If I could give you one piece of advice heading into the winter, it would be this: Don't ever let anyone convince you to try a sport known as ice fishing.
If I could give you two bits of advice, the other would be to stay the hell out of your driveway when the Gazette delivery person comes speeding down your street during its next big promotional event: Life-Size Crucifix Distribution Day.
But today we'll discuss that ice-fishing thing, and we will begin with a warning: Because ice fishing is a savagely cold sport and is also predominately a guy sport, it may be necessary to make a reference to a certain part of the male anatomy that we do not, under any circumstances, like to get cold. Therefore, if required to make reference to these specifically male parts, I will use the accepted scientific term: "things."
First of all, I'm quite an outdoorsman. I'm particularly good at fly-fishing. In 1999, for example, I was standing in a river in Wyoming (state motto: "Come For the Scenery. Stay For the Depressing, Aching Loneliness"). Despite having left my glasses back in my truck, I could see the steady splashing of a huge rainbow trout and quickly laid out a perfect 45-foot cast. That the trout I was targeting suddenly quacked and flew away in no way diminished the thrill.
And if you want to learn how to shoot 15 feet ahead of a pheasant -- I'm talking about the ones that are sitting perfectly still on the ground, cowering -- well, your search for a shooting instructor is over. (I tried shooting an actual flying pheasant once, in 1988, on a farm in Kansas. Today I'm still making monthly restitution payments to old Mr. McPherson for the two horses, the goat and the windmill.)
Long, long drive
But despite my love of the outdoors, I'd steadfastly refused to go ice fishing, passing up invitation after invitation to lie face-down on a frozen pond for eight hours, staring down into a hole for that once-in-a-lifetime rush that comes with seeing a carp swim by.
Not to mention what I imagined would be that other ice-fishing rush -- the one that comes three days later when you start to regain some feeling in your things.
Last winter, however, I gave in. I'd go ice fishing once, I told my ice-fishing friends, if they would promise to never, ever ask me to go again. It was the same deal my first wife made with me involving sex.
For the big day my friends chose Taylor Reservoir near the town of Gunnison, more than four hours from our village -- because if there's something you really dread doing, nothing makes it more enjoyable than if it's preceded by a long, long drive.
I'd been plucked from my warm, comfortable house a few minutes past 4 a.m. -- I am not kidding -- and when we arrived in Gunnison it was -- I'm not kidding about this, either -- 14 degrees below zero! (After about 30 minutes of intense negotiations between my things and me concerning who was getting out of the warm truck and who wasn't, we found ourselves trudging across the frozen lake.
Russ quickly drilled half a dozen holes through the 30-inch ice cap with his $400 gas-powered ice auger. He stores the auger at Jim's house because Russ' wife doesn't know he bought it. And if Russ keeps buying the beer on our elk-hunting trips, she may never have to find out.
The ghost of Fred Astaire
Out on the reservoir, my friends showed me how this ice fishing business worked. It was dark and overcast on this morning, and windy, too, creating what non-ice anglers would call the Idiot Trifecta. Because it was dark, you couldn't see more than a foot or two into the water, so staring into the hole looking for fish was out of the question.
Instead, they went to Plan B and showed me how to stand beside the hole and gently move the lure up and down.
"Sometimes," Jim said, "all you'll feel is a tap-tap, tap-tap."
This tap-tap, tap-tap means that either a trout has gently bitten your lure or you've somehow snagged the ghost of Fred Astaire.
We did this for a few hours and didn't catch anything. Then the clouds parted and the sun came out and the temperature shot up to about 9 degrees below zero. The sunlight allowed us -- oh joy -- to now lie facedown on the ice, pull the hoods of our parkas over our heads and stare down into the holes.
At about 2 p.m., I watched a small rainbow trout circle my lure, bump it once with its nose and then swim away. It was really exciting. About an hour later we began the four-hour drive home.
And I used those four hours to think about, well, to think about things.
Specifically, about how if I slid way down in the seat in Russ' truck, I could get them pretty close to the heater vent.