Late Early Ice
Three full-sized pickups with ATV trailers nearly filled the small parking area by the access. The trucks were parked at proprietary angles, jammed arrogantly up into the snow, inconveniencing all but themselves. There were tire signs of half a dozen more vehicles come and gone, but Gary Teller was the only new arrival to curse the rude behavior, and to anticipate that it wasn’t over. Men who would park their trucks in this way, and drive four-wheelers on marginal, rink-slick first ice, would probably throw a wide wake of bad behavior. The lake wasn’t that big.
Gary’s main hope was that they would soon leave. Center Lake had a mediocre reputation for walleyes, even at first ice, and an even worse reputation for a night bite. Gary knew because the reputation was mainly his doing. Most people left after the crappies were done, by 8:30 or so. It was just rounding 9.
Gary banged his calf on the corner of the nearest trailer as he unloaded his little sled. He cursed again and toyed briefly with the idea of bumping a hip against the newest of the trucks to trigger a car alarm—typical Minnesota passive-aggressive, the equivalent of a New Yorker screaming, “You got a problem wid dat?” into your teeth from five inches away. Unfortunately this wasn’t New York, and car alarms were not necessary. The only risk to an unlocked vehicle in Soileau County peaked in August: returning to find your unlocked vehicle filled with surplus cucumbers or zucchini.
It was a perfect fishing night; 20 degrees, wind light from the south. Gary wore his medium woollies in case he had to walk off in the shift of weather predicted for the early morning. He planned to be long gone by then, but Gary was careful. It would likely be the last of the first ice; the front was bringing a cold snap that would make enough to hold permanents, snowmobiles, and, soon enough, trucks. It would probably be the last uncrowded night on Center Lake.
Because he was thorough, Gary took a few whacks with his spud bar on the way out to The Fingers, but he knew the ice was good walking depth— five hard, clean inches. This was Gary’s third night on the lake. There were faint marks from the passage of the other anglers, diverging paths that petered out to nothing but perfect smooth clear ice, like walking on air. Every pebble and leaf shone in his headlamp beam.
The light was weird, a reddish compression that reflected between the low cloud cover and the black-smooth ice. It gave enough backlight to see close. He saw nothing near the inshore breaks, but once he was a quarter mile out he got a bead on them. Half a dozen or eight shapes nearly dead center in the lake. Gary relaxed. They were too far out to do him any harm, and a bunch of out-of-town bohunks with 40-year-old DNR maps wouldn’t understand this water. The secret was safe.
They called themselves the Midnight Club. Enny Gardner had retired and moved to Texas the previous fall, so they were down to five; Dave Peltier hardly ever fished anymore, so there were really only four men who knew the secret of Center Lake. Gary had discovered it six years before, and only really came to understand it in the past three winters: Center Lake was a hot walleye fishery. Not just hot; it was terrific.
The catch was that Center Lake’s walleyes didn’t wake up until late. Scattered eater-sized fish came in every day, and the prime-time low-light bite was tolerable; but stay at it until 10 and—provided you had the spot, of course—the bite could be phenomenal.
Gary had stayed late one night five years back. He’d iced two 15 inch walleyes at 6 PM with the rest of the crowd then watched his flasher screen for three hours without a twitch. But then they’d come in big, in waves of increasingly larger fish. He rousted his friend Mike Perlutzky at 6 AM and shown him a thing nearly unprecedented from Center Lake: a nine-fish photo limit with the two eaters in the flesh. All identical snaps of beefy fish in the high 20’s with a 28-inch seven pounder as the centerfold.
That season they had tuned in on the late bite and found it consistent. They’d also tuned in on the Spot to end all Spots. It was a sequence of four small points of sand that extended from 16 feet of water out into nearly 25. The points were seldom more than two feet higher than the surrounding cobble and gravel, and they appeared on none of the contour maps sold in local shops. They were backed up by extensions in the weedlines along the otherwise unremarkable dropoff in the otherwise unremarkable bay. The spot was also nondescript compared to the rest of the lake, which boasted clean, tasty weedlines and several sets of sharp dropoffs, humps, and reefs. These obvious walleye spots drew most of the anglers. But oh, the Spot. The Zone of each finger was about the size of a living room, and when the fish were on—about every other night—you’d have thirty looks, a dozen hits, eight or ten fish on the ice. Minnesota heaven.
