Winter is a fact of life on the northern prairie. When you’re single and bored, it can often be an irritating fact of life. In the north country, it’s not uncommon to see temperatures well below zero, with winds that seem to blow from all directions at once, especially when out on a lake.
Before moving to the prairie, I had lived in places like Iceland and Sweden, and so I didn’t think much about the ever-present nearness of winter. I figured I could handle anything Jack Frost had to throw at me. I was wrong. Compared to the coastal areas of Scandinavia I’d lived in, the winters out here are nothing short of insane.
However, that insanity can be beautiful in its own way. The driven snow, the frosted trees (if you can find any!), and the majestic sun dogs can all be breath-taking. Even more so is the dedication folks out here have to enjoying nature, even at its most brutally cold.
So, what is a single visitor to the prairie to do in winter time? Well, one option is the age-old sport of lake ice fishing! Before moving here, I was only abstractly aware of ice fishing, but by my second winter, I was more than ready to try it out first hand!
My favorite ice fishing spot is a small lake in LaMoure County, North Dakota. Known as “Diamond Lake”, this body of water has an interesting history. Locals tell me that years ago, the valley beneath Diamond Lake was actually used as a community baseball field, complete with a diamond and a concessions stand. That is where the lake derives its name, I’m told.
About 20 years ago, however, the area was inundated with an incredible snowfall, the resulting melt of which flooded the area, and created the lake that now stands over the old baseball diamond. Any passerby today would be wholly unaware of the history behind Diamond Lake, and would likely see nothing of interest, save for the lakeside Swede Township cemetery. They would be mistaken, however.
Today, Diamond Lake is a well-stocked home to many species of fish and no shortage of birds as well. From northern pike to walleye, and from meadowlarks to pelicans (yes, pelicans!), Diamond Lake is a nature-lover’s dream in an otherwise unending sea of corn and sunflowers, or, in winter, a wash of white as far as the eye can see.
On my most recent foray out onto the ice, I joined a friend (I’d recommend the Buddy System anytime you’re planning on being on the ice) who conveniently owned two essentials when one goes ice fishing in North Dakota: an ice borer, and an ice house.
We traveled out one March morning with our hearts full of anticipation, and our bucket full of live minnows. Rather than drive our vehicles out onto the lake, we took a much smaller vehicle which reminded me of a riding lawn mower.
We came to rest near some drowned trees in a spot my friend supposed would have some pike seeking prey among the old trunks. I was leery of the ice bearing our weight, but with the temperatures over the past few weeks remaining well below freezing, my friend assured me that all would be well.
Producing his great drill, we bore a few holes into the ice, which proved to be more than a few feet thick. Below, however, were the dark blue waters of Diamond Lake! Now that we had our hole drilled, we set up the ice house.
Now, ice houses can come in many shapes and sizes. Some resemble mobile homes, with many amenities, while others look like lonely shacks or even tents. Our little house started as something which looked like a loaded raft, but which unfolded into a very comfortable tent with four seats within.
My friend set up a small space heater, and we were in business! We set our poles and settled in for the wait. I was excited, but as time passed, I began to realize that excitement is only a side benefit of ice fishing out on the frozen prairie. The real experience is of solitude and contemplation. I had packed drinks and snacks, but perhaps what I should have brought was a good book.
I’ll be honest: periods of quiet bother me. Whether I mean to or not, I tend to talk a lot. It was explained to me, however, that this is not advisable when you’re ice fishing. The fish can feel the vibrations of your voice, you see, and so you must remain quiet. At least, this is what my friend told me. Perhaps it was he who was disturbed by my vibrations!
At any rate, we sat diligently staring at our poles for some hours before my friend declared that the fish weren’t hungry that day and began packing up. I was disappointed, but also somewhat relieved. Ice fishing, it seems, is a sport to be enjoyed in stillness and with patience. I was certainly glad for the experience, but I think my next winter adventure will be something a bit more exciting. Or, at least some place where my vibrations are appreciated!
If you go ice fishing, remember to first secure a valid fishing license. I got mine at Walmart, but most can be purchased on-line. Be sure to check the local laws regulating fishing in your area. Secondly, be sure to check the weather. Local governments will often have laws regulating when ice houses must be removed due to unsafe temperatures and thinning ice, and also regulating certain notices which must be visible on ice houses which are left overnight out on the ice. Also, be prepared. Cold temperatures and long periods of quiet are a given when ice fishing. So, dress warm and bring a bag lunch. I’d recommend a good book, too. You alone are responsible for your safety out on the ice, so always think carefully, and if possible, bring a buddy!