A little ice music

On a recent afternoon I made my first ice fishing foray on Birch Lake. Suitably bundled up, I hiked to the site of a crib I has marked on the GPS. I drilled a couple of holes and used the skimmer to clear out the slush. Thyen, sitting on a cooler, I dangled a waxworms on a tungsten jig just above the lake bottom. The fish started biting instantly, proving that I marked the spot with precision. From about 3:15 until near dark I steadily hooked, reeled in and released bluegills and rock bass.

As enjoyable as the fishing was the musical accompaniment. The lake ice had reached the stage of development where expansion gives way to booming. The sound wasn’t like the toneless bang of a base drum, instead a collection of enchanting tones, like some mysterious instrument putting out deep musical notes in a range of no more than half an octave. The sounds were nearly constant, in the distance and close by. At times it sounded like the distant note of an Ewok horn from “Star Wars” on the moon of Endor, the note repeating, not as an echo but a reverberation in the ice sheet. There were deeper tones like those from a kettle drum, halfway between music and pure percussion. Sometimes it was the gulp of some giant marine creature swallowing prey. And then successions of notes differing in tone and duration, like the undersea conversations of whales.

Some booms were accompanied by the hiss of ice fracturing from stress. A crack that forms close to where you sit working a jig can be unnerving. But booming doesn’t signal that the ice is hazardous. In fact, it generally happens only when the ice has gained substantial thickness and strength. I fished on, surrounded by the lake’s melodies. When concentrating on the fluorescent green tip of a jig rod, waiting for the slightest twitch to signal a bite, it’s easy to block out all other stimuli. As the light began to fade, the sunset hidden by gray clouds, I had to make a point to forget for a moment about the fishing and enjoy the sounds pulsing through the chill air. It was a bit like taking time now and then, while busy cooking dinner, to stop and listen to the Christmas carols playing on the stereo at background volume.

That night, waking for an interval, I’m sure I detected through the glass of the sliding doors a few more notes of music from the Birch Lake ice beneath its cover of snow.