Frigid ritual First-time ice-fisher discovers why the sport has so many Manitobans hooked

ON LAKE WINNIPEG NEAR RIVERTON — With a ladle in one hand and a rod in another, Joe Kim snags his second walleye of the day.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 09/02/2022 (185 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

ON LAKE WINNIPEG NEAR RIVERTON — With a ladle in one hand and a rod in another, Joe Kim snags his second walleye of the day.

His grin wide as he reels it in, Kim hands the catch to my father-in-law, Bill Kitching, who sets to work, his hands steady as he swiftly guts and fillets it.

Kitching has to work fast; the fish, as are our surroundings, are both well below freezing point.

It may be only -18 C out, mild for hardy Manitobans, but the biting wind gusts at 65 km/h, licking the flaps of the tent we are ensconced in.

It’s just another day on the ice for them but for me it’s a whole new world.

PRABHJOT SINGH / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS
Bill Kitching is an old hand at gutting and filleting freshly caught fish.

Ice-fishing has come a long way from its early days of painstakingly hand-carved holes, anglers sat against the wind in the barest of shelters, hoping to catch something.

Nowadays there’s a slew of gadgets on the market for the serious aficionado, from battery-powered augers, which make easy work of drilling holes, to sonar scopes that can pinpoint exactly where the fish are.

But while tools have evolved, the method of catching fish in winter remains the same: carve a hole in the ice, drop a line and wait.

Armed with my anglers licence, which allows me to keep four walleye (reader, let me save you the suspense; I caught none), and dressed in no fewer than five layers, I waddle into Kim’s sturdy UTV.

PRABHJOT SINGH / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS
Battery-powered augers make drilling a hole easier than in the past.

Squashed between fishing rods, ice-skimmers and portable heaters, with a bucket of minnows at my feet, we trundle along the shore of Lake Winnipeg.

The landscape is barren, a hint of skeletal trees in the distance the only indication there was anything verdant here.

Everywhere I look is white and flat. Miles and miles of it as far as the eye can see.

But looks are deceiving as I quickly discover when we are on the snow-covered lake.

Frozen mid-wave, ice has expanded, contracted and expanded again, causing sharp shelves and bumpy ridges to jut out.

PRABHJOT SINGH / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS
Nothing but white meets the eye on Lake Winnipeg, but the fish are biting under the ice.

Every jolt makes me question my sanity; this is not going to be a smooth ride.

A bone-rattling 30 minutes later and we are at our destination.

We tumble out and immediately I am set to task — while the men put up the tents it is my job to shovel snow on the skirts. This will hold the tents down and help retain heat.

We put up two tents. Kim’s has all his gear, including his Garmin Panoptix Livescope, which he uses to keep track of the walleye, and a double sunflower propane heater that does a brilliant job of keeping the tent toasty.

He’s also brought a stove and cooking utensils; the plan is to fry and eat the fish we land today.

PRABHJOT SINGH / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS
It’s a reporter’s job to shovel snow onto the tent skirts to hold them down and keep the wind out.

But first we must catch them.

In the second tent Kitching is already sitting on his trusty bucket, the lid modified with a soft cushion he drilled in to make for a comfier perch.

His escapades on ice started as a teenager when he would drive out with his friends, a group of neighbourhood boys who would pile into a car and head to the nearest lake.

They would drill a hole through the ice by hand, he tells me as his deft fingers swiftly pierce a hook through a wriggling minnow.

I settle down next to him and we play a waiting game.

PRABHJOT SINGH / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS
Joe Kim has brought a stove, cooking utensils and all the fixings to make fresh fish tacos.

Before long there’s a shout from the other tent. “There’s a fish coming your way,” Kim yells.

He’s spotted it on his screen and sure enough, within seconds Kitching’s rod begins to bend forward — but alas the fish we’ve caught is small and so back into the water it goes.

While Kim and Kitching may be disappointed, I can’t help but feel relieved.

It’s short-lived; we go on to catch fish after fish after fish in a matter of minutes.

The abstract idea of ice-fishing very quickly becomes real; out of the water the fishes gasp, their mouths wide open, gills flapping frantically.

PRABHJOT SINGH / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

I want to turn away but I force myself to look as the abrupt thwack of a mallet stills them, their eyes slowly going dull.

I wasn’t prepared for my emotional response — but that doesn’t stop me from eating the fish.

Standing up in Kim’s tent, the sound of our boots crunching on the snow is drowned out by the sizzle of hot oil as he drops lightly battered pieces of fish into a pot.

He’s made warm fish tacos, the tender and flaky fish blanketed in the lightest of crusts. The crispy nuggets are folded into a warm corn tortilla smeared with guacamole and sour cream.

While the wind whips around outside, picking up in its ferocity, we tuck into our freshly caught dinner, cleaned and cooked: it is an exceptional meal.

PRABHJOT SINGH / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS
AV Kitching, left, tucks into some fish tacos, courtesy of ice-fishers Joe Kim, centre, and Bill Kitching.

Before my trip out on the ice I had thought it an odd custom. To my outsider’s eye it came across a masochistic subculture complete with a clearly defined asthetic and a slew of paraphernalia.

I had assumed it to be a solitary sport — picturing in my head one person hunched over a small hole, battling the forces of nature as they waged war with their prized catch.

How wrong I was.

When I (separately) ask them why they like it so much, both Kim and Kitching surprise me with their almost-identical answers. They say they like the camaraderie of fishing with friends and the fun of doing it as a team sport.

As Kitching succinctly puts it, “It’s a good way to enjoy the day.”

PRABHJOT SINGH / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS
Bill Kitching has been hooking walleye in winter since he was a teenager.

And while it’s not something either one did as children with their respective fathers, both men have now fished with their wives and children and in Kitching’s case, his grandchildren.

Kim especially loves fishing with his seven-year-old daughter, whom he takes out to Lake Manitoba after she finishes school, and his two-year-old son whose “face explodes with laughter when he sees food come up through a little hole in the ground, which makes my heart explode,” he says.

“So how did you like it?” Kitching asks me a few days later when I have somewhat recovered from our adventure.

I don’t have to think hard about this.

While I see the appeal of heading out with like-minded friends, all with one aim in mind, to sit in the raw beauty of an icy Manitoban landscape, I’m almost certain I won’t be going out again; it just isn’t my cup of tea.

PRABHJOT SINGH / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS
Bill Kitching holds up his catch.

But then again, I never thought I would have left the bright lights of the city for the rural Prairies, so who knows?

Maybe one day I will be the one dusting off my rods, packing my skimmers, and picking my favourite hyper rattles before venturing out into the vast open, ready to catch my share of Manitoba gold.

Twitter: @nuchablue

History

Updated on Wednesday, February 9, 2022 7:52 PM CST: adds word

Updated on Wednesday, February 9, 2022 11:10 PM CST: Makes minor corrections.

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