Although it has been a trial getting my mother-in-law’s house emptied and ready for the buyers, this has been her house since it was built in 1960 and so there has been decades of accumulated ‘stuff’. My father-in-law, having passed away in ’89, was your typical man and the house still had items that told me a bit about him. He had an old gun cabinet (not an industrial -need a 10 digit pass code to access cabinet but a lightweight 1950’s freestanding utility cabinet that you could easily punch your fist through the laminate sidewall.) that at this point only held a few odds and ends of hunting and fishing gear; pieces of an old gun cleaning kit, a couple fishing lures and sinkers, broken bobbers, a couple of those huge metal safety pins for affixing the plastic hunting tag holder to the back of a jacket, empty cans of gun oil, and a metal straining ladle.
Now, all of these items bring back my own hunting and fishing memories but for some reason when I picked up that ladle I felt like I’d walked through a wardrobe into another realm. I saw my dad’s hand ladling out chunks of ice from a freshly augered hole getting ready to set the Tip-up some distance from the others set and ready around the south end of Murray Lake. “Is that a flag?” All of our heads swing around looking across the lake at the other Tip-ups. My feet encased in two pair of socks and red ball jets wrapped in plastic bread bags fit snug in my black galoshes as they crunched on the ice and snow, the metal buckles encased in ice locked in place, and the fabric of my red one-piece snowmobile suit swish-swish-swished to my running across ice. The flag on the Tip-up waved and vibrated on the wood frame as we approached. Dad and Uncle Sonny, calm and composed compared to our heart-pounding eagerness, knelt down beside the hole in the ice. The line angled off under the foot thick ice but didn’t seem to move.
Uncle Sonny lifted the Tip-up clear of the hole with one hand while the other lightly held the line, testing for movement. Looking up at my dad he nodded and smiled. He looked at us kids and said: “Set those mouths or this fish ain’t coming home.” Mike, Shannon and I clenched our teeth in a side grimace that made our left eyes squint because that was the only way to catch fish, and Uncle Sonny yanked on the line and started pulling it in. Twisting this way and that the line moved all around the hole to the frantic motions of an unseen fish. Every so often Uncle Sonny would make an announcement: “Oh yeah, this one’s a keeper!” or, “We’re having fish for dinner!”
The line moved faster. The fish was getting closer to the hole. Having spent my summers dropping the line from my cane- pole into lakes and ponds I usually caught bluegill or the odd bass. Tip-up fishing with minnows as bait usually lands something a bit heftier. I still remember how our eyes bugged out when that massive pike swam into view! By now it had lost some fight and once it’s head came up the hole my dad hooked his hand under the gills and hauled him up onto the ice! It was huge! And I swim in this lake!?! What a great way to start the day! Mike, Shannon and I stood there grinning, still holding our mouths just right, Dad and Uncle Sonny reset the tip-up for another run while checking the others. Every now and then dad would use the ladle to break through the reformed ice around the line and hole.and scoop it out onto the surface leaving the hole clear again.
Us kids were set to the task of gathering wood for a fire while Dad and Uncle Sonny watched the Tip-ups and talked of adult stuff. Lunch consisted of hotdogs roasted over the fire right out on the ice, pop and chips. Hot chocolate was kept for after the fire was out. Dad and Uncle Sonny had some liquid warmth otherwise known as BlackBerry Brandy. We’d stay out on the ice until we couldn’t see the flags because of the dimming day and, gathering everything, we’d head home to show off our catch and crawl into warm beds after a hot bath.
I held that ladle in my mother-in-law’s basement. I haven’t ice-fished since I was a boy and chances are I won’t ever again; nevertheless I went upstairs and dropped it into a box of miscellaneous items marked “Keep” and put it in my trunk.