A briefing just popped up on my phone from the New York Times. It reads, “It will be colder in the Midwest today than in Antarctica” and terms like ‘polar vortex’ and ‘instant frostbite’ are broadcasting from the news radio Zoraida has going upstairs. All of this frostiness has me reflecting on an ill-fated ice fishing trip I organized last February to the island of North Hero on Lake Champlain near the Vermont/Canada border.
I’ve idealized ice fishing since hearing stories of my French Canadian Great Grandfather Leopold Arbour’s exploits: lumberjacking for a living as he made his way to Schenectady from the Gaspe Peninsula near Newfoundland, stealing the show with legendary Irish jig dancing at parties (I was never inspired to try this), and gleefully sitting in the middle of a cold, dreadful lake all day staring into a black hole as he drank copious amounts of blood thinning whiskey. So, last year I recruited the first three brave and mutually foolish souls I could find by stoking their imaginations with tales of the sharp toothed Northern Pike known regionally as the ‘water wolf’, and the (mythological?) Champlanian lake monster ‘Champ.’ There was Lucas, a globe trotting filmmaker who has roughed it everywhere from the high peaks of Nepal to the fast streets of Manila, Mario, a longhaired carpenter, history buff and roots music crooner, and Alex, our resident journalist, deep thinker and political operative.
Sweater, Northern Pike (Waterwolf), Leopold Arbour (left to right)
When the time came Alex, Mario and I drove north to meet Lucas, his wife Kate, and their baby Ayla at their Vermont cabin gathering reports along the way of snow covered mountain roads and an incoming blizzard—reports we verified as we slid around the crisscrossing frozen-mud tire tracks leading up to the place. We arrived in one piece, spent an evening sharing food, drink, and stories around the woodstove, and fell asleep to the sound of Irish folk tunes sung and strummed by Mario. Before knocking out completely I poured what was left of our bottle of Wild Turkey in to Grandpa Arbour’s glass flask—an ancient relic wrapped with leather and emblazoned with a Canadian Maple leaf—and packed it in my coat for the next morning.
When I woke up it was still pitch black out aside from the ghostly white wisps of snow blowing around. Lucas was on the phone in the kitchen having a tense conversation. Just as I made my way out there he clicked the corded phone back onto its base on the wall and glanced away avoiding eye contact. It was his Vermont fisherman dad Ron, telling him, “You guys are crazy. You will never make it!” As predicted, the snow had fallen all through the night and was still coming down in full white out mode. I picked up the phone and called Bruce, our North Country contact on the ice, to gauge his reaction. With the earnest and oblivious cheer of a mountain man, he told me things were “all set!” Everyone else started filtering into the kitchen, each taking their turn glancing out the window silently, with extra pause, jaws hanging down slightly, but when no one made serious mention of the impending doom it became clear I had prepared a ship without an anchor—a well-chosen crew indeed. With a shrug, we departed.
The three-hour trip from the cabin northward to the lake was as dangerous as one would expect. We slid backwards, got stuck, lost visibility, saw cars slide off the road, and took forever, but the experimental conversation and humor that accompanies 4 unsupervised adult men was perhaps the biggest road hazard of all. Lucas recommended we ‘gun it!’ just prior to spotting our first accident, Mario gave arguments in support of previously assumed-terrible 90’s artists like Alanis Morisette and Third Eye Blind, Alex made his case for unfiltered communism, and I DJ’ed seethingly violent gangster rap playlists with one hand as I steered the ship with the other.
We arrived, we found Bruce, and we got bad news. He explained with a chuckle that the Snowmobile had seized up and we were going to have to drag a sled about a half-mile out onto the ice in the blizzard carrying a hundred pounds worth of equipment through a couple of feet of snow. With another shrug we started hauling; I noticed Alex was wearing inadequate suede ‘desert boots,’ but to his credit, not complaining. We got there, got a fire going in the shanty woodstove and then got more bad news from Bruce’s sidekick—a young man who is apparently always eager to demonstrate Vermont’s lax weed culture. According to this young fella ice fishing doesn’t just happen in the shanty, you have to drill all of the holes in the ice of the surrounding lake and then hang out outside watching the ‘tip up’s and sticking your hands into the coldest ice-water imaginable every time you have to rebait. Well after the first round of this bullshit it felt like we were trying to bait hooks using frozen hot dogs as chopsticks. We headed into the shanty to thaw out. There are four holes to pole-fish from in there but it is not usually where the action happens.
Left to right: Alex, Lucas, Mario
I realized we needed a boost and I pulled the flask from my pocket. Surely the spirit of Leopold would come in the form of Wild Turkey. We each took a ceremonious swig followed by less ceremonious swigs until it was all gone. We all sat there staring into our respective icy fates, spirits only thawed slightly from the whisky when a giant black shadow circled under the ice. Champ? The Water Wolf? It disappeared and then circled back in a rush and all of our poles ripped down out of our hands snapping against the ice…just kidding. Lucas caught one fish that may have just been re-caught bait—it certainly looked that way when he held it up, being that he stands about 6’ 6.” According to Bruce, because of our late arrival (due to the road conditions), the prime feeding time had passed. We hung in there for the whole day, checking our tip ups faithfully and trying not to disappoint the spirit of Leopold. Maybe that spirit has more to do with enduring conditions that are horrible by every sensory measure and staying put with a gritty smirk and wild whisky glazed eyes. Who knows? With a final shrug we trekked back off the ice and headed home. The snow had finally let up.
To feel the spirit of Leopold without having to go through all of that, I recommend pairing Pickled Pike (of the waterwolf variety if you can catch it) or if not pickled Herring or Mackerel (recipe below). My great-grandfather used to pickle everything and had a basement full of provisions. Eat these with a sheath of saltines and perhaps some pickled eggs straight from a jar with cold, preferably old and stubby fingers. The more you have to struggle the better. As you work, play some Stan Rogers, a Nova Scotian Folk musician I came across after investigating Irish ‘Chunes’ that Mario sent me. The nautical themes and Celtic feel recall the icy winds we endured that day, Mario’s singing the night before, and even my great-grandfather’s jig dancing. Some of the best songs I encountered were “Oh No Not I,” (3:36) and “The Jennie C.” (14:17) both of which can be found on this album, “Turnaround,” below.
Pickled Pike (or other fish)
Recipe Author: Hank Shaw
- 1 cup kosher salt
- 5 cups water, divided
- 1 pound pike, cut into 1/2-inch pieces (*don’t worry about the bones, they will dissolve-MD)
- 2 cups cider or white wine vinegar
- 1/3 cup sugar
- 1 teaspoon mustard seed
- 2 teaspoons whole allspice
- 2 teaspoons black peppercorns
- 2 leaves bay
- Peel of 1 lemon, sliced and white pith removed
- 1 medium red onion, thinly sliced
Heat 4 cups of water enough to dissolve salt. Let this brine cool to at least room temperature, preferably colder. When it is cold enough, submerge the pike pieces in the brine and refrigerate overnight. Meanwhile, bring the sugar, vinegar, the remaining cup of water and all the spices to a boil. Simmer 5 minutes, then turn off the heat and let this steep until cool.
When the pike has brined, layer it in a glass jar with the sliced lemon peel, bay leaves and red onion. Pour over the cooled pickling liquid with all the spice and seal the jars. Wait at least a day before eating, and I find it best after about a week to 10 days. Store in the fridge for up to 1 month.