"I should have brought my skates."
Maybe not with the marginal safety. Ice five and five-and-a-half inches thick in close and outward about 50 yards from where we entered the lake, I found the ice about four inches thick beyond. Further out, I never bothered to test the thickness. The Morristown Daily Record reported some open water at the lake Friday, three-and-a-half-inch thickness where four anglers fished, so as usual, the wind is playing its game. Small ponds usually freeze evenly; lakes can issue shocking surprises. Just a few years ago or so, two teenagers fell through and died, unspeakably tragic.
I used the splitting bar in the photograph above to judge safety as we progressed outward, but once we got our belongings in place, fired up the power auger to cut, after I had whacked out three holes with the bar. Even ice this thin put some pain in my old man's right shoulder. Mike stayed safe; only I ventured beyond what we first established as quite safe at better than five inches, and then as we gathered the tip-ups deep into dusk, he accompanied me a little further out where the ice is four inches thick. The two of us stood apart from each other. That's safe ice, but no neophyte gets any recommendation from experienced ice fishermen with conscience to venture on ice any thinner. During my younger years, the rule was three inches. But at three inches, the ice had better be hard and clear through and through, and the weight of anyone walking on it not excessive. Two people standing side by side on three inches is risky. Some of the ice we walked on has gone through wind breakage and all of it slight refreezing. Snow fell over the weekend, totally gone and melted into the ice surface moist on top with afternoon temperatures above freezing--slippery, we wore boot spikes. We never encountered any thinner than four inches. Where I found it that thin by placing my hand in holes I cut and grasping the thickness--first cutting with my splitting bar and accurately estimating thickness--the ice was quite hard and clear, having frozen a little later than in closer to shore where wind had broken some portions of an initial freeze, now frozen thick and secure.
Since I've done this strange ritual of contemplation--ice fishing--since I was 15, I'm not much afraid of falling through, or I guess this has to do with other things, such as my spending years treading clams in wetsuits for a living in freezing bays. I know what it feels like, since my wetsuits once ripped open to brine that freezes at 29 degrees. Twenty-two degree, 45 mph wind--I don't even know what the wind chill--the shallow bay's temperature was pretty cold. I felt relieved that whatever cut the neoprene, didn't cut my leg open.
Besides, it was always such a pleasure to leap off the boat's gunnel and feel that freezing brine race up my spine before the wetsuits warmed the brine by insulation.
We began by riding to Stanhope for live shiners. Once again, Bait & Boat was closed and as our Delaware River trip required, we rode on to Andover. We lost at least 45 minutes, so our time fishing got shortened, for a short stint to begin with. I usually walk out on the ice at least a hundred yards from shore before I start cutting, and then spread tip-ups each about a hundred feet from another. The lake is shallow throughout--six feet--except for a hole of 12 feet. Northern pike, largemouth bass, and a relative few pickerel and smallmouth bass spread out. Ice fishing is typically slow.
Today, though, I kept the tip-ups pretty close to where we sat on fold-out chairs, spaced apart by about half the typical distance. Most of the holes allowed the sinker to fall about six feet, though, so it's not as if no possibility awaited us. Typical ice fishing here results in no tip-up flags anyway, unless you were to stay out all day, perhaps. I've seen pike caught as large as 39 inches, have heard of larger, and it interests me to encounter such an animal. The teeth of a smaller pike I once caught sliced my thumb open. I took my knife out of its sheath and cut the cuff of one of my white socks I had put on under wool socks. That served as bandage as I continued tending tip-ups. I'm fascinated with the teeth of northern pike, rows of hundreds of them in each maw. The poignant beauty of such ferocious power implied.
I've ice fished alone more than I have with others, and yet the best of ice fishing is the conversation, or when it does ignite, as it did between Mike and me. I have no desire to reproduce what we said, but I think of Marshall McLuhan's phrase, "The medium is the message." I also think the setting is the opportunity. Since most of us spend most of our time in routine settings, there's not much hope of conversation that gets very interesting, at least not when we're doing-as-we-do. But get outside where expanse can't help but subtly suggest possibility and refreshing thoughts expressed in words will likely occur between you and whoever's along.