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Nirvana on a Sunday

The bait tanks feature three different varieties of minnows, none of which were the ones Bryan prefers. He asks the attendant, who seems to notice this omission for the first time. The manager saunters over and opens his hands philosophically.

"Ain't a sucker minnow to be had in five hundred miles." He sighs, opening his hands. "I can't make 'em."

Bryan replies good-naturedly, "Next thing they're gonna want the walleye right here in the store."

And just like that, we're no longer strangers here. That is the magic of my tall, bearded husband, himself inhabited by the magic of endemic to a native Michigander, the kind that unites men and women in a kinetic enthusiasm for a day of sitting motionless beside a hole in a frozen lake. 

It's in hopes of understanding this magic that I've come along. To me, ice fishing is a thing to notice, not to do. But then, I'm not a Michigander--I was only born here.

 

The attendant puts an extra scoop of the fatties into our bucket, while the manager and cashier ply Bryan with advice. Put in your bait 12 to 18 inches off the bottom, they say. Keep your bait receipt--the DNR may come around to ensure that you're not polluting one microbiome with minnows harvested from another. Don't set up at Fanny Hooe--the snowdrifts make tough walking, and there are better stories of success at the Harbor. About 16 inches of ice up there, they say. 

I assume this is a deflection, the subterfuge of men who are eager to get out for a sunset session and don't want their spot fished out. Shows how much I know. Bryan texts George the change of plans and we head up 203. 

The sky is pellucid and cloudless. We pass one, then two old men pedaling ancient bikes up the shoulder, the ear flaps of their caps spread like wings. We listen to spring training games on the radio. It feels like spring, and maybe it is. 

 

No matter how many times you've watched the snow machines cut across the Portage Canal, no matter how many shanties you can see with your own eyes on the horizon, it's nonetheless a timorous thing to walk out on the ice. Each step is heavy with consciousness that under the three inches of snow you tread, there is ice, and water, and silence even greater than the silence on the surface. 

 

The Finnish auger cuts through the ice like cold butter. George watches it admiringly and tests the edge with his thumb--"I might shave with this later."

He's dressed in jeans and a windbreaker--the warmest thing he's wearing is his Carhartt beanie. He's cold and hungover, but as soon as he gets his tilt set and a Black Rocks IPA in his hand, he says, "I'm so happy right now." 

Bryan is always happy when it's cold and he's outside and has music. The air feeds him--a permanent-grin on his face, Tom Petty playing on the Bose speaker, he can't stay still for very long. He threads the minnow on the jig, drops it into the hole and bobs it up and down with a boy's concentrated persistence. 

 

My personal observation is that ice fishing if fun only so long when you're not actually doing the fishing. So I follow the ragged edge of the island around to the harbor mouth, where a great melted pool meets the frozen drifts on Lake Superior. Pebbles fill the crevices in twisted tree roots. The ends of the cedar's long-fingered branches have turned rust with the cold, splaying the husks of their popped seed pods. 

I've grown accustomed to the fact that I'm walking on ice until I venture out on my own. Thin inexplicable fissures in the snow give me pause--why is the snow cracked, and what can it betoken besides a crack in the ice? The world spins for a minute, then gradually slows to a stop, poised again on its constant needlepoint. 

 

By the time I head back to the hole, clouds are unfurling across the sky. The wind has died down but so has the sunlight. George has put up his shanty and the guys are inside, chattering like girls at a slumber party, if anything more animated than they were three hours ago. In the darkness, their two fishing holes send up light from below the surface. You can see all the way to the sandy bottom. Two big trout intersect in the view of one hole, nose at the line, then swim away. 

They call this a sport--jockeying with the elements, testing your stamina and patience and intelligence and experience against the fish's whims. It's odd that there's a sport you can drink beer while playing. Rather, should drink. The one thing you don't want when you're ice fishing is to get cold. And once the sun disappears, I catch a chill I can't get rid of. Trudging back to the shore under the eerie green cloud cover, I start to feel claustrophobic, my eyes struggling to find the horizon line between the blank ice and the blank sky, amid the white noise of falling snow. 

An hour beside the potbellied stove at Zik's Bar with a beer and the Marquette Monthly restores me just in time to greet Bryan and George, who show up empty-handed and cheerfully toast the day. 

This warm ending puzzles me as we drive home, the follow-up baseball game on the radio incongruous with the insistent fury of snow against the windshield. Loath though I am to admit it, I finally have to ask Bryan to explain why he's not deflated, as I would be, to have caught nothing. 

It comes out defensively, because it's a question I've wanted to ask for lo these many years. I've been fishing with Bryan a few times, most notably an eight-hour excursion in the Outer Banks where his dad chartered a boat to troll the Gulf Stream for what turned out to be the world's longest floating picnic and nothing more. Last spring and summer, he would set out with John, Ray or Jack in search of whatever the season's prize--perch, walleye, trout--and come home half the time with nothing but a satisfied smile on his face. This cheerfulness in the face of what an admittedly not a sports person might construe as failure is, to be frank, kind of chilling. I've learned to stomach and empathize with the startling outbursts of rage that follow a Tigers loss, but this I can't, for the life of me, understand.

"There are two kinds of people who go fishing," Bryan says. "There are the ones who do it a few times a year, and they catch a few fish, or maybe a lot, and feel great about it. 

"Then there are fishermen."

The more you fish, the less you catch, he explains, a logic I'd never considered before. He adds that if you're fishing just to catch something, you're doing it wrong.

"That's New York City fishing." (Let it be known that these are the first bad words I've ever heard him breathe about New York City.) 

It's not a sport, he says. He can't say what it is, instead. It connects him to nature, to his childhood, to Michigan. If there's a win, it's in simply being there, in having enjoyed the hospitality of Lake Superior, in having the distinction of fishing one of Michigan's most iconic cities. 

A week later, we encounter George in a brewpub in Ferndale; we're in town for a baby shower, while he's taking a friend across the river to a comedy show in Windsor for his birthday. The friend's enthusiastic envy of our ice fishing story--which amounts to "we went, we caught nothing, we left"--makes me ask him to verify Bryan's explanation of why fishing is rewarding. (After all, Bryan's a poet--maybe not the best sample size.)

George's friend agrees, and in terms no less poetic:

"There's nothing I'd rather do than sit outside for eight hours on a slab of ice with a hole in it, drink six Labatt's, and not catch a goddamn thing," he tells me. "That's nirvana on a Sunday." 

Chelsea BattenComment