Chasing Flags

Frontenac Pond, Frontenac, Minnesota – January, 1996

From the living room futon I groggily open my eyes and see Dad in the kitchen, making strong coffee under the dim yellow glow of the oven hood light. It is early, and it is dark and cold outside, but we are going ice fishing so I get up and begin dressing in layers—long underwear, sweatpants, jeans and snow pants over my legs. A long-sleeve shirt, two fleece pullovers, and a winter coat. Two pairs of wool socks and my super clunky, insulated boots. Hat, gloves and a scarf. Like Randy in A Christmas Story, I can hardly put my arms down. Dad makes sub sandwiches, buttered and stuffed with salami and cheese. In addition to the coffee, he prepares a second thermos of hot chocolate.

We carry fishing gear—tip-ups, jigging rods, miscellaneous tackle and hand warmers crammed into plastic five-gallon buckets—out to the Station Wagon. The cold air stings my face, but the heavy clothing keeps the rest of my body toasty warm. There is a slight breeze and stars are shining bright through a clear sky. It is frigid, but the sun should warm things up later and there’s no snow in the forecast.

On the way out of town we make a stop at the bait shop to pick up a dozen suckers and a bag of assorted mini donuts—chocolate, powdered and nutty. The sky lightens during the half-hour drive to Frontenac Pond. When we arrive at the west end of the long and narrow waterbody, Dad pulls over and parks on the side of the road. We load our gear in a sled and pull it out onto the ice, which has a couple inches of snow on top. We drag the sled about 500 yards until we reach a familiar spot where we’ve had luck in the past.

Dad drills a line of four holes, between our sled and the shoreline, with a hand auger. The ice is eight inches thick and the water depth under our holes ranges from six to three feet. I follow Dad with a metal scoop and clean out the slush and ice shavings. At the last hole I get down on my knees and peer down into the water, shielding out the light with gloved hands, and let my eyes adjust until I can clearly view the underwater world beneath. It’s pretty weedy, but there are some open patches of sand. I can see small Bluegill and Yellow Perch hovering near the bottom. I could just keep staring down the hole but we won’t catch anything doing that! I help Dad set the lines.

Our tip-up rigs consist of sturdy treble hooks on wire leaders, tied to 30# test braided nylon line. On the line above each leader are gaudy spinner blades—silver, chartreuse, orange, firetiger—that flash when the minnows swim and call attention to the bait. Not a very natural presentation, but it’s a proven set-up for icing pike. Dad attaches a sucker to the first tip-up and sets it about halfway between the ice and the bottom of the pond. I set tip-ups in the second and third holes. Then Dad lowers the final bait into the hole closest to shore.

Ice fishing Frontenac Pond (early 2000s). The shack was an upgrade from sitting on buckets out in the wind and snow, like we did when I was younger.

It’s cold, in the teens, but I feel plenty warm—to the point where I’m tempted to remove my coat. The sun is up now, rising higher into a party cloudy sky. It’s supposed to reach a balmy 30 degrees by mid-afternoon. I set the bait bucket down and we dump the remaining tackle from the other two buckets into the sled, then invert the buckets and use them as seats.

I take a big sip of hot chocolate and immediately spit out the scalding liquid. It’s still way too hot to drink, so instead I grab a chocolate mini donut and take a bite. An orange flag springs up. “Flag!” I shout, through a mouthful of a half-frozen donut. I stand up and run to the tip-up. Dad walks up behind me. The spindle is still, so we crouch over the tip-up and wait. I throw my gloves off. Ten seconds pass. Then the spindle moves a quarter turn. Another five seconds pass. The spindle suddenly begins whirling as the fish takes line. Dad lets me take the first shot. I lift the black plastic frame from the hole and lay the tip-up down in the snow. With my other hand I grab the thick black fishing line and pull up. I feel the weight of a fish and then line slides through my fingers. When the fish stops I pull in line hand-over-hand, letting the fish take line when it runs. After half a minute I see the fish flash under the hole, a blur of green and white. I carefully play the fish until its head is in the hole, then lift it up and out, twisting and flopping. The beautiful fish, a Northern Pike, is not huge but it’s large enough to keep and eat.

A decent-sized Northern Pike caught on a tip-up.