There had ensued a complex relationship. Gary and Perlutzky had carefully brought in some friends, discussing each like the rush committee at a college fraternity. They were sworn to secrecy, and regularly took proactive measures to maintain the quality of the secret. Tom Cabin taught English at the high school, and operated a complex propaganda campaign to run down Center Lake’s reputation. He regularly filed disappointing reports on the lake on various internet chat groups while talking up other lakes behind several authentic-sounding pseudonyms. Photos of the bigger walleyes were all blamed on other places, because fishermen were still fishermen and attention must be paid. Perlutzky hobnobbed at tackle shops and the breakroom at the factory, relentlessly steering people wrong. Gary had brought in his neighbor, Dave Peltier, mainly because Peltier had been his ice-fishing teacher when he’d moved to Minnesota 12 years before. Peltier was a problem, though, and Gary’s key role later was to muzzle the man (and keep him from killing every walleye he caught; Peltier was old-school.) Gary’s other job was as bird-dog; he fished twice most weeks, and more when the ice was fresh.
If Gary was their feet, Ben Bakey was their heart. Ben was the youngest of the group, and an indefatigable angler. He would routinely walk away from biting fish to scout other spots. (He explained: How are you going to find another good spot when the fish aren’t hitting?) Ben had traced and eventually charted The Fingers down to four GPS decimals. Ben’s fishing decisions were alarmingly specific; he sometimes drilled new holes that overlapped his old ones. He’d also kept exhaustive stats on the Midnight Club’s catch rates, including totals by size, date, conditions, tackle, depths, and phase of the moon. It was not surprising that Ben had also consistently caught the largest fish. He’d topped nine pounds three times in two years, though no club member had broken the sacred 10. They paid dues into a pot toward the celebration of that ten pounder, and none doubted it would come, and soon. Ask Ben; according to his figures, in the previous two seasons the Midnight Club had released 66 walleyes of four pounds or better. All from dull little Center Lake.
Gary walked most of the way without a light, navigating by habit. He checked the GPS when he was close, and walked right up on his holes from two nights ago. Twenty feet inshore, around the most obvious weedlines, was a complex of holes from earlier that night—a skim of ice, cigarette butts, a beer can. Probably panfishermen. Gary smiled. It was a happy fact that anglers are buoyed and entertained by the efforts of others, successful or not.
Working slowly and quietly with a hand auger, he turned three holes on his favorite spot—Ring Finger—and two more on the next one—what else but Pinky? He was settled and jigging casually by 9, watching a blank flasher and sipping idly at a cup of hot chocolate.
The sudden sound of a motor kicking over disrupted his solitude. He’d forgotten about his companions in the center of Center Lake. An ATV headlight popped on, instantly changing the perspective of distance as it does on silent dark ice, and the machine spooled up suddenly and began slewing around in a circle. In the flash of the light Gary could see boxy shapes—portables—and then another and then another and then a fourth set of headlights came on and the night was full of roaring two-cycle motors and the racing zizz! of tires on perfect ice. He couldn’t hear, but could imagine, the sound of big walleyes scuttling for deeper water.
Gary cursed again, a much hotter curse this time. Idling out on an ATV was one thing; they were wickedly convenient and, as he got older, Gary began to imagine the ease and the freedom from long hot walks in cold-weather gear, slipping and sliding and dragging his sled over snowdrifts. But these guys were joyriders, not anglers. Minnesotans loved their toys, and no doubt owned more small engines per capita than anybody else on the planet, but jet-skis and snowmobiles and ATV’s were the bane of walleye anglers, whether they simply drove the fish off—likely—or just stole the quiet.
After half an hour of screwing around, including several rounds of shouted curses and laughter and the tinkle of beer cans on clean empty ice, the crew settled down again. Fifteen minutes later Gary watched a mark rise up from the bottom and tunk his jigging spoon. He iced a seventeen-inch walleye, the first of a mess of minor fish he hoped to carry home. His parents would be visiting from Connecticut later in the week and walleye was on the menu.
The seventeen inch fish was proof of the quality of the fishery on Center. Five years ago a two-and-a-half pound walleye would have been cause for comment; for many it still was. Gary smiled at the idea. It proved one of his favorite theories of fishing: confidence is the most important thing. Anglers on Center Lake expected little, and that was what they got. The DNR was scheduled to survey the lake next spring and Gary wondered if the principle of low expectations would work for them, too. He hoped so. Walleyes weren’t the brainiest of fish. The Midnight Club had seriously discussed bribing the head biologist for the area with inside intel on the lake if he would sideline the big fish that would invariably turn up in the DNR pound nets.
