Walkin’ on Water

Written by: Kim Fundingsland

A non-resident asks, “What makes you darned North Dakotan’s so special?”
Resident — “Well, we do walk on water.”
Incredulous non-resident — “Are all North Dakotans so arrogant and pompous?”
Resident — “Nope. Some don’t ice fish.”
That kind of sums it up.

Oh yes. In North Dakota we walk on water, at least some of us do. Really, we have no choice if we want to visit a favorite lake sometime during our nine months or so of winter. But hey, we’re not the only state to make that claim. There’s a few other folks in the northern tier of states that are just as crazy about being on the ice.

Call it “brain freeze,” and it’s not from a stop at the Dairy Queen. Too cold for that. However, in North Dakota, seeing folks with gloves on holding an ice cream cone is not at all unusual. It’s a sure sign of spring.
Back to the walking on water business. Our lakes, rivers, streams, feet, fingers, and ears all freeze during the winter. When the National Weather Service warns of “dangerously cold wind chills,” we go ice fishing. Really, it’s walking on water. Driving some too.

Incomprehensible? Foolish?
It is, of course, the preference of ice fishermen to stay on top of the ice. Sure, we lose a few now and then to the hazards of the endeavor but, in general, ice fishermen are a cautious bunch. Those that aren’t won’t last but a few seasons.
Pleasure skating and hockey games take place on frozen lakes and ponds too, another form of walking on water. Even golf. The individuals involved escape me now, but I do remember a guy, a real duffer, waging big money that he could hit a golf ball further than another guy who was known as a big hitter off the tee. The only rule was that each man got to choose his time and place to make the big swing.

Our top-level golfer, professional I think, chose a neatly groomed course with an elevated tee box and sloping fairway and let ‘er rip. Our duffer waited until he could get on a frozen lake, free of snow, and with a stiff wind behind him. He hit a golf ball that rolled a few miles, easily winning the bet.

One of my earliest memories of ice fishing was catching a limit of northern pike using whole hot dogs for bait. Although I don’t eat hot dogs myself, I guess pretty much everybody and everything else does or will. Who knew northern pike did? Plain too.

Then there’s an adventure in which I somehow avoided a life-sentence in the State Penitentiary. A friend and I were ice fishing, sitting comfortably in his icehouse. Killing time really. The fish weren’t doing their part. So, we decided to drive my Ford Fairlane 500 to a few other clusters of icehouses and see if anyone was catching fish.

Ahhh, it was a beautiful day. The sun was out, the lake free of snow, and we were, well, darn stupid. My fishing companion, sitting in the passenger seat, challenged me to see how fast I could drive on the ice. Fair enough, right? Challenge accepted.
I didn’t get going very fast. It was too slippery for that, at least until it was suggested that I try a few spins on the ice. Another challenge quickly accepted.

The first spin came easy enough. Then another and another. Then so many, so fast, that we were getting dizzy. We were picking up speed too. Somewhere in that spinning sequence, nauseous and completely out of control, we passed through an entire village of occupied icehouses without hitting a single one.

After what seemed forever, my car stopped suddenly when it hit a pressure ridge about 100 yards after we spun through the icehouses. I still remember the left side of the car coming off the ice before dropping back down. Stopped, albeit suddenly, we looked back at the icehouses and could see no path through them. Our good fortune, and that of who knows how many ice fishermen, remains a mystery to this day.

We did see a number of enraged ice fishermen coming toward us. Our remarkable luck held, and I was able to drive the Ford off the ice and onto a nearby roadway where we left that angry mob in the rear-view mirror. Truly a “never again” moment.
In my many years of covering outdoor issues I’ve witnessed several vehicles that had fallen through the ice being pulled out by professionals operating heavy winch rigs. Some of the vehicles were completely submerged, sitting on the bottom of the lake. Not a pretty sight.

Such scenes are in the mind of those who ice fish and those who don’t. It makes explaining the joys of ice fishing to those who don’t partake quite difficult, yet the activity is engaged in by many. Very North Dakotan, and a few other states too.
In Nebraska, where winters don’t get as cold as in North Dakota, full-sized vehicles are not allowed on most lakes in the winter. The thinking is that, more often than not, the ice does not get thick enough to safely allow it. Snowmobiles and ATVs are the ice fisherman’s choice in that state.

In good ol’ North Dakota the problem is generally that the ice gets too thick during the winter. So thick that some ice augers need extensions to punch a hole and reach water.
Then there’s the size of the hole in the ice too. An 8-inch hole is easier to drill, but a 10-inch hole makes it easier to pull fish through. A drawback? I’m told some children can slip through a 10 inch hole.

Don’t ask me to explain dark-house spearfishing where participants cut the ice open in 4-foot by 4-foot squares. Not crazy about sitting on the edge of that much open water in the middle of winter. Some call it Norwegian television, staring into the water below for hours at a time.

Muskat and beaver have been known to pop up onto the ice through those large holes too, instantly scattering the occupants out the door of the icehouse. Ah, fun times, just hard to explain to non-ice fishermen.
No matter anyway. It’s all good as long as you stay on top of the ice.

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