The Zen of the jig

I came late to ice fishing, an activity the late Michigan writer Jim Harrison called, in the title of an essay, “The Moronic Sport.” In my perception ice fishing involved staying motionless on snow in a season when the weather devotes itself to turning any warm-blooded stationary form into a solid block. I found apropos the words of one of my college professors: “What most people do while ice fishing, I can do in my living room.” Still, after five years living on Birch Lake year-round, I decided to give it a chance. Fresh fish caught from cold water made great table fare. Starter equipment wasn’t expensive. The techniques weren’t difficult. The lake lay right outside the door and down the hill; if the fish didn’t bite or I got cold, I could just walk back up to the house. So I bought basic gear for panfish and, with a friend, tried a couple of nearby lakes.

Then I learned from a Birch Lake neighbor that a crib lay just fifty yards or so directly out from my shoreline, in water about eighteen feet deep. I soon discovered another crib a couple hundred yards to the east, on a straight line out from a neighbor’s lake-access stairway. And in those spots I have experienced the rhythm, the insistent beating heart, of life beneath the ice. And then there is the tactile, sensory experience of time on the ice, of connection with what lives below. Jigging for panfish is a simple and delicate art with a touch of the mystical, of Zen. You thread a waxworm onto a jig about the size and shape of a teardrop – maybe pink, chartreuse, orange, yellow, or some combination. You drop the jig through the hole and pay out the gossamer orange line, letting the jig flutter down until it reaches the bottom. You bring it up one turn of the reel, then every once in a while lift it a few inches and let it drift back down. If fish are down there, they’ll probably bite.

And that’s where the Zen comes in. This isn’t like summer fishing for bluegills with a bobber, when strikes are obvious. When the water is somewhere south of forty degrees F, fishes’ cold-blooded metabolism dials back close to zero. In their gelid condition, they approach the bait in slow motion. They don’t gulp it down, just eye it for a while, then ever so lightly, with a sucking action, take it in. And a subtle sensation travels from line, to jig pole, to hand. Anything other than complete stasis of the rod signals a bite. It might be the merest resistance or extra weight as you lift the jig. The tiniest twitch of the rod tip. A nearly imperceptible movement of the line. A sudden tik that you feel in your gloved hand.

Detecting these events takes focus. If your jigging arm is trembling with the cold, if you look up to admire the sunset, if you chit-chat with a fishing partner, you’ll not feel or see what you need to. As fast as a fish takes in the jig, it will spit the inedible metal object out. So your eyes fixate on the rod tip, and on the line where it meets the water. Your body remains still, relaxed. The sense of hearing, non-essential to the task, all but shuts down. You might perceive the rat-a-tat of a woodpecker, or the low, musical notes of ice booming, but sight and touch take precedence. You are fully in the moment, utterly mindful. At home in a quiet room trying to meditate with a candle, you might struggle to focus for two minutes. On the ice with a jig pole, you can do it for a couple of hours.

The rapt attention is interrupted when you feel or see that little something happen. On reflex, finely tuned, you snap the rod upward and grab the reel handle. The rod bends severely and a bluegill or crappie or perch is on its way to the surface. You liberate its gleaming shape from the hole, brilliantly colored against the background of snow. You gently free the jig from the jaw and drop the fish back into the water; with a slap of the tail it dives downward and is gone. Deploying the jig again, you slip back into deep concentration. There’s a touch of magic, of wonder, in all this. I ponder what person, ancient or semi-modern, first conceived of fishing through ice. There’s hardly a landscape bleaker than snow over a couple hundred acres of a lake. And yet, lo and behold, the creatures below are very much alive. In a season that in so many ways bespeaks desolation, that can’t help but inspire.