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.” Terms like polar vortex and instant frostbite are broadcasting from Zoraida’s radio 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 about 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), legendary Irish jig dancing at parties, and sitting on a cold, dreadful lake all day staring into a black hole as he drank copious amounts of blood-thinning whiskey. Last year I recruited the first three brave and mutually foolish souls I could find. I stoked their imaginations with tales of the sharp-toothed Northern Pike known regionally as the water wolf, and the (mythological?) Champlanian lake monster, Champ. The final team comprised: 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)
Alex, Mario and I drove north to meet Lucas, his wife Kate, and their baby Ayla at their Vermont cabin. We gathered reports of snow-covered mountain roads and an incoming blizzard along the way; We verified these reports as we slid around the crisscrossing frozen-mud tire tracks leading up to the place. We arrived, 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 fading out completely I poured what was left of our bottle of Wild Turkey into Grandpa Leopold 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 the sky was pitch black aside from ghostly white wisps of snow. Lucas was on the phone in the kitchen having a tense conversation. I entered the room as he clicked the phone on its base and glanced away. It was his Vermont fisherman dad Ron, “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 whiteout 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 floated 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 trip northward involved all the expected hazards—backsliding, getting stuck, low visibility—but the experimental conversation and humor that accompanies 4 unsupervised men was the biggest road hazard of all. Lucas recommended we “gun it!” just prior to spotting our first accident, Mario argued in support of assumed-terrible 90’s artists Alanis Morisette and Third Eye Blind, Alex gave his case for unfiltered communism, and I DJed seethingly violent gangster rap playlists with one hand as I steered the ship with the other.
We arrived and found Bruce. He explained with a chuckle that the Snowmobile had seized up and that we’d be dragging a sled 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 suede ‘desert boots,’ but not complaining. We arrived and started a fire in the shanty wood stove. Bruce’s sidekick—a young man who is apparently always eager to demonstrate Vermont’s lax weed culture—informed us that ice fishing doesn’t just happen in the shanty; you have to drill holes in the ice of the surrounding lake and then stand outside watching the “tip-ups.” If you catch something or lose the bait, you have to stick your hands into gelid ice-water and fidget uselessly with the hook until he feels enough pity to come over and help. Imagine threading a needle using frozen hot dogs as chopsticks. After the first round of this, 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 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 sat there staring into our respective icy fates, spirits only thawed slightly from the whiskey 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 beside his 6′ 6” frame. According to Bruce, because of our late arrival, the prime feeding time had passed. We endured the rest of the day, checking our tip-ups faithfully, so as 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 whiskey glazed eyes. Who knows? With a final shrug, we trekked back off the ice. 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 water wolf variety if you can catch it) or pickled Herring or Mackerel. 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, 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 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 the 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—ten days is better. Store in the fridge for up to 1 month.