The Fieldstone Review

Hard Water Fishing

I don’t know why I thought this would work. Already everything was wrong when I picked her up from her mom’s.

It’s dark.

It’s cold.

I want to go back to bed.

Which she did as soon as we got in the truck. I drove with the radio off, thinking the extra sleep would be a good thing, thinking my own close thoughts about what was cold and dark and worth getting up for.

This is it?

Pre-dawn, but light enough – it’s not that she can’t see. Pink-lined shores on a narrow lake. A rough-packed track sliding down onto the ice, and then the world opening into an expanse you can only access in winter – choose a trail, make your own path, quarterback calls the whole game.

This is it.

It’s what’s under the ice that counts, sweetheart. Wait till we set up. Wait till you get a line in the water.

I would have made a great coach. I don’t have to fake the enthusiasm.

Look, Dad – a dog! Is that a lab?

I swing the truck into the ice settlement and the dog promptly lopes over to a Starlite special and disappears inside the tiny trailer. Something unobtainable in a store window, only she is inside looking out.

In or out, I can’t get it for her.

Sometimes the game sucks, honey.

Oh. My. God. Football already. Her nose still pressed against the glass. Maybe it will come out again.

She’s not really talking to me.

I worm us into the middle of fifteen or so plywood shacks and aluminum-sided mini-trailers – a veritable city. The sports magazines don’t call it ice fishing anymore – it’s “hard water fishing” now, and there are a lot of weekend anglers. My usual preference is to avoid the crowd, try a spot where there’s nothing but me and the frozen lake and my theories of what fish like. This morning I am willing to leech the knowledge of the pack, or at least dress up the experience with the faæ ¤e of what I imagine passes for excitement in her world.

It’s easy to set up by myself – I do it all the time. She sits in the truck, trying to conjure up a bar on her cell phone, a digital friend out of the Saturday morning ether. I haul the propane tank off the truck, slide the cantankerous ice-auger out onto the snow, heft the collapsible ice-shed by myself. She doesn’t want to get cold and I consider how to call it: burst the princess bubble and get her head in the game, or let us both pretend a little warmth and avoidance can salvage a bad idea.

The shack sets up like a dream. I found it on e-bay, lucked out unbelievably at half the price it would have been at Cabela’s. I only dream of buying things at Cabela’s. The thought of it – snap, snap, she’s done – sustains me through my struggles with the ice auger. It’s a pull-start Ice King used by one of my great-great-greats to fish the Inland Sea. Six minutes of fiddling with the choke coaxes the sputtering into a cough that lasts long enough to call it fired up. She doesn’t notice, anyway – competence or incompetence all lumped under another boring day with dad, how can this place not have cell phone coverage?

I grin a little about that, as if, somehow, I organized that detail of the master plan.

I drill two neat holes, perfectly spaced for the shack – shards of ice sloping smoothly away like shield volcanoes, calderas breathing gently with the lift of lake water. If she was out here I could point this out – see if, by Grade Nine, science has initiated her into the complexities of pahoehoe and scoria. Or if she’s ever heard the baleen grunt of ice expanding and contracting.

There’s a lot I don’t know about what’s inside her head. That arrangement was ironed out in her best interests when she was little more than a baby. I could have fought for more time. Would I be better at parenting if I practised? I don’t know – I can spend hours on the lake and not catch a fish.

By the time I level the slope, scoop the ice out of the holes and haul the shed into place, I decide I have let her sit on the bench long enough.

C’mon, princess. Time for team effort – I need help setting up the shack.

I turn off the engine and pocket the keys, having learned one or two parenting tricks somewhere along the way. With one last two-fisted shake she slides the phone into her ripped jeans, and struggles awkwardly into ski pants and jacket. I am pleased to see she has the common sense to dress for cold – I haven’t seen this previously – although she still won’t touch the moose mitts.

Ugh. They’re gross.

They’re warm.

They’re ripped.

Some things you can’t argue.

And they’re made of animals.

Well, three cheers for the pipelines. I offer them one last time. You gotta wear the gear if you’re going to play the game.

That goes over about as well as you’d expect. She declines comment and drags her ass after me into the limitless excitement of the great outdoors.

Put your hand there and pull up, like this. Hear it snap into place? Now this one. Then we pull this out. This... up – perfect!

How can you not be impressed with the ease of setting up a Yukon Clam Fish Trap? It’s even quicker with two.

Come on inside.

She stands in the middle of the shack while I finish. Unmoving while I snap the inside bars into place, stretching the shell tight over the light-weight metal frame, the two of us now sharing the bond of shelter and the accomplishment of teamwork.

Ta-dah.

I hold up both arms in a touchdown confirmation.

Sweet, eh? You could live in this! I flip the seat backs up, swing them around, and sweep a hand in invitation. Sit down and we’ll go over the game plan. Get our heads on the same page. Strategize.

I’m cold.

She sits, her little non-animal-knit gloved hand immediately digging for her jeans pocket. I wait for the running back to expose the ball and then I pick it.

There’s no coverage out here, honey – I’ll put it in the truck while I get the heater and the tackle.

A diversionary tactic, but it works.

You have a heater?

I have everything. You sit right there and think positive thoughts about fishes and I’ll be right back.

Of course her help would make it easier, but sometimes you’re the only one with fire in your belly and you gotta carry the team. In five minutes we are both toasty in the shack, the close, black plastic reflecting the warmth of the open propane burner. I tell her how quickly the heater can destroy fishing line, fingers, and clothes, warning her three times. She props her boots dangerously close to the orange glow of the burner and refuses to watch as I poke a mealworm on a T-top, white with red eyes.