Another mark appeared and contemplated Gary’s jig for a couple of minutes. He quivered it, jiggled it, dropped it slowly, and held it very very still but the fish sniffed it for a moment then just faded away.
His cellphone rang.
“Ben! Buddy! How ya been? You comin’ out?”
“Naah. I work early again. They hitting yet?”
“Not yet. Got one 17, while back, but just sniffers now. Feels right, though. Not too cold. Hope that front holds off.”
“Yeah, reason I called. I wondered if you’d gone out. KCRO thinks it’s going to be ugly, big winds,” he said.
“They say what time?”
“Ha! You kidding? I heard ‘tonight’, 20-30, maybe more. That ice still smooth?”
“As a baby’s. Good thing it’s gonna blow north. I’ll spread my carefully marked charts and sail on home,” Gary said. One of Ben’s most urgent requests of the Club was that they carry no marked-up charts that could fall into enemy hands.
Another mark sparkled briefly at the margin of the space between his jig and the bottom, then began to grow steadily up toward the jig.
Ben laughed. “You bet. Ought to get those big girls moving,” Ben said.
Gary gave the jig a tiny intense quiver. The mark slid gradually in.
“Yep, that’s my hope, though I’d like a handful of eaters anyway.”
“That shouldn’t be too hard. They’ll come on good. Got any company?” Ben was the tightest-mouthed, most paranoid member of the Club. He had been known to fish sterile water on purpose when local loudmouths were on the ice watching.
“Yeah, actually, a bunch of cowboys on four-wheelers, roarin’ around.”
A pause. “Really. How’s the ice?”
“Fine but not enough for that. So far they haven’t drowned.”
“Too bad. Well, it’s gettin' late. They ought to be comin' on soon.”
The mark merged with his jig and held there a steady moment.
“I got one coming on now. I’ll e-mail you a report tomorrow.”
“Good luck, buddy. Ice ‘em, kiss ‘em, put ‘em back.” He clicked off.
The fish hung a moment longer then bit lightly; Gary waited too long and missed it. No matter; the mark was thin and the bite was tentative. The best bite on these spots was often preceeded by a wave of small fish. Gary smiled to himself, turned the rod upside down, and dropped it on down again.
* * *
Ten minutes later the wheelers were on again, after some additional hooting and yowling. This time they drove off across the lake in arcs, aiming once right at Gary and worrying him enough to turn his headlamp on them. On this ice a vehicle would need the same turning room as the Exxon Valdez.
He also watched, fascinated, as they roamed closer to the lake’s southeast shore. There were springs in that area, and though they were not strong enough to keep the lake open it was likely to make for thin ice. In his mind he saw a headlight suddenly lug downward and disappear, the heard the engine suddenly gurgle into silence, felt in his stomach a few gasping, choked-off screams then silence as the shocking, galactic cold took over. Gary had never had any serious mishaps on the ice but he fished alone after dark and wasn’t without imagination. But the headlights zoomed uninterrupted, and the engines kept whining, and after a few minutes four four-wheelers rammed on past within fifty yards and continued on to the landing, making the water surge in his hole. They couldn’t hear Gary’s hottest curse through helmets and over engine noise. The ATV’s cut off in the parking area and a few minutes later one of the trucks pulled out. Probably a beer run. Gary considered hoofing it back in for a little sabotage, but he didn’t want to miss his bite. He was happy to have them gone, if even for a little while.
The marks came on. Gary iced three eating fish in twenty minutes, aggressive as perch but pop-biters, hesitating an instant on the jig then blowing it in without a qualm, sending him a sharp little ‘tap’ that was pure juice for an ice-angler. Dinner for Mom and Pop was complete. Then a pause, a fifteen-minute lag, and Gary didn’t even have to look at his watch to know that it was just crossing 10.
He didn’t look at the watch, just sat happily on his bucket, thinking about confidence. It was a great joy of fishing to be confident, far greater than any compound of luck and easy fishing could produce. Confidence bridged bad days, bad weather, slow ice, even obnoxious four-wheelers. Gary gave his jig a careless lift and smiled again. It was going to be a good night. He could feel it.
A tickle of wind brushed across his cheek.
