I have long harbored a fascination with ice fishing. About ten years ago, I received a marketing postcard in the mail. It's point was something else, but its cover was a diagram about ice fishing. I framed it, of course.
Every winter, I pass a local lake and spy heavily swaddled, hearty men out on the frozen surface and desperately ask the driver I am with to pull over so I can run out on the ice and pepper them with 100 questions. Alas, no one ever lets me out.
Finally, this past Saturday, I got my turn at ice fishing thanks to the generosity of Foster Supply Hospitality -- owners of The Arnold House, The DeBruce, The North Branch Inn, Nine River Road and The Cabin -- who allowed me to join their 5th Annual Ice Fishing Derby on Shandelee Lake in Livingston Manor, NY.
There's a big difference between "real" ice fishing and this very special ice fishing event and quite frankly this is the only way I ever want to do it. You will see why. I realized that -- for me -- catching a fish is really beside the point.
The 5th Annual Ice Fishing Derby starts at The Arnold House where you get a bag of goodies including hand warmers, a minnow net, an ice fishing contraption, some hotel fridge sized bottles of Bootlegger vodka and gin from Prohibition Distillery -- necessities all. Guests, all bundled up and comparing the number of layers upon layers they were wearing, toddled onto a pre-heated shuttle van and headed out to the lake.
I was already having fun, giddy with expectation and spilling over with chattiness. We arrived at the frozen lake and little red-roofed cottage to a spread of oysters on the half shell (with Chef Aksel shucking, looking cold, signature pencil dangling from behind his ear under his parka), chili and hot dogs on the grill, a bar with a bearded Robert (his long beard twisted and doubled and held with small hair claws that I use sometimes) from Prohibition Distillery serving up a vodka version of a Corpse Reviver he called the Russian Reviver complete with absinthe spray, hot chocolate spiked any which way you like it, and any straight up or on the rocks option you wanted or, ahem, needed.
Out on the ice, a dozen or so pre-drilled fishing holes awaited, the path to which was dotted with the most magnificent fire logs -- some simple and some with carefully carved Escher-like stairs ascending and descending at once. The fire logs are the handiwork of Cima (say Cheema), a cat-loving, irreverent, self professed member of the OCD club (of which I am also a card carrying member) who is decidedly half pyromaniac, half artist. The results are at once stunning and warm. Guests darted from fishing hole to fire log and back again to stay warm and to check on their lines.
Before we began, everyone gathered on the land between the cottage and the frozen lake and Sims Foster, owner of Foster Supply and our day's host, wearing his dad's old army jacket, gave us instructions on how to untangle and position our ice fishing mechanisms to optimize luring and hooking a fish. Basically, it's like a 3D graph frame with an X, a Y and a Z axis. One goes into the hole (Y), while the two others stabilize the contraption on the ice (X and Z). A simple trigger is set so that when (I repeat WHEN) a fish takes your line and swims off a flag shoots up, causing mayhem, excitement and running on the ice. (Any Martians looking in on us must scratch their heads at this!)
Then Sims unleashes us all to get started by getting our minnows and heading to the ice holes. What?! Minnows? You mean live minnows? Ok, I know, I have been a fisher person since I was little, but I really don't want to kill a little minnow today, I think. At the minnow station, a cooler with swimmy little minnows in a bucket, awaits. The young woman there -- adorable and dressed from head to toe in snowy camo -- took one look at the wince on my face and offered to spear the minnow for me. Cue Cima goading me from the sidelines about the fish's name (Bob) and his family at home waiting for him (and yes, we just met!). So, I let her. She hooked it through the meat of its body (still wincing) so it could swim well once it plunged into the ice hole to lure a bigger fish. We trudged out to set things in motion.
Now that the business of fishing had begun, we could eat, drink and be merry. That's the best part. So we -- a party of 50 or so -- took some selfies with our fishing holes. Talked technical mishaps and solutions as if we were experts. Warmed up around a fire log. Stood in line at the bar and made some friends. Let the heat of the whiskey inspire some talk about science. Ate some chili. Marveled at the first guy (at the party) to think about putting chili on his hot dog. This is called reinventing the wheel and a (re)discovery like this is nearly just as exciting the second time around. Chili dogs are good.
Foster Supply Hospitality knows how to do ice fishing, and pretty much everything else, just right. Yes to pre-drilling the holes. Yes to the minnow-spearing help. Yes to the food and the libations. But most of all yes to sharing a piece of the great outdoors in the winter, to trying new things, to exploring and getting lost and found on a good 14 inches of frozen lake... together.
XOXO, Farm Girl
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