SO proud!
As I chuckle, and curse, I finish setting the trap, and head over to the little “camp” we had set up on the ice, and William shouts, “FLAG!” and starts heading toward me. I tell him that the joke was hilarious, and will be hilarious at another time, but pulling it twice on the same trip just makes it annoying.
He says, “NO! Really!” and continues on past me. I turn back and look, and sure enough, the trap I had just set had its flag up!
I figure I must not have set the flag securely, but I might as well treat it like a real flag. I tell William to wait up, and we will take our time getting to the flag. I explained that we didn’t want to spook the fish if he had just been nibbling, and that we wanted him to take the bait, and try to eat it.
We get to the hole, and look down, and sure enough, I can see the red button that had been sitting on the spool of spare line was down a good foot and a half from where it had been. This was not a false flag. There had been a fish.
William is excited, he is asking me what to do next. I tell him we are going to wait to see if the fish moves before we check the bait. I figure it must be a perch. A moment later, the fish starts taking line… I carefully take the trap out of the water while the fish is still slowly taking line. William is watching my every move.
After the fish took another foot or so of line, I told Will to carefully take the line into his hand, give it just a teensie little tug, and when the fish starts moving again to tug it even harder to set the hook.
He does as I advised, and jerks the line. Sure enough, the fish makes a bigger run, and I tell William, “Tug him harder now Buddy!” He gives a good tug, and I can tell by the twitching of the line the fish is hooked good. I tell him to go ahead and pull him in.
Watching my son fight the fish, is like I am watching him take his first steps, or reading his first words. He has a look of concentration etched into his face, intertwined with a look of confidence, doubt, and surprise.
Before long, the fish shows himself, and the look on my boy’s face becomes one of pride, and excitement. He must feel like Hemingway’s Santiago, as he pulls in a respectable little pickerel for a boy of seven. Especially when you consider that he has never been ice fishing before, and he even set the hook himself!
We get the trap reset, and we head back to wait and see what the next flag will bring. We don’t have long to wait, when the same trap pops its flag again.
William runs to the trap, about half way he slows, and looks back at me, before proceeding cautiously the final twenty feet to the trap.
“He’s running Dad!” he says as he peers down into the hole. I tell him to wait for him to stop. As I get to the trap, I watch as my boy expertly takes the trap out of the water, and sets it on the ice just so, so that the fish can take line without interruption.
The fish slows, and my son takes the line in his hands, as though he has been watching me fish for years, and gives the fish a little tug. The fish jerks the line out of his hands, and William looks up at me for instructions.
“Grab the line and pull Buddy! It’s OK!” He sets the hook, and tries to gain some line, but this is no juvenile pickerel. This fish has some fight in him! I tell William it is OK to hold the line, but to be sure to let it go if the fish pulls too hard, or the line could cut his fingers.
I watch as the fish pulls, and William gives him a little line, and when the fish slows he takes the line back, and gains a little more. Instinctively, he knows what he’s doing!
Still not ready to give up, the fish rushes to the surface to gain a little slack. As it does, it flashes its big greenish white belly.
William’s eyes grow large, and he say’s “HOLY!” I expect he is going to drop the line, but instead he stands up, line in hand, and says, “Here dad, YOU better take this one!”
I tell him he is doing a good job, and to keep at it. He looks at me with a little uncertainty in his eyes, but sticks with it. The next time the fish nears the surface, the fight is out of him. He comes to the hole, all mouth and fins.
When my son realizes this fish could easily swallow the first fish he caught, nothing I say can convince him to haul it out onto the ice.
I take the line from his hands, and pull up onto the ice a nice little bass, in the one, to two-pound class. To most fisherman, it is a fish they wouldn’t even mention, let alone brag about.
But this was my son’s first bass, and his third fish ever. This is no puny sunfish, or 3 inch yellow perch so many junior fisherman are so proud of!
We spend the rest of the day pulling in little pickerel. Fish I would normally throw back to grow, and fight another day. But a mated pair of eagles are teaching their three juvenile hatchlings how to “steal” fish off the ice from “unsuspecting” fisherman.
It was a day I knew I would never forget, and I looked forward to the decades my boy and I would fish together! But sometimes, the things we want for our children…(Or is it more for ourselves?) are just not meant to be! *more on this to come in another post)
Coming up next time, ”The one that NEARLY got away!”