* * *
Ten minutes later the wind was back, along with a big fat careful mark on his flasher screen. The fish came in twice, flickering out with a weird attenuated sparkle as it approached the mark his jig made on the dial. Ben swore that he could tell big walleyes by that flicker; it was a deliberate turn away into a circle that made the mark waver a moment. Gary watched intently, giving his jig a concentrated, careful quiver just as the mark returned to full ruby intensity and became very fat indeed. He didn’t register the heavier, fuller gust of wind, also in his face, that came with it. Like every ice angler in history, Gary had set up with his back to the wind; now it was full in his face. The front had arrived.
The mark expanded, and expanded some more. Despite his confidence, Gary felt a thumping in his throat. He reached out and checked the gain on the flasher—zero. No mistake; a fat mark. It stayed broad and deep red, narrowing and intensifying as it centered in the cone of the sounder. It was tough, but he kept his lure still. Watched, almost fatalistically, for the target separation that would signal that the fish was drawing back from the jig. It didn’t come. The mark remained fat, heavy, deep red. The fish was eyeing his bait from an inch away. He transmitted the barest quiver to the rod.
A much sharper, fuller gust of wind pushed his face back an inch and got his attention for half a second, perhaps rocking him backward, maybe flexing his arms; the rod moved, the target separated, the fish moved quickly off. Gary cursed quietly and gave the jig a lusty lift-drop. In the space below his jig the merest sparkle remained, and then the mark grew steadily back, merged with the jig again. The wind pressed him hard, now distinctly cold and penetrating. Gary didn’t think.
The fish struck with a profound ‘thump’, a kind of weightless weight with an irresistible lateral energy. Fascinated, Gary watched the rod gently but steadily bend downward as the mark faded away, taking the blip from his jig with it. Without consciously deciding, he leaned against the now firm wind and lowered the rod tip toward the ice a one-two-three count then lifted sharply, standing, raising the rod high.
He hit solid, throbbing weight. The rod bent clear into the butt, and after a moment’s hesitation the fish drove off steadily. Gary twisted the spool, warming the drag, and reached delicately through the line to the spool face, ready to loosen it further if it locked up.
But it didn’t lock up. A much stronger gust of wind rattled his gear and shifted the bucket he’d been sitting on, but Gary didn’t notice. The drag began to pay line steadily, and Gary lowered the rod tip, carefully keeping the rod butt lowest to keep the rod in play.
Now the terrible eternal question of the walleye angler who has hooked a big fish. Daylight: northern? Night time: eelpout? Center had a strong eelpout population, and many a trophy walleye had arrived on the ice a blobby, pale-brown disappointment. Gary said a brief prayer on the topic.
The fish responded with a sequence of classic big walleye behavior. First it came sharply toward the surface, giving up five or six feet with little pressure. Then it made a series of head shakes, sharp jerking motions with only light tension between. Then it ran suddenly downward, making easy progress against Gary’s cautious drag for twenty feet before turning suddenly upward again. “You’re a walleye,” Gary said aloud, “And a big girl at that.”
He clicked his headlamp on with his left hand and, in a practiced gesture, hooked his right foot into a loop tied in the Vexilar cable and drew the transducer and float out of the hole and onto the ice. He glanced left at the sled for the spud bar—his hand auger diameter was only six inches and a big walleye would need more than that to get out into the air—and was astonished to see his sled traveling slowly toward him powered by the now-steady wind. “Shit!” he said vaguely, and bowed to the fish again as it made another long angle toward deeper water, spooling up the drag for a ten-count that gained twenty yards of line.
The wind lulled out to nothing for a moment as Gary held in a long stalemate with the fish. He’d lost track of how much line was out and couldn’t guess from the angle, but the fish was fresh and he was happy just to be steadily dragging on it; no more scary wobbles and head shakes. He gave a long steady lift and pump, gained nothing. He considered shaking his phone out and calling Ben, who could be here in ten minutes. Without some chipping he doubted a big walleye was going to emerge from the hand-sized hole.
Suddenly the wind was back, a forceful, palpable press that blasted his eyes to tears. He heard the familiar ‘pang-pang’ of a five-gallon plastic bucket banging the ice then fading into the distance as it skittered south, gaining speed. The sled was moving again downwind past him slowly, but it ran up and over his other hole and held. And still the wind increased, now making a moaning shriek.
