by Rebecca Holland
Last year around this time, I found myself sitting on a frozen Lake Michigan, five miles away from shore and uncomfortably close to one of my biggest fears–falling through frozen ice. I was ice fishing in Door County with Dale Stroschein of Wacky Walleye’s Guide Service. Actually, I was watching other people ice fish while my pole sat dunked in a perfectly cut hole for hours, with not so much as a nibble.
Ice fishing in northern Wisconsin on one of the coldest weekends of the year is not something I would have normally chosen to do, but I was in Door County to experience what the area has to offer in the chillier months (actually, it offers quite a bit – see here and here), and ice fishing with Stroschein came highly recommended. He’s been a guide for over 20 years and is in the Fishing Hall of Fame, but all the expertise in the world couldn’t have calmed me down as we drove out onto the ice.
“So, how many people have you seen fall in?” I asked, trying to keep my voice steady.
“Oh dozens,” Stroschein replied nonchalantly, as if this wasn’t the most horrifying thing in the world. “See it a few times every year.”
He then regaled me with his own stories of falling through the ice, once while in his truck so he had to climb out the window and pull himself out. I swear my insides got colder just listening to him. I wear two pairs of sweatpants indoors in winter months and my bed is as close to the radiator as possible. Watching Jack Dawson huddle half on a door half with his legs in the freezing water in Titanic physically pains me. So, I’m pretty sure my body would simply shut down the second I fell through the ice. These stories were too much for me, to the delight of a fellow writer on this excursion who found entertainment in my terror. He and his wife didn’t seem nervous that we had been driving for a good ten minutes, and could no longer see the shore. They didn’t seem to bat an eye when Stroschein told us how the year before the winter had been so warm a massive sheet of ice broke off and drifted away, shanties and all. Maybe sensing my fear, Stroschein tried to explain that the people who fall through are usually those who are visiting and haven’t been on the ice all winter.
“They don’t know the thin spots as well as someone who lives here,” he said.
‘Someone like him,’ I reminded myself, ‘an ice fishing expert.’
Once we reached our shanties and I tentatively stepped onto the ice, which I was told was about 50 feet thick in that spot, I had to admit it was kind of cool. With nothing but ice and sky for miles it looked like we were on another planet. All around us men sat patiently with PBRs, waiting to catch some walleye. Stroschein holds the record for the largest walleye caught while ice fishing–a whopping 14 pounds!
The shanties were small but comfortable, and because of greenhouse-like walls they were actually very warm. Luckily, otherwise I don’t think I could stand staring into an icy hole for hours without action. Stroschein’s daughter taught us some of her techniques and had a few near catches, but in the end we went home empty handed. She told us that some people sleep in their cars or shanties so they can fish the second they wake up. How do they not have nightmares about falling through?? While I could never do that, I am glad I went. There’s an entire culture on the ice I never would have known about. A language full of terms I can’t decipher, a people full of courage and skill I do not have, and a passion for the outdoors and the sport of fishing that I can never comprehend, but can try to appreciate. Ice fishing was better than expected, but not something I’ll probably do again. Still, always exciting to try something new and face your fears. And now when Wisconsinites tell their ice fishing stories (not as uncommon as you’d think, especially among my uncles), I can chime in.