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WOSTER: Holes in the ice: What are they good for?

Back on the farm, we didn't have much opportunity for ice fishing.

We had several small stock dams. A few of them even had bullheads now and then. But we didn't fish those dams in winter. When we went onto the ice, we carried an axe, not a fishing pole. We were on the ice just long enough to chop a hole so the cattle could drink. It was cold, wet work. I tried to finish and get back to where it was warm and dry as quickly as possible.

Had I wanted to fish through that hole in the ice, I'd have had to fight the cattle for it. The Herefords were thirsty, and they wouldn't have left the ice willingly. Besides, as I said, the dam contained only bullheads, and I'd been told they spent the winter buried in the mud on the bottom.

Now that I think about it, I'm pretty sure my dad was the one who told me about the bullheads burying themselves in the mud. It's entirely possible, then, that it isn't true. My dad had mastered the "father legend.'' You know what that is, right? A kid asks his father something. The father has to come up with an answer. From the beginning of time there's been an unwritten rule that says a father can never tell a child, "I don't know.'' A father must have an answer for a child, even if the answer requires "alternative facts.''

I suppose that's why my dad once told me Sylvan Lake in the Black Hills had no bottom. That "fact" makes no sense if you think about it. Even so, I believed it for a long time. And for most of my life — until I started writing this piece, actually — I've accepted that bullheads bury themselves in the mud for the winter. I could do an online search, I suppose, but that would be like betraying my dad.

After we moved to town for the winters, I met a kid whose dad took us ice fishing on the Missouri River one evening. We sat in a drafty, home-made shack lit by a kerosene lantern, and we stared at a hole in the ice as it slowly froze shut. I couldn't feel my toes for a couple of days after that. I know there are folks who find ice fishing deeply rewarding, and I applaud them.

On the other hand, earlier this month when we had that brief cold snap, I saw a contraption that might have changed my mind about ice fishing had it been available when I was young. We live along a canal off the river channel. The canal freezes over in the winter, although it stayed open a long time this year. One day during the cold snap, I looked out and saw what appeared to be a pop-up tent. It hadn't been there a few minutes earlier, and I didn't identify it as an ice shack for quite a while. Finally a young guy emerged from a flap in the canvas wall, followed by a second guy. Both wore winter gear, stocking caps and sturdy boots. They picked up some sort of ice auger and a bucket and went back into the shack.

Now, I know many people who live on rivers and lakes in the upper Midwest have ice shacks, some of them rather fancy, comfortable enough to while away some hours watching a fishing hole freeze over. These guys I was watching, though, appeared from nowhere. The canal was bare one moment. An ice shack sat there the next moment. I was impressed.

A couple of hours later, the guys emerged from the shack, fiddled with the metal support poles and dropped the whole structure onto the ice. They tossed their fishing gear onto the canvas, folded things a couple of times and zipped it shut. They grabbed a tow rope and pulled the whole thing on its runners toward shore. Collapsed and zipped up, it looked like winter version of an old stone boat.

Pretty slick, but back on the farm, the cattle would have wrecked that shack in five seconds. They were thirsty.