Then Gary felt something he’d never experienced before. The ice shifted under his feet in a distinct wobble and there arose from it a deep, atonal groan as a thousand cracked plates changed angles and ground millimetrically against one another. The water surged upward in the hole and flowed out over the ice surface, then settled back again. Gary was spooked even as his body kept pressure on the fish and reacted to its increasingly weak movements.
The first time he saw the fish he got only a flicker of pale cheek and an enormous glowing eye, looking downward through the ice filmed with water and chips. A long time later the tail flailed into view, nearly as broad as his Ice-King boot with a flash of white along the lower lobe. Gary’s curse was a reverent whisper this time. The fish was enormous, but the banquet wouldn’t take place if he couldn’t chip the hole an inch or two larger.
Gary took a few experimental stomps at the edge of his hole, but the ice held. He waited until the fish had turned downward, then loosened the drag and backed steadily away from the hole toward the sled, feeding drag as he went to keep the tension high but not high enough to part the line as it bent around the ice. Halfway there he nearly chickened out as the fish accelerated away against the change in tension, but the line ran smoothly out and he closed the distance and grabbed the long chisel out of the sled then steadily reeled his way back to the hole.
The wind was a hammering force against him, peeling back his hood and plucking at his sleeves. One of his gloves remained where he’d dropped it, frozen to the ice; the other was gone south like some kind of small gore-tex waterfowl. Gary imagined finding it in the morning, doubted it.
The fish spun up against the ice five feet from the hole and Gary had the odd experience of watching a walleye fight through the ice. While he illuminated it with his headlamp it very precisely ground its lower jaw against the ice. The jig wasn’t visible. The head seemed as big as a football. The head was every bit as big as a football. Gary gave a steady reeling pump with the rod. She turned toward the hole and came grudgingly in.
At that moment something happened in the darkness around him. Gary didn’t see it or hear it but he felt it—an action, a presence that skittered by in the darkness—and the realization raised the hairs on his neck and gave him a sudden animal spurt of fear. He knelt, frozen, and peered into the weird windy flickering blackness around him and saw nothing, heard nothing over the chittering wail of ice and wind and cold.
Gary stood and hacked at the hole one-handed with the spud bar while he held the line across the opposite side. The crisp hard ice shattered easily and fractured away and downward in beautiful arcs. After eight or ten thrusts the hole was enlarged and Gary couldn’t wait any more. He tossed the bar down and knelt to try to close the deal.
The fish had retreated doggedly from the noise of the chipping, but it was played out and came in circles to Gary’s careful pressure. The broad golden flank surged briefly in his light, then a flash of white belly impossibly broad, then, just for a moment, the great jaws slid past the hole, hesitated, pivoted around the line, and answered upward an inch or two. Gary reached.
An awful scraping grinding scream rose and echoed through the wind and Gary tore his attention away just as his hand entered the water and his fingers brushed gently past the hinge of jaw and penetrated between the ice and the palm-sized gill edge. In the weak spread of the headlamp he could see nothing but an indistinct massive shape like some huge bounding animal roaring across the ice toward him, making a screeching grinding wail as it flew unstoppably into his light and struck him a terrible blow from eye to knee, knocked him spinning then pounced again with black angles and shining foot-long teeth. He knew no more.
* * *
He went from warm to cold in an instant. His body was cold, his feet numb and compressed somehow, but his face was like icy steel, captured and solidified and feeling apart and divided from him. Only his right eye would open and it could see nothing but a set of curving lines, dark on dark. His mouth was held open and frozen like he was in some freakish dentist’s device that also hummed and groaned and surged under his cheekbone, never still.
Then his consciousness resolved itself and he had his facts back. The animal that had attacked and eaten him had been a portable ice-shelter, powered into a tumbling carnivorous projectile by the wind. He was glued face down on the ice, twisted and held. His right leg was a maze of pain.
Gingerly he turned his head against the binding of his mouth and cheek and felt it tear loose, quarter inches at a time, leaving skin on the ice. He raised his head and saw at the corner of his vision a turn of light; for a moment he thought of rescuers before he realized that it was his headlamp, askew but still shining angularly into the restless night. His right arm was free and seemed to work, though it was heavier than usual. He brought it carefully over and found the headlamp with numb fingers, drew it off his head but stopped as it began to pull the hat off too. That wouldn’t do. He’d need every calorie to get off this lake. Pressing downward with his thumb, he pulled the lamp free and reset the hat as well as he could on the top half of his head. The wind was still tearing at him.
