ON FISH LAKE, MINN. — -- ON FISH LAKE, Minn. -- Life is good in here. You've got Mike Zbaracki over in the northeast corner, his brother Bob in the northwest and friend John Wahlsten hunkered between them facing south.
Each has a line or two dangling through holes in the ice of Fish Lake.
Their fishing shack is toasty. The wood stove is crackling. The radio is playing. There's one walleye freeze-drying in a white pickle pail just outside.
Ice-fishing has come again.
The Zbarackis and Wahlsten, all from Duluth, Minn., are occupying one of about nine shelters on Fish Lake north of Duluth on this weekday in early December. Nine squarish shapes -- some dark, some light -- these shelters are the only geometric shapes in the white expanse.
The day is all December: light waning at 3:30, the sun filtered by long, sweeping clouds that seem to disappear over the edge of (( the world as if they're being sucked down a drain in the sky. What light there is lacks intensity. It glows rather than shines, and you would be hard put to get any warmth out of it as you walk out to one of these shelters.
The temperature has worked hard all day to make double digits. An east wind tears smoke from the chimney of the Zbaracki shack and spanks it on down the lake toward the dam and the lake's outlet. A length of chimney pipe lies on the snow next to the shack.
"It keeps blowing off," Mike Zbaracki says.
What is happening inside the shack is not remarkable. It is what happens in fishing shacks or ice tents all across the North Country when December settles in and the lakes seal themselves shut for five months.
Mike Zbaracki jigs a Swedish Pimple that is wearing a fathead chub for decoration. Bob Zbaracki and Wahlsten do much the same. A song plays on the radio. The men stare down at holes bored through 10 inches of lake ice.
But if this is unremarkable it is also peaceful, good for the soul and generally pleasant. It must be, or thousands upon thousands of us wouldn't wrestle snow machines and four-wheelers and sleds and shanties and kids and augers and pickle pails onto these frozen waters each winter to do it.
It is difficult to say just what part of the soul is touched by watching 6-pound-test monofilament and its reflection disappearing into a cylinder of 33-degree water. Clearly, there's the possibility of catching a walleye -- or, on other lakes, a lake trout or a crappie or rainbow -- that gives meaning to the passing moments.
But lots of times, the possibility is much greater than the reality, and still ice fishing beckons.
There is something about the sheer contrast of the situation that must appeal to us. Outside, the wind is whistling and the snow might be flying and basically it's as cold as a dead walleye looks after it's frozen in the bottom of a pickle pail. Inside, you're peeled down to a wool shirt and suspenders, a pair of wool pants and no cap. The wood stove or the old Coleman single-burner or the lantern has the place about the same temperature as your living room at home -- well, at least from the knees up.
Then, too, there is the simple pleasure of seeing water in a liquid state. It's reassuring. You see that gray-green liquid, you stare into the murky depths, you see your chub descending into that aquatic world, and you can believe that at least there is the potential for spring to come again.
That isn't so important this time of year, maybe. But 'long about early February, it can be the difference between a quivering case of cabin fever and a sense of calm.
See the water. Believe.
Beyond all of that, there is -- somewhere down there -- a fish. Twelve or 14 feet above, you are jigging your Pimple or letting your chub swim small circles on a plain hook, as the Zbarackis and Wahlsten are doing this afternoon. You are wondering what is happening down there, whether a fish is looking at your minnow that very moment, whether all of the fish are 10 feet north of you next to some prime underwater structure, whether the fish are across the lake but could be swimming through this channel in the next half an hour, whether the fish are holding 12 inches above your minnow and would no more swim down to check it out than do somersaults in the water.
That is what you can't help wondering -- and then it happens. The furtive tap. The tunk, tunk of a walleye. The tat-a-tat-tat of another pesky perch. The steady pul-l-l-l of a crappie. The sudden playing out of line to a lake trout.
It is like being a kid again, ice fishing is, because it is so primitive. You. A hole in the ice. Whatever is directly below you.
No casting. No trolling. No "Let's try it across the lake."
You are a kid on the end of a dock with a bobber and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. And suddenly your bobber is down, and there is that wonderful feeling on the other end of your stubby fishing rod. The pulsing. The tugging. The line zinging off to the side of the hole, snagging on the rough ice down at the bottom of the cylinder, coming free, the fish coming up, up, up -- and out.
Life. Life from the gray-green depths, flipping and flopping next to your folding stool, now in midair, now in your hand -- easy, little guy -- and the hook is out.
Maybe the fish goes in the pickle pail outside. Maybe he goes back down the hole. That is for you to decide. That is between you and the lake.
It doesn't always work that way, of course.
"I had a northern on. Broke my line," Bob Zbaracki is saying. "About three pounds."
The three men have been on the ice for more than three hours. One walleye in the pail.
Other anglers on Fish Lake are having the same kind of luck. Outside a blue tent not far away, four perch lie on the ice near a zippered door. Each is about the size of a large Shad Rap. At the other side of that tent, near another zippered door, there are four more perch, two walleyes and a northern pike. Nothing to take pictures of.
L Outside another tent, two walleyes and a perch on the porch.
Where there are small fish, or even no fish, there are always fish stories. Mike Zbaracki skillfully weaves a fish story from talk of the small walleye in the pickle pail.
"That walleye wasn't nearly as big as the one I got this fall," he says. "Nine and a half pounds. Got it up in the narrows. Must have been the end of September."
He means the narrows on Fish Lake.
A 9 1/2 -pound walleye will keep a guy going for a long time.
It is probably difficult, in fact, not to sit in a fishing shack on a December afternoon and imagine a 9 1/2 -pound walleye inhaling a Swedish Pimple and a rainbow chub. And imagine the fight. And imagine what 9 1/2 pounds of walleye would look like coming head-first up a hole in the ice.
And if not a 9 1/2 -pounder, then maybe a 5-pounder. Or a 2-pounder. Or, what the heck, even a couple more like the one in the pail.
That's what a guy would likely be thinking about, listening to the wood stove and the radio, snug in a fishing shack on a December afternoon.