By Greg Clark, March 8, 1941
“My conscience,” said Jimmie Frise, at the wheel of his car, “is not hurting me.”
“Why should it?” I consoled. “Ice fishing is not a crime against the state.”
“No, but it’s a waste of time,” said Jim. “The time is coming when we will all have to measure each hour of our day and see to it that it is well spent in the service of our country. War is the harshest employer in the history of labor.”
“Recreation,” I reminded him, “is simply re-creation. The re-creation of our energies.”
“In Germany,” said Jimmie, “we could be pinched and charged with high treason for going fishing through the ice. Wasting the nation’s time and energy.”
“But what could we do, Jim?” I protested. “Come down to earth. Be practical. What could you and I do this Saturday afternoon that would promote the war effort, in place of going fishing through the ice?”
“Every hour of work,” enunciated Jimmie, “produces wealth in some small measure. That wealth is a tiny drop in the ocean of the nation’s wealth. And wealth is power.”
“So,” I concluded, “we turn around and go home, and you draw a cartoon and I write an article …”
“It might be,” countered Jim, that the cartoon I would draw this afternoon and the article you might write this afternoon would be the one in a million to strike the true note of inspiration and inspire millions of our fellow-Canadians to more hours of labor, to making more money, to invest in more war savings …”
“On the other hand,” I stated, “we are salary workers. We don’t get paid by the piece. Whatever we write or draw this afternoon, we would get paid just the same; so that nothing is added to the nation’s wealth.”
“So,” I concluded, “we turn around and go home, and you draw a cartoon and I write an article …”
“It might be,” countered Jim. “that the cartoon I would draw this afternoon and the article you might write this afternoon would be the one in a million to strike the true note of inspiration and inspire millions of our fellow-Canadians to more hours of labor, to making more money, to invest in more war savings …”
“On the other hand.” I stated, “we are salary workers. We don’t get paid by the piece. Whatever we write or draw this afternoon, we would get paid just the same; so that nothing is added to the nation’s wealth.”
“Except the inspiration,” submitted Jim.
“How do you know,” I inquired shrewdly, that we might not get the makings of an inspirational story and cartoon this very afternoon, out on the ice fishing?”
“Well, that’s true,” admitted Jimmie, stepping a little on the gas.
And in no time at all, we saw Lake Simcoe’s white expanse shimmering in the March sun. March is the month for ice fishing. The herring are on the move. In their arrowy silver hordes, they are sweeping up from the great depths of the lakes to explore the shallows. And squatted on the ice over the shallows out from shore, over those areas which generations of Lake Simconians have proven to be the favorite water-paths of the herrings, are the little fishing houses of the ice fishers.
Just Village Gentlemen
Some are sportsmen purely. Some are commercial-minded purely, who fill an eight-quart fruit basket with the little silver herring and get a good price for them from the dealers in the villages on shore. But mostly, the ice fishers are just ordinary village gentlemen of mature years and sundry occupations who find in the silence and comfort of the little fishing shack a pleasant escape from the cares of domesticity and a chance to sit and think.
Most of the fishing houses are home-made. They are mere boxes, and a big sleigh is made on which to haul the fish shack from place to place on the ice as fancy guides. The fish house is cosy and has a floor. In the floor a square hole about the size of a suitcase has been cut. This hole in the floor is the exact size of the hole in the ice the fisherman cuts with a long-handled ice chisel. The shack is then slid over the hole in the ice. The angler enters the little house, lights a fire with sticks in the tiny stove made of a square gasoline can. Closes the door of the shack, and there, in a kind of luminous dim green light striking up through the hole in the ice and the floor, proceeds to dangle his line into the motionless and mysterious depths.
For bait, he uses as a rule a tiny dead minnow of the kind you see in shoals along the shore in summer. These the fisher has caught in a minnow trap let through the ice near shore. Probably it is these tiny inch and two-inch long fishlets the herring have come in search of.
The great American divine, Dr. Henry Van Dyke, said: “There is nothing that attracts human nature more powerfully than the sport of tempting the unknown with a fishing line.”