He tried to sit up and felt himself bound at a dozen points from cheek to knee. His hand was wooden with cold but he could still feel the water on the ice—surge water, and it was freezing fast as the temperature dropped. If he didn’t get up he’d become a part of the ice.
He tore his shoulders free first. The terrible pain had become specific in his right leg, which was turned in an odd direction and wouldn’t respond. He was finally able to roll part of the way onto his hip and back and free up the tortured joints and put the light on his lower body. His leg seemed to be gone below the knee.
There was something safely illogical in the observation. From the sharp angle, he couldn’t see it; but he could feel it hurting and he never believed it was gone, so he wasn’t surprised to realize that it was still there, just jammed and twisted into one of the large ice-holes left by the previous set of anglers. He tried to rise up far enough to see his foot but the pain surged and blew out his remaining breath and he had to lay himself down again as luminous black splotches swam in his vision.
Five minutes of experimentation and he was no closer to warm. He couldn’t move beyond a hip-twist of thirty degrees each way without awakening an agonizing, life-stopping pain. His hands were numb and inarticulate and his face was a stiff one-eyed mask. He had managed to pull the hat down almost to his eyes, and that helped. He was wet from neck to hips, and frozen to the ice surface from right hip to knee.
He had his wallet and keys, though he couldn’t reach the keys under the coat. He had a pair of ice spikes on a cord around his neck, but he couldn’t move his right leg at all and couldn’t reach the foot to chip at it. He had a pocket-box with a half-dozen jigs and odds and ends. He had a lighter and a chemical hand-warmer, which he activated and put in his pocket. He had a nipper and a jig-flasher on a lanyard around his neck. He had no chance if he didn’t free his foot from the ice.
He at first tried to work the foot free from its boot but there was no response other than pain that threatened to put him out and he knew that if he blacked out again he would probably never return.
Looking upwind was trouble enough, but with one eye and the weak LED headlamp he could see little beyond the black shape of his equipment sled and the angular shadow of the spud bar twenty feet away. Either would have helped—the cellphone was in the rod bag--but neither was reachable; they might as well have been in Wisconsin. Then his eye fell on something just to his right.
It was the ice rod. It lay on the ice eight feet away, tip upwind. His only hope.
He fished for it for ten minutes with his bootlace and a Northland Buckshot, the heaviest jig he had in his kit. He stopped twice to warm his hands inside his coat, and it was only when he’d forced himself to take time against his shivering that he had the dexterity to make the toss. On the third round of tries, just as his hands began to go wooden again, the jig hung neatly on the reel seat.
The line still ran through the rod eyes and off into the darkness. Gary tied on the Buckshot, which required another warming session and a lot of squinting and poking as the line lashed around in the wind. His lower body was numb and he was having trouble keeping his one good eye open. He finally had the knot tight and had to stop himself from trimming the line end. Presentation wasn’t going to matter here.
The sled was almost exactly behind him. He couldn’t sit up, or even reach his feet; he could only turn partially toward it twisting to the right. Twisting to the left was easier but had further to go to see his target so he began to try from the right. His first two casts were backhanded and rattled left, but he was relieved to find that the lure would return without fouling over the smooth ice. The third cast thumped against the plastic sled but didn’t hook it. Exhaustion took him and he laid back to rest. His frozen coat and sleeves gouged at him and the cold was intense, like steel in contact with his skin. He realized that he could look backwards, upside down and sideways, and get a better view of the sled so he took a couple of tentative casts that way. The third or fourth carried too far to the right and as he reeled it in the lure snagged on something.
Gary cursed softly, emptily. He was out of gas. He twitched and yanked on the line, pulling steadily; nothing. Maybe the ice hole, maybe a bit of rough slush, no matter. The four pound line wouldn’t overpower much. He had more jigs, but much smaller. He tightened up on the rod and pulled hard.
It gave. Only an inch, but it came. He pulled again and got another inch, and a metallic jingle. He’d hung the spud bar. It was coming in. A round bar, with a flat edge—and he had caught it.
He played the four-pound piece of steel more gingerly than he’d played any fish in his life. Two tentative pulls-and-stops and he realized that the momentum was his ally and he got it going up and kept it coming with a steady pulling surge. He stopped pulling after a moment, intending to see how close it was, and the bar slid the last foot or so and bumped gently into his left shoulder.
