After Stephen Dunn.
This time of year, I love cold still nights when temperatures plummet to single digits.
I love sitting by the woodstove and pulling old tip-ups from pack baskets. I love tying on fresh leaders, hooks right out of the package. I love the wooden clanks the traps make. I love a perfectly rigged trap with a button threaded so I can place bait exactly where I want. I love precision amidst our harshest season.
I love the efficiency of a good trap, how it trips again and again, how its beams display years in dents. I love how each one folds down into something smaller.
I love the first walk out, ice too thin for snowmobiles or four-wheelers. I love the shackless lake. I love the quiet, the lack of auger sounds. I love the view through black ice, how if you look long enough the frozen air bubbles resemble stars in space. I love how I can walk on water, or through the night sky. I love how easily my heavy sled drags over glare ice. I love the bite of crampons with every step. I love the newness of it, love knowing this all will melt in a couple of months.
I love knowing there will be no Jet Skis.
I love thinking of the fish’s view — giant lid over their heads. I love imagining them watching the bottoms of my boots.
I love that first chisel into black ice. I love ice spray and the hollow thud right before I break through. I love how the lake seeps out, as if from a wound, how water pours and refreezes in uneven pools.
I love the visual confirmation of safety: 3 inches of clear, black ice. I love standing atop cracks knowing I’m safe. I love the way water bobs in the chiseled holes the closer I walk.
I love that others love it, too.
I love walking single file, 50 feet apart from my friend, Jersey, whose real name is Steve; love that we both carry throw-bags, love that he doesn’t mind when I remind him what state he’s from. I love knowing we’re prepared and hope we never need those preparations. I love knowing Jersey’s summer job involves throwing rope to ejected rafters.
I love that he shows up early every time we fish. I love that Jersey skims holes and sets traps with steady diligence. I love how he takes FaceTime calls from his young son, shows him the trap he’s resetting. I love his optimism.
More than the tripped trap, I love the moment before, the flag held down by the tiny O-ring. I love the simple physics, the harnessed potential. I love the shape of the set trap, too, like half a heart.
I love the moment of recognition: Flag!
I love the way, once called, that word punctuates everything else: meals, conversations, it doesn’t matter. I love the possibilities the word contains. I love yelling it but I love hearing it yelled just as much.
I love the way the flag hovers, a cloth beacon of hope. I love running, the way Jersey and I run, to the first tripped traps of the new year. I love being out of breath in winter clothes. I love how heavy my boots feel those last few yards.
I love the moment before I see the spool. I love the way my mind turns, in that moment.
I love the spool-blur only big fish produce.
I love the direct connection — no rod, no reel. I love the headshakes, the long, finger-burning runs.
I love lifting fish from the darkness, as if the lake has given birth. I love releasing fish, and I love keeping a few white perch for dinner — pan-seared, with a squeeze of lemon juice.
I love the simplicity of jig poles.
I love that salmon hunt just beneath the ice. I love that pike piss off the purists.
I love that in the first photo of me fishing I’m sitting on the floor of an ice shack with my hand stuck in a Cheez-It box.
I love that I only see certain people on the ice, year after year, though I know they live nearby all year round.
I love how voices carry over ice.
I love skillet-seared venison on a Coleman stove.
I love bald eagles waiting for discarded baits.
I love fishless days because we were out there trying.
I love getting into bed, after. I love how quickly I fall asleep, how I wake not having moved all night.
I love the recurring dream I’ve had since I was a boy: ice fishing over an impossibly gnarled tree, which I can see somehow in cross-section, me trying to pull in a fish that’s wrapped itself among the limbs. I love how I always consider diving in but wake before I have the chance. I love knowing I might have another opportunity.
I love the coyote that watched me on Messalonskee Lake. I love that I woke from my nap just as it passed, silently, loved that I wasn’t dreaming at all.
I love the groans lakes make in February, because I’m tired of winter then, too.
I love that Mainers call lake trout togue.
I love footwarmers that last till 4 p.m.
I love fishing on warm March days in a T-shirt.
I love how many weather systems one winter’s day can contain.
I love how most of the time nothing much happens. I love how one flag flying changes everything.
I love that I’ll meet up with Jersey in a couple of weeks if cold weather holds.
I love that he’ll get there before me, will have already gathered his traps and chisel lakeside. I love that I’ll spot him by the light of his headlamp.
I love that we’ll fall in line: one of us chiseling, checking ice thickness, the other dragging a sled full of traps, bait, food. I love that the lake will hold us.
I love that one of us will set the year’s first trap, and one of us will spot the first flag flying.
I love that we’ll drop whatever we’re doing in that moment — and run.