The first thing that you absolutely need to know about going to an ice-fishing tournament in Ontario is that it’s important to dress warmly. This is practical advice, but it’s also social advice: if you are not dressed warmly, as I am not, it will be obvious, and everybody you meet will go out of their way to remark upon it.
“The most important thing, of course, is dress — keepin’ warm,” one fisher, David Abraham, tells me. I’ve been lectured a lot today, I tell him, about the extent to which I have not dressed properly. Several pairs of socks, sweatpants underneath thick jeans, three layers of T-shirts and sweaters, and a coat. When I’d looked in the mirror on my way out, I’d thought I’d looked shapeless and puffy. I’d thought if anything, I’d overdone it.
“Nope,” Abraham says, before inquiring about the length of my underwear.
He’s not the only one to comment on my attire. Ethan Archer, the oldest of three brothers, tells me, “You look like you could freeze to death.” A Finnish man named Harry Jutila sarcastically tells me that I look great in my “snow pants” before inviting me to sit in his fishing hut. (I am not wearing snow pants.) Hermann, a German sales rep for Cabela’s (a chain of American outdoor-sports stores that, among other things, sell guns online in the United States with the tagline “2nd Amendment Savings”) tells me that my outfit has “room for improvement.” He is dressed head to toe in winter camouflage (an odd choice, given the fact that he is well over six feet tall and has a full dark-red beard like Yukon Cornelius. Literally unmissable).
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On and on, this goes. Truth is, I am very cold. I sneak back to the car now and again, muttering about keeping my camera gear from freezing up. I do not think anyone believes this — if there is one thing that sitting out on a frozen lake gives you time to do, it’s sift through the bullshit. Nobody cares whether your camera gear is cold or not or whether you’re cold — that’s a “you” problem. For the uninitiated, ice fishing offers no place to hide.
Family Day, February 18, is the second annual White Lake Ice Fishing Derby, on White Lake, just south of Arnprior. This time around, the tournament has a competitive division. Actually, it’s the “first competitive ice-fishing tournament of its nature in Ontario,” says the event organizer, Adam Pugh. The difference between it and the family division is that you are competing for better prizes, are expected to haul in some real fish, and have to make your own hole. As he pulls the auger out of the ice, a rush of very cold water immediately soaks my feet. He tells me that “half the reason” he started the competitive division this year was so that he could get the competitive guys to drill their own holes. He’s doing 100 holes this year for the family division. Last year, he did 300.
For every city-slicker Ontarian who sees ice fishing as an oddity and a good way to catch frostbite, there is someone outside the city limits for whom it is a kind of outland winter religion.
The government seems to know this. Ice fishing is an easy win: earlier in the month, the Progressive Conservative government announced free fishing (meaning, no need for a licence) on Family Day. In January, it announced free fishing for anyone in the military — a press release declared that the “Government for the People is Giving Back to our Heroes.” In December, the government announced that it was cancelling a fishing fee hike. It called this “making life more affordable.” Evidently, Premier Ford would really like me to go ice fishing.
So I did. You may think that the natural climax of this article should be the moment when I, the guy who has bumbled his way temporarily into the world of ice fishing, pull the fish out of the water. I will admit that I did imagine what it would be like to throw my arms in the air and celebrate a fish well caught.
But that does not happen. Because I have no clue what I am doing. In the more than seven hours I spend standing on a frozen lake, the only fish I even see is pulled out of the lake by a man named Bogdan. Instead of learning what it’s like to catch a fish, I learn that if you stare at a hole filled with water long enough, you can watch ice freeze right before your eyes. “You can spend a whole day out here and not catch a single thing,” Oscar tells me, sitting in a deck chair he has brought out to the lake. “You’re kind of in it for the love of fishing. It’s a social thing. It’s not a lot of action.”
This makes me feel a bit better. Even when I stand and jig my line, or sink it deeper, or higher, or switch holes, no fish emerge on the end of it. What Oscar is saying, though, is that even if I don’t catch anything, I haven’t missed the point.
Others value the quiet. “That’s the biggest thing,” David Abraham tells me. Anywhere near a city, “you always got that white noise.” Here, “it’s just this … atmosphere.” For Abraham, ice fishing’s passivity is a feature, not a bug.
For Ethan, Isaac, and Caleb Archer, three brothers who live near Cornwall, a couple of hours away, the outdoors is where they are most comfortable in the world.
“Why ice fishing?” I ask them.
“It tastes good,” says Ethan. “You don’t see meat from the woods or stuff you catch in the water being recalled.”
“I don’t know about that,” says Caleb. “Nowadays, it’s pretty nasty —”
“Caleb, you’ve never seen a fish get recalled back to the water,” says Isaac, the youngest.
“I’ve seen a fish …” Caleb trails off.
“Don’t listen to him,” says Ethan, turning to me while the two younger brothers continue to bicker. “He mouths off. It’s just how he is.”
Out on the lake — this lake, any lake, wherever — they’re at home. I don’t really understand what they’re out here for, but, then, they don’t understand why I live where I do.
“The whole city thing is kinda weird,” Ethan tells me. “We’ve gone into the city maybe once or twice in our entire lives. Driving on the 417 [through Ottawa] was a very fun experience.” I have been joking to people all day that I am the urban correspondent here, but meeting people for whom my middle-of-nowhere is home makes me suddenly feel guilty — like an intruder. I am out here seeking entertainment; everyone else is seeking fish and quiet under an impossibly blue Ontario sky.
But fish or no fish, the ice-fishing world is evidently a welcoming one, even to outsiders like me. Inga Jutila, Harry’s wife, invites me into her hut and gives me part of a coconut-oatmeal cookie. David Abraham tells me about all his old cameras and shows me pictures of fish he’s caught. Hermann, taking some sort of pity on me, ties on a hook and lure better than the sparkly pink things I brought with me. The Archers let me sit there and join in their brother-banter. I have done absolutely nothing to earn it, yet everyone here seems to be doing everything they can to help me catch a fish and not freeze to death.
If I learned one thing, it is that that is the immutable rule of ice fishing. “Everybody looks after one another,” says Harry Jutila. “We spend our days here. It’s relaxing. We love it.”
It is, when you boil it down, a perfectly uncomplicated way to spend time with the people closest to you, away from the noise. It’s not hard. Ice fishing is meditation and has only two rules: “Put the minnow on the hook, buddy, and drop ’er down the hole,” Harry tells me. “It’s all good.”
Kieran Delamont is an Ottawa-based writer, reporter, and photographer.
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