This is specially true of ice fishing. Because, as you sit there on your little bench in the fishing hut, bending over the hole and dibbling your line, watching the tiny bait dancing dimly below, you are liable to tremendous shocks when some giant lake trout, following the herring hordes, comes like a monstrous shadow out of the green gloom to veer disdainfully past your tiny bait. Sometimes a huge pike will visit your little horizon. Sometimes, even, that pike will rush like a fury from nowhere and grab from your lure a herring you have just hooked.
However–it’s a sport. A cosy, lazy, sit-down sport that appeals mightily to those men who are fond of a little isolation now and then from the cares of the world.
In the village Jim and I inquired at the gas station if there was anybody around with a fishing house to rent for the afternoon. And right in the gas station was the man we sought.
“It’s out there on the ice,” he informed us. “I’ve been trying all day to get out to it, but it don’t look as if I can make it today, so I’ll gladly rent it to you.”
“A dollar,” he said. “It’s the best fish house on the lake. And right now it is over one of the best channels in the lake. I got three baskets of herring there the day before yesterday.”
The gentleman escorted us down to the shore and pointed out the colony of little shacks clustered on the ice a mile out.
“You can’t miss it,” he said. “It’s the largest of the shacks. It will hold the two of you comfortably. It has a bright red roof. You can’t miss it. Just ask for Sam’s house.”
So we locked up the car on the edge of the lake and walked out to the little fishing village on the ice. A deserted village it seemed to be. From each little chimney thin smoke curled. Not a living soul was in sight. But when we stilled our crisp footfalls on the snow, and listened, we could hear a small, faint traffic, thuds and muffled coughs, and now and then a voice muttering or yawning. And in one shack, a fine deep snore.
As we explored the ragged little village of huts, a door opened and a man’s head and shoulders appeared as he threw out on to the ice a little pailful of slush dipped from his fishing hole within.
“Which is Sam’s house?” we inquired.
“That one there with the red roof,” replied the angler, eyeing us drowsily.
So we went up and tried the door of the red-roofed shack.
“It’s locked,” said Jim.
“Give it a little kick,” I suggested.
Jim gave it a little kick, and instantly a tremendous bellow answered us from within the shack, the door burst open and a most furious-faced individual glared and blinked indignantly up at us.
“What the heck do you want?” he roared. “Do you know what you done? You scared away the biggest pike I ever hope to see!”
“We rented this fish house,” said Jim.
“Get away,” shouted the occupant. “What kind of … coming kicking in doors … the biggest pike I ever hope to see.”
At this row, several neighboring fish houses opened their doors and inquiring heads peered out. Addressing these neighbors rather than us, the gentleman in our fish house cried:
“Swum right around my bait three times, coming nearer and nearer, and me jigging the minnow so dainty. And then … wham … these guys come hollering and kicking in my door!”
“Isn’t this Sam’s fishing shack?” inquired Jim.
“What if it is?” bellowed the stranger hotly.
“We rented it for a dollar,” said Jim. “We paid a dollar.”
“Possession is nine points of the law,” retorted the stranger. “I always use Sam’s house if he ain’t here. I’ll pay him a dollar. If I can only catch that pike. The biggest pike …”
He tried to close the door but Jim stuck his foot in.
“This is our house,” he stated evenly. “In law, it is ours in fact. We have leased it.”
“Use my house, over there,” pleaded the occupant in a heartfelt voice.
“No,” said Jim, judicially. This is our house. We leased it.”
“Oh,” said the man furiously, and grabbed together his lines and sticks and scrambled out into the sunlight. And in no time, Jim and I were inside, with Sam’s lines dangling enticingly into the limpid green depths, and Sam’s little stove humming and we were very set.
We had hardly got settled before we heard thuds and chopping and we looked out to see the late tenant of our house busy with ice chisel and dipper cutting a hole in the ice not 10 feet from our location. He had drawn his shack over on its sleigh and he was about to set up right alongside of us.
“I guess there is no law against it,” said Jimmie.
And presently silence fell, and we sat in that muffled stillness, dibbling our lines down, making the tiny minnows dance on our hooks.
No herring came. Nothing came. Sleep tried to come but Jimmie and I both fought it back. We opened the door from time to time. There, a few feet away, was the silent house of our evicted friend, a thin smoke coming from his chimney while he sat within, concentrating.
“Psst,” hissed Jim, after we had been sitting some time. And there, off to one side, a monstrous shadow glided.
