Part One

Jim scanned the ice for his tip-ups. The fishing traps he had set made three orange marks against the snow. None of the orange flags were up and he looked away. A fish would not strike a tip-up if you were watching it. The chances were better when you did something else. It was better to watch the geese or the crows or kick around a piece of ice you chiseled from a hole. But it was too cold for birds today and he didn’t want to move. Still he had to do something. He had not had a flag yet. It was hard fishing alone in the very cold.

Jim turned upwind, the ice smooth out to the gray woods and up through the channel the big lake stretching out far and white. He was the only fisherman on the lakes. The wind stung his face and he turned away. Anyway it was better without others on the ice. They watched you fishing a hole and there was too much pressure. There wasn’t anything wrong with fishing alone. You fished where you wanted and how you wanted.

Far left an orange flag flung up swinging. Jim’s heart went pounding. His first tip-up. In the wind he had even heard the tiny metallic click of the flag releasing from the post. Jim started towards the flag, careful so his boots on the ice would not spook the fish. Halfway he saw the metal post that had tipped the flag spinning wildly. Line was pulling fast off the spool underwater. It must be a bass. He had put that tip-up in along the weed bar. He was running with the minnow for the weeds in the shallow water.

Jim knelt down at the hole before the tip-up, the post spinning furiously on the wooden base across the hole. The line slowed going out and Jim pulled off his mittens. The line went out very slow and stopped. Jim slipped his hands into the freezing water, and holding the line in place below the spool drew out the tip-up and laid it on the ice beside the hole. Now the hole was free of the tip-up apparatus. He began to carefully bring in the slack line between him and the fish. He took line in slowly until he felt the tension. There was something heavy and alive on the other end. He felt the line now taut between him and the fish. There was a tiny pull. He let the line go some. He brought some in. There again was the tension. Jim set himself to strike against the fish, but just then the line went slack in his hands. He had spit the minnow. It wasn’t over though. A hungry one like that was sure to come back.

Jim balanced the wood base of the tip-up at the edge of the hole so the line spool was back in the water. In the cold the wet line had frozen quickly on the spool. In the water the line would unfreeze and when the big fish returned there would be line to go out. He sat back on his boots and jammed his hands, raw and cramped from the icy water, inside his snowsuit. His hands hurt but it might be just a minute until the big fish returned. He had to be ready.

He watched the line down into the dark water. The minnow was down there somewhere, laying in the weeds, stunned, maybe part eaten but still alive, the big fish gone away. He understood why they spit the minnow, it was because they felt the hook, but why they returned Jim did not understand. They somehow always remembered where they left it. It didn’t matter how deep and mixed up in the weeds the minnow was, they remembered. He just had to wait. He just had to be patient and the big fish would come back.

The line fidgeted and jerked and went out hard off the spool. It was started again. But the line slowed and stopped. This sure was an indecisive one, Jim thought. He had to be a young one. I wish he’d just make up his mind what he wanted.

The line started out again and very slowly, and Jim saw it was time and fast reached into the water for the line and feeling immediately the un-giving tension set hard the hook with a short tug towards his body; then up on his feet hand-over-hand bringing in line feeling the weight and drag of something heavy and fighting and bursting out the hole with weeds and muck was the young bass. It came out flopping angry on the ice beside the hole. Jim pulled the weeds off him. He was a beauty of a bass. Jim put his hands back inside his snowjacket to warm them as he admired the flopping bass. He was young but he was big. He was big enough to keep.

Jim folded back the dorsal fin to get a hold and take the hook out. The largemouth was too thick in the belly to hold well and the mucus was already making him slippery. Jim’s hands were so raw and cold they hardly worked. He got a good hold finally, and with his small pliers worked the barb of the hook out the jaw with a pop. He tossed the fish onto the ice away from the hole and rubbed the mucus off his hands on his snowpants. That bass would freeze up quick in this cold.

Jim stuffed his hands inside his suit. They were frozen from the cold air and water. They hurt so much. The wind blew hard and he felt it on his back through the snowsuit. The tip-up lay beside the hole, the line frozen and tangled across the ice. He did not want to take his hands out and untangle the line and re-set the tip-up. Jim felt a reaction against reaching into the icy minnow bucket water and holding the squirming minnow, his wet hands burning in the cold, hooking it and re-setting the tip-up with a fresh minnow.

Near the hole the bass was not moving, already frozen solid. Now I’ve got one, Jim thought. One was enough, he guessed. He didn’t really need to catch another. He didn’t have to fish any longer if he didn’t want to. He could go where it was warm. At the house his grandfather would have a big fire going. All the times after fishing they went there. Laying on his back he would put his wool-socked feet up against the hot glass doors of the fireplace. When his toes and feet were hot he would stand with his back at the fire, his hands warming on the hot chimney bricks. Sometimes Grandpa Olaf even made them glögg to warm them from the inside out. He didn’t have to be out here in the cold any longer. It wasn’t necessary.

Jim picked up the spent tip-up and started to wind the line onto the spool, untangling line with his other hand. He would take his gear to the cabin and then go down to the house to see his grandfather. Jim broke the tip-up down, folding the metal post flat with the wooden base, then pushed the hook into the wood.

Jim walked to the next tip-up, tipped the flag, and wound line until the minnow lifted from the water. He pulled the minnow off the hook, dropped it on the ice and folded up the tip-up. Jim went to the last tip-up and brought it in. He put the frozen bass and the tip-ups in the bucket and with his chisel and his ice scoop he picked up the covered pail containing the minnows and started towards the shore. He was going in.

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