Now to chip himself free. He could maintain a half-sitting position with the bar in his hands—its weight helped him stay forward. The terrible screwing pain had moderated to an awful bone-throbbing ache, and desperation and cold and fear helped, but every thrust was agonizing. At first he tried to dig in to the angle of the ice to the right of his calf, but the slick ice surface tended to glance the point of the chisel off and he worried that he would lose his hold on it, though the buckshot jig, still hooked into the lanyard, was also now hooked into the sleeve of his coat and perhaps, he realized, into his forearm as well. Once he’d made some headway at the angle, though, he couldn’t reach any further and was making little progress so he took a different approach.
His leg was arched uncomfortably across the lip of the big hole. His knee was turned out, amplifying the angled pressure on his shin which was where the pain seemed to be emanating from. The weird angle of his foot suggested that the bones in his lower leg were broken.
Gary tried to probe with the chisel around his boot, but his foot was so numb that he couldn’t tell boot from ice until he poked it hard; then he nearly passed out from the pain. Finally he began to chip gingerly away at the ice under his calf muscle, working from outside to inside, and earned almost immediate relief as every inch of ice excavated from under his leg eased the angle and permitted him to flatten it down and rotate away from the stress.
Finally he had some wiggle room and found that, though he couldn’t free the jammed and frozen boot, he could shift the angle and get closer to the hole while reducing the pain. He ran the chisel under his flank and hip and pried the fabric off the surface of the ice. Knees up, right elbow on the ice, head craned high, he could see his toes and began to make good thrusts at the interior ice of the hole. His hands were weak and numb and the headlamp bobbled in his left hand. He couldn’t see anyway and had to line up each thrust like a rifle shot. On about the tenth stroke the chisel rode a bit high and jammed into the hole. Gary pulled hard, hoping to pry loose two or three inches of the far side of the hole and free his foot. That didn’t happen but he found that he was levering his body upward, which eased the pain in his leg. He reset his left leg and tried again, and slowly crutched his way up, tearing the last of the frozen fabric loose from the ice. Bracing with both foot and bar, he climbed the fulcrum over the hole and stood, swaying, leaning back against the fierce gusts of wind now so cold it felt hot.
His foot was jammed into the ice-hole, toes downward, and twisted at a gut-wrenching unnatural angle. Some melt had frozen around the boot but mainly it was a matter of angle. His leg was entirely numb—not cold numb, but a weird warm pressure with no feeling. He couldn’t care; it took all his concentration to stay standing on one and a half feet. He lifted the chisel free of the hole and delicately slipped it behind the heel of his boot and shoehorned it loose, leaning away and lifting the leg from the hole the way you’d carry an overful cup. He was able to pivot the foot a few inches before it dragged slightly and he left his mind, toppling forward into a black, quiet, windless space.
* * *
Ben Bakey was shaking his shoulder, trying to wake him in time for the midnight bite. “Gary!” he kept saying. “Come on!”
But Gary, always a sound sleeper, wouldn’t rise. The bed was soft and it held him steadily despite the rocking and the noise. He felt himself smile a bit. He’d caught plenty of fish in his life. He’d discovered the bite, formed the Midnight Club He could sleep for once. There would be another time and he was very tired.
But suddenly he was awake anyway in a burst of air so cold it felt liquid. The commotion of the wind and the weird unrevealing light dragged him back to the present and he had a sick faint feeling of regret—the dream of freeing his foot had seemed very real. He tried to raise his hand and found that he couldn’t. He was very tired, and warm except for his face, and he decided just to go on back, back to sleep.
And suddenly Ben was there, lit against the churning black sky. “Gary! Hey!” he said, again and again, and Gary had to focus. Then there was another face, and another; and he was moving though he couldn’t move, and the lights were for him and he was warm under hot blankets and strapped to something and being carried, which for him at that time was a wonderful comfortable feeling.
“Ben,” he said.
“Yeah, man, I’m here.”
“Ben. You came out.”
“Sure I did. You called me,” he said.
“Ben. Get my stuff.”
“Yeah. I’ll get it. What happened to you?”
“I got clobbered by a portable those guys left on the ice. Jammed my foot in a hole. My leg’s broke.”
Ben paused, and smiled. “Yeah, it is. But you’re ok. And what a fish! It’s gonna break 12 pounds easy!”
One of the paramedics said “No way! Here?”
Gary said “He’s just kidding,” but his voice was very faint and nobody heard.