My first step is cautious and distrustful. In front of me are dozens of fishing shacks. Even more fishermen – and they are mostly men – casually stroll around as though they walk on solid earth rather than the frozen top of Lake Monona. The blinding glare from the snow and ice in the winter sun is matched by the glow of the blaze orange snowsuits that constitute ice fashion. Swallowing hard, I step out to join my husband in the crowded metropolis atop Monona Bay.
In the winter, a city-within-a-city forms in Madison, a kind of wintery Christiania fueled by cans of Miller Lite and cases of Leinenkugels. Ice fishermen take to the bay as soon as the ice forms and remain there long after it seems safe to do so. It’s not unusual to take John Nolen Drive on an odd 70-degree weekend in early April and see fishermen wading through the melt of winter’s remains, clinging to their poles and swinging a 5-gallon bucket. With your car windows down breathing deeply of the warm air, the sight of ice fishermen shatters the reverie, reminding you that spring rarely arrives in Wisconsin before late May.
That morning, our friend John had pulled up to our downtown condo in a blaze orange snowsuit behind the wheel of a Jeep. I’d never seen him in anything but his white doctor’s coat. Originally from Hawaii, John had taken to Wisconsin with gusto, and he was eager to show us the ins-and-outs of his favorite winter pursuit.
Like any city, the ice shack community offers its own amenities. Not the least of which is the camaraderie built of hours staring into a hole and jiggling a fishing line. Portable televisions trick out the more luxurious shacks while other people, usually sitting on buckets or in camp chairs, make-do with a scratchy radio signal. But there’s also a hot dog stand.
John helps me find a spot, and I hand-auger a hole through the ice. It’s just as hard as you imagine, and despite the cold, I find myself red-faced, sweaty, and quickly passing the device on to my husband to finish. He also threads the still-wiggling maggot on my hook, his normally placid – despite – what – his -wife – thinks – are – disgusting – bugs – and – critters face screwing up at the task.
The view from atop my overturned bucket is among Madison’s finest. The whole of downtown spreads before me – the soaring capitol dome topped with the gold Lady Wisconsin statue that so many people mistake for our other lady, Lady Forward, at the capitol’s base; an early 20th century minty-colored boathouse; and the Jetsons-meet-Frank Lloyd Wright Monona Terrace – strung out along the shoreline of Lake Monona. A similar cityscape is visible from the car on John Nolen Drive and is the one you take new visitors to see, but it passes too quickly to really enjoy at 45 miles per hour.
The real prize, though, is the open expanse of ice. It stretches for a few miles in each direction, broken only by sections upheaved by ice quakes. In a city of familiar streets, a new piece of terrain to explore, albeit temporary and often bitterly cold, is the real magic of the season.
After two hours on the ice, I’m freezing. Walking back toward shore, I smile at the hardier fishermen who got there before me and will leave long after. Nothing about ice fishing seems urban yet here I am, in the middle of Madison clinging to a pole and swinging my bucket.