Dad cautiously removes the hook from deep within the pike’s excessively toothy mouth using a needle-nose pliers. We leave the fish on the ice to freeze. While we wait for the next flag I examine our catch and I am amazed by its pattern—creamy white ovals over a dark green backdrop. Alternating bands of black and yellow paint the dorsal, anal and caudal fins. It’s bony, duckbill snout encloses row upon row of razor-sharp teeth.

I pick up the other half of my donut, blow the snow off, and finish it. We sit and speculate about which tip-up will get the next action. Before I can decide, the flag springs up on the far tip-up—the one I happened to be staring at. “That’s the one I was just going to say!” I exclaim as we jump and run to the flag. When we get there the spindle is still turning. It’s Dad’s turn so he lifts the tip-up, grabs the line, and sets the hook. The minnow rips off and he winds up a bare hook. Probably, a pike had the bait only partially in its mouth. I walk back to the sled and retrieve the bait bucket. Dad puts on a new sucker and lowers it into the water.

As we walk away I look over my shoulder and see that the flag is already up again! This time, Dad catches his first pike of the day. It’s another three-pound fish. It’s only 10am and we’ve already each landed a fish. Anything after this is just icing on the cake! Dad resets the shallow tip-up and I look around and see that another flag is up. Holy cow! This is the best day of ice fishing ever!

Dad watches a tip-up at Frontenac Pond. Sometimes the pike are in very shallow water. Here, the water is only a couple feet deep.

I run to the next tip-up and crouch down. The spindle isn’t moving. I wait, and wait. Nothing. I pull up the line. The sucker minnow is swimming hard, but it looks a bit scuffed up. I lower it back down and check the other tip-up. The spindle isn’t spinning on this one either, but I peer down and see that the line is angled sharply to the side. Something has carried the bait away from the hole. As I continue to watch I see the line become increasingly slack. I speculate the fish has turned and is swimming back with the bait in its mouth. I gather up the loose line and set the hook. Yes, there’s a fish on! I feel its weight as the fish runs. But suddenly the tension is gone. I pull up an empty hook, and I add a new minnow.

The action cools for a while and we get hungry. We each eat one of the sandwiches and wash it down with hot chocolate (Dad has already finished his coffee), which is finally drinkable. The cloud cover picks up and by noon the sky is completely overcast. The wind picks up a bit as well, and I start to feel a chill. I pace around and swing my arms to get my blood flowing and warm back up. I also stuff a couple of hand warmers in my glove. It does the trick.

Dad pulls out his battery powered radio and we listen with partial interest to one of the New Year’s Day bowl games. We lament about the miserable Minnesota Gophers season (they weren’t bowl-eligible but we watched all the games anyway), and optimistically list reasons why they’ll be a better team next year. At half-time I go around and check the lines. The baits all look good. Funny how the action comes in waves. Some other fisherman have set up nearby but they don’t seem to be getting much action either. We do manage a couple of small perch on a jigging rod while we wait for the next flag.

Finally, at around 2pm another flag springs up. I let Dad give it a go and he sets the hook into a fish. He says it feels like a big one. After a longer-than-normal fight, the head of nine-pound pike emerges through the hole and Dad pulls it up and out. It’s an awesome fish!

We give it another hour or two, but things have really quieted down and it’s getting colder out.  We have to haul our stuff off the lake and it will be getting dark soon, so we decide to call it a day. We go around and pull in the tip-ups. At the last one, I am surprised to feel a heavy weight on the line. I slowly pull up a chunky and sluggish Largemouth Bass. The line must have slipped out of the ring, next to the tip-up spool, allowing the fish to pull line without tripping the flag. It’s always fun to end the day with the surprise of a last-minute fish! And this is one of the biggest Largemouth Bass I have ever caught.

Largemouth Bass, Northern Pike, and a couple Yellow Perch from Frontenac Pond – 1990s

As we walk off the lake we stop and chat with another group of anglers. We trade fishing reports, and I see a six-pound pike lying on the ice next to their shack. One of the men tells us that, according to the Minnesota DNR survey data, the Largemouth Bass grow unusually large in Frontenac Pond. Apparently they recently netted what would be a state-record sized largemouth here. When we finally get back to the car and loaded up, I lean back in the seat. I feel worn out from sitting on the ice, in the winter wind, but already I look forward to chasing flags again at Frontenac Pond.

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Flag! Here are a few tip-up action shots…most of which resulted in a pike through the ice!

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