Monday, April 6, 2009

Ice Fishing, Risk, and Chili

Ice fishing in mid-February requires some special gear:  a gas-powered auger to drill your fishing holes; a half-dozen tip-ups to signal northern pike or walleye on the end of the line; layers of Thinsulate and Gore-Tex, heavy Carhartt overalls, Sorel cold-weather boots, Eskimo mitts, and a warm balaclava.

Another item that comes highly recommended is the good will of your wife. This is especially true if you're planning your ice-fishing adventure over Valentine’s Day weekend. If you've carefully nurtured this good will, your wife may not only forgive your absence on this Hallmark holiday, but may also send you off with sincere good wishes and a big pot of homemade chili for you and your buddies.

Nekoosa, Wisconsin. With air temps of -5º F and wind chills around -20º F, we warmed ourselves by a wood fire burning atop the ice. Femur and Frail and Tender debated 12-gauge versus 20-gauge for sporting clays. Hatchet and Big Muhvhuggin Bob huddled together, doing their best to light their Arturo Fuentes without dropping their Sam Adams. Dirty Mike and Geno made themselves comfortable in a pair of folding chairs, debating the merits of the centerfolds in Club versus those in Cheri.

Plastic Coleman coolers ringed our campsite, functioning not as much to keep the beer cold but rather to keep the beer from freezing solid before we could get around to drinking it. Cap’n made his rounds checking the tip-ups, seeing whether the red flags gone vertical might indicate the possibility of pan-fried perch for dinner.  The alternative was steak at Friar Tuck’s, so there was no way to lose.

A full day on the ice, we worked through Thermoses of coffee in the morning, followed by beers in the afternoon. Time and biology made the call of nature inevitable. On the middle of a frozen lake, the nearest flush toilet is a five-mile drive. Even the closest tree or shrub is a ten-minute hike. Your best option was to walk a short distance from the encampment, work through your three or four layers of clothing, drain your radiator, and hustle back to the fire.

This simple act of urination al fresco is not without risk, as Dirty Mike discovered. Frostbite threatens exposed skin, so there's that.  Your risk is then compounded by having your back to a crowd of drunk jokers and having to maintain focus sufficient to avoid splashing and potential zipper-bite. This tunnel vision can leave the fisherman vulnerable to a type of stealth attack unique to ice fishing in central Wisconsin.

Off to make water, Dirty Mike found his attention narrowed. His earmuffs stifled the sound of approaching boot steps, which would have warned him of impending ambush. The unsuspecting Mike found himself victim of a full-on, teeth-jarring, body-slamming tackle, delivered courtesy of an airborne Cap’n. This display of brotherly affection (which brought substantial glee to the rest of the party) is known as “Old Tyme Hockey.”   Ooof.

                                                * * *

At midday, Big Muhvhuggin Bob fired up the shelter’s propane stove and heated up Jill’s gift of homemade chili. We lined up to ladle the steaming, spicy chow into our bowls and made our way back to the fire. The technique was to slip off a heavy snowmobile glove just long enough to shovel a spoonful of savory beans and meat from bowl to mouth, and quickly slip the glove back on before your skin froze to the spoon.

It was a scene that could have occurred 20,000 years ago on the steppes of an ice-age Europe: smelly and hairy men surrounded by snow, hopping around a fire, growling and hooting and grunting as they ate meat straight off the fire. The only difference (aside from the Thinsulate) might be the occasional malformed English words, “It guud. It real guuuuuud.

Among the dozen of us, we ate half that pot of chili. The leftovers came off the burners and went into the back of Tender’s pickup, where the subzero Wisconsin temperatures had them frozen solid within 15 minutes -- fated never again to grace a human palate.

                                                   * * *

The late sun made its way to the horizon and we packed our gear and moved off the ice, first to Friar Tuck’s for steaks and baked potatoes, and then on to The Lodge, with its log rafters, pine paneling, and signs advertising “Tri-City Children’s Foundation Presents: Lawn Mower Race on the Ice!” We fed the jukebox, shot pool, made a substantial dent in the Lodge’s supply of Maker’s Mark, and told lies and other stories.

The evening came to a close earlier for some, later for others. In twos and threes, we made our way back to the cabin.  The last of our party to straggle in was a bourbon-soaked Geno, who stumbled through the door at 0400 am to find every available bed, couch, and La-Z-Boy long since claimed. Geno scratched at his beard and tried to decide which patch of carpeted floor would most comfortable.  He was distracted by hunger and the presence of a refrigerator, which he opened to find what a Hobbit might call “first breakfast”: two pounds of Jill’s homemade chili.

Geno's mouth began to water, which exacerbated his whiskey-induced drooling. He pulled the pot out of the fridge, cranked the stove burners to high, and promptly passed out on his blanket. In the house full of inebriated fishermen, the chili sat unattended, slowly becoming superheated to temperatures usually found in a CERN fusion reactor.

Femur was the first to awaken, and he smelled danger. Leaping into action, he staggered into the kitchen and saw the pot in flames.  The lid was dancing and bouncing like something out of "Poltergeist."

In his semi-conscious state, Femur may have briefly considered turning off the gas, finding the oven mitts, and pitching the whole mess into the snow. This option was not able to elbow its way to the front of his brain-housing group. Instead, Femur decided -- in a MacGyver-like stroke of genius -- that the best solution to this developing Three Mile Island might be to knock the lid off the top and dump a full pitcher of ice-cold Wisconsin tap water directly into the molten chili.

In a reversal of fortune, his solution had the effect of recreating a scene from "Backdraft." As the icy water hit the flaming and superheated mass, what remained of Jill's chili instantly atomized, creating a mushroom cloud of foul, ass-gas, chili-plasma vapor that filled the house.

Men startled awake with bleary-eyed looks of half-drunk confusion and concern. What is that SMELL? Is that ME?

They arose, smelling their armpits, checking their shorts, and looking around for the source of that stench. Myself, having fought Dirty Mike for sleeping space the night before, considered that Mike may have possibly crawled into my bed unannounced.

Yes. It smelled so bad that my only possible explanation for such a repugnant odor was, well… Mike. I even looked under the sheets, half expecting to find him underneath, like the horse head from "The Godfather."

We spent the next day trying to deodorize the house. We boiled gallons of vinegar on the stove, emptied industrial-sized bottles of Febreze into the air, and even taped fabric softener sheets over the furnace vents. Gear Check:  You might consider adding these items to your list of required ice-fishing kit, especially if you have a guy in your crew named "Geno."

When I returned home at the end of the weekend, Jill asked if the boys liked the chili.

I said they liked about half of it.


Hank Nuwer said...

Joe: what a gas. My fishing adventure sure was calm compared to yours. I'll try to writ emine anyway. Sheesh, what a hoot. Hanker

Joe said...

Hanker... thanks for taking a read. Looking forward to hearing your story, too. Later, brah. j

Timmy said...

Dammit Joe, get your facts straight. They were Montecristos, not Arturo Fuente. Geez. Nice writing. Keep it up.

Joe said...

Actually, Timmy, in an early draft they started out as "La Gloria Cubanas." But that didn't sound manly enough. You could have been smoking White Owls for all I know.

Anonymous said...

Joe, heating up food at 4 in the morning is never a good idea, but the worst that ever happened at our house was a scorched chair. Wonderfully written story, and an interesting glimpse into the world of men for me.


Joe said...

Jennie... I suppose if you're ARISING clear-eyed at 0400, that might work out better. You'll have to tell the scorched-chair story! Thanks for taking a look at the story.