Okay. You are ready to go. The coin is flipped, the kickoff is good...

She inches forward on her seat to watch the line feed smoothly down the hole.

It’s kind of pretty.

Yes.

The shack, the ice, the bait, the lure – it’s all pretty. She is still peering down the hole.

Like green scallop glass.

Scallopy for sure.

Here, honey. You take it. Bounce it a little now and then. Not too hard.

She bounces it perfectly, incessantly, while I set up my own bait.

Maybe not quite so much, honey.

She stops immediately and doesn’t move a millimetre, apparently irritated by my over-coaching. For someone on their first outing, she has outstanding bait and wait tactics. I bite.

Just lift it every now and then. Like this. I pull up my line to illustrate.

She rolls her eyes.

I did that. Nothing happened.

I’m busy baiting my own hook. I want to get it just right.

Nothing’s happening now either.

Out of the corner of my eye I can see her exaggerated movements. When she was younger, she went through that phase where everything was “why?”. At the time, I couldn’t imagine anything more annoying.

You know, fishing is all about patience.

I haven’t got all day.

Pretend you do.

I can’t. I don’t have all day.

It dawns on me that she’s trying to communicate.

What do you mean?

Derrick is coming at noon to pick me up.

It’s not like I’m the quarterback and three receivers open up. It’s like three lures suddenly plop in front of my goggle-fish eyes.

Derrick? Who’s Derrick? Noon? Does your mother know?

Derrick’s my boyfriend. He lives down the lake. He’s going to sled out here at noon and pick me up.

How’s he going to find you?

I gave him your license number. He’ll find me.

I have no idea how to respond to this. Caught flat-footed on the field with a quarterback sneak.

Her line dips a little but she’s not paying attention.

I’m going to his place for lunch and then hanging out. You can pick me up on your way home.

I am the outsider on a day she’s arranged.

Her line dips violently and she shrieks and lets go and I drop my rod and grab hers before it disappears down the hole on the heels of what is probably one mother of a jackfish.

I reel in, let the line play out when he wants to take it and run. He hammered that hook and he’s got lots of fight but in a matter of minutes that wide mouth, those sharp little teeth and predator eyes are rearing angry out of the lake, the rest of him long and sleek, thrashing in the hole like a long, slippery plug. Her eyes are wide.

Wow. I caught that.

Take the rod! – nose up – keep the line tight – up, up!

I make a grab for the pliers and close in on my hook, dancing around the heater and the snapping teeth and my daughter’s expectations. Typical damn jackfish, he’s got the hook half way down his throat. Greedy bastard. I wrench and twist, and finally I have it back. He’s out on the ice now, a foot and a half, a good two pounds, and she drops beside him, knitted glove stroking the slime.

Wow. He’s beautiful. Really pretty, Dad.

I give the head a gentle kick, trying to skitter him around so he’s facing the hole. He convulses, wild and angry still, master-predator of the depths and helpless. He can’t breathe, can’t swim, can’t restore what he had and took for granted. He flaps himself backwards, unable to fathom that he cannot find freedom with a flick of those torsional muscles.

I boot him gently again and his head hits the hole by accident. My daughter makes a quick grab, but he’s in the hole, twisting, gone.

Her little knit gloves are soaked and covered with fish mucous and she’s still down on the ice, looking for puppies and birthday presents that come on time.

Why did you let it go?

It’s a jackfish, honey. We don’t keep those.

I wanted it! It was big – and wild – and pretty! It was my fish! You had no right to let it go.

You were going to clean it?

Yes!

In a pig’s eye. She yanks off her mitts, one at a time, and throws them at me. She misses – I don’t even have to duck – and they leave sticky trails in the condensation on the walls.

They’re slimy and full of ugly bones. We don’t keep those. We don’t eat them, so we don’t keep them.

You don’t! Other people do!

She pulls that out of no knowledge base whatsoever and she is so sure of herself that I’d trade my truck to tell her she’s wrong.

Not in this family.

What family? Two people in a stupid shack! I am so out of here when Derrick comes. He’s smart and his family lives on this lake and they eat jackfish and catch whatever they want and keep it.

I can tell she’s making it up.

It was dying, honey.

Isn’t that the whole point?

Queasy and blood-thirsty. Maybe I don’t want to know what goes on inside her head.

But now that she’s started, she can’t stop. Derrick – Derrick – Derrick. She sits beside me while I fish, refusing to drop her line again. Derrick is seventeen. Derrick is cute. Derrick has long black hair, curly hair, down to his shoulders. It’s really soft. Derrick wears cool clothes. Derrick has his license and they go on dates to the movies and they are planning a skiing weekend together at Gray Mountain in March.

Noon comes and goes. I haul up two small perch – neither of them keepers – and a walleye barely big enough to fillet. She ignores my fish. I’ve packed a great lunch – all her favourites – but she won’t eat anything, won’t even nibble a blue whale. Her conversation dwindles to silence. I open the flap on the door to let out some of the heat that has built up, and the condensation freezes in crystal tears around the doorway.

She stops checking the time in mid-afternoon. I say nothing. What is there to say? We don’t keep those, honey? Still, I have to try.

Life is like football, sweetheart.

She looks at me blankly, eyes glazed like the fish at my feet, unable even to muster hatred. So hopeless it defeats me and I want to wrestle Derrick into a faithful boyfriend, pull that jack back up the hole, wipe it off with my bare hands and present it to her on one knee. She looks at me like I am a window.

It’s like that jackfish, honey...

I am not making sense.

It’s like this...