It was the pike. Dark green amidst the lighter green of the icy water, the huge fish drifted with imperceptible movement of fin or tail. Like a shadow, it floated. Then it slowly vanished out of the orbit of our view.
Jim and I found our hair standing on end and our hearts thudding like drums on parade.
“Jig your bait!” whispered Jim. And we furiously danced our minnows.
A long moment later, again that soundless, effortless shadow, big as a log of wood, drifted across the far edge of our view. Still a third time it appeared, and suddenly, with a wrench of its body that seemed to be the effort of absolute fury, the pike launched itself.
Upward and past us it flung itself in a leap so sudden, so swift and dreadful, both Jim and I leaped back from the hole in the ice and yanked our lines clean out of the water.
But the pike had not attacked us. It had gone obliquely past our baits, headed straight for the lure of the gentleman next door. And no further proof was needed than the muffled bellows and roars that we could hear.
“He’s got him!” shouted Jimmie, kicking open the door.
“Shut the door,” I commanded. “Look, look.”
For through the hole in our floor we could see part of the battle as the hooked pike, its yellow spotted sides making it gleam like burnished metal, writhed and fought furiously, crossing and recrossing our view.
“Boy,” breathed Jim. “what a box seat we’ve got!”
“Yeah?” I said, lowering my baited line. “And what else?”
For our lines were sturdy and strong and new.
Time after time the fighting, plunging pike dragged the other line against mine; time after time I jerked viciously as the pike itself passed over my hook.
“That tiny hook will never hold,” protested Jim.
“Anyway,” I panted, jerking.
And suddenly I had him.
By the tail. And for three or four minutes that little fishing house was as full of excitement and flying slush as a March dog fight.
I pulled one way and our neighbor pulled the other until the pike, regardless of its size and strength, caught by head and tail, gave up the struggle entirely.
Law of Probabilities
We could hear our neighbor bellowing, “Leggo leggo,” but all I said was “Hook the door, Jim.” And then I took a double-wrapped hold on Sam’s stout green cuttyhunk, braced my feet and hauled.
And it was the neighbor’s line that parted. For I had the little hook solidly embedded in the powerful tail muscles of the pike. And tail first, the pike was hauled up through the hole in the ice and Jimmie fell upon it and held it fast.
“Open up. open up,” roared a voice outside, with loud thumping on the door.
“Open or I’ll kick it open.”
“Go away.” I shouted. “Don’t disturb us. We’re fishing.”
By this time several of the neighbors had gathered outside to learn the excitement, and we could hear our neighbor most indignantly recounting how he had hooked the monstrous pike and how, while he was playing it, we had foully sniggled it and then bust his line on him.
“Open up, open up,” he repeated, kicking at our door.
“Hey, you, listen,” I yelled through the door. “We’ll have the law on you for trespass, assault and battery and damages. Don’t you wreck this house or you’ll have the police on you.”
“Gimme my fish,” he bellowed.
“It’s not your fish,” I shouted hotly. “Your line broke. You lost the fish. It fouled my line. I caught it. The law says it is my fish and you know it.”
I could hear corroborative discussion outside and there followed several minutes of conversation, occasionally rising to loud and menacing yells as our neighbor felt his grief come over him. Little by little it died away but our neighbor lingered long, making loud and lonely remarks about thieves and gangsters coming from the city to rob honest men.
He thumped and banged around, rendering any hope of fishing vain. But as darkness grew, we heard the others of the colony depart and finally silence fell and we emerged and carried our pike across the ice a mile to shore, where we found our car with all the tires flat. The air had been let out of them all, including the spare.
“Let’s have him pinched,” I yelled.
“It couldn’t be proved who did it,” mollified Jim. “It might have been mischievous boys.”
“Mischievous…” I snorted.
“We evicted the poor guy out of the fish house,” said Jim.
“We were within our legal rights,” I stated.
“We snaggled his pike,” said Jim, “which we don’t want, now that we’ve got it. We’ll only give it away to somebody.”
“The fish fouled my tackle,” I retorted.
“Now our tires are flat,” said Jim. “And only the law of probabilities to suggest who did it.”
“The law, the law,” I said.
“Aren’t human beings funny,” mused Jimmie.