Pandemic Vagabonds: A lesson in processing

13 mins read

Our next adventure was my making. It was free ice fishing week and my father had a surplus of ancient gear just lying around. The day started with us attending an unusual virtual religious ceremony over brunch. The ceremony struck Queen unexpectedly causing her to faint, not an unusual occurrence. Thankfully Frog was there to administer salt under her tongue, a childhood trick that always brings her back.

Frog and I made waffles, fluffy and full, and Queen managed to snag some bacon. The day was simple: brunch, religious ceremony, and then ice fishing. Easy. We got the ice around 2 p.m., not the most ideal time to start laying traps.

The three of us walked onto Clearwater ice, arms full, because of course we can’t go out without a coal grill and red snappers. I had everything: traps, a depth finder, live bait, but no auger. Frog knew a little charm (and a couple of PBRs) would get us a hole drilled and she was right.

The traps were set and we sat in summer lawn chairs, a little cold, but ecstatic. Even Queen, who usually shrinks from the cold, was having fun. We know we’re late but we don’t care. We have a grill, PBRs and we’re already making plans for our next attempt, this one is simply practice. We start the coals that warm us like a fire, that great gatherer. We circle it for warmth, the wind bites and the mountains turn to that golden crisp of a sun’s goodbye.

We cook the snappers and toast freezer burnt buns that are much too small for the dogs they are to hold, not to mention the mountain of condiments that we’ve brought with us. We find no fish, but a renewed spirit to try again next weekend.


The next week we come better prepared, accompanied by Frog’s colleague, who takes ice fishing seriously, serious in the kind of way of owning a fold out ice shack and a small propane heater. Starting early again we knew would be a problem. We wanted to hit the lake by 7, but of course found ourselves fumbling.

Queen called Frog and I who were already in the car.

“Have you left yet?”

The sound of her voice told us both she was without coffee and breakfast.

“Yes, but we can still pick you up.”

“I’m still in bed.”

Hearing that, I continue towards the lake. Frog tells her that we’ll pick her up when she’s ready. A typical Queen grumble gives us the affirmative.

Frog and I arrive at Clearwater to meet our companion, Pike, who arrives at the same time as us. We disembark and head for the ice, our spirits high, our stomachs filled with coffee and Frog’s baked oatmeal. We set up almost exactly where we were last week. A coming home if you will. It felt only right that having gained some knowledge, we try the same spot that we already felt intimately connected to. Pike is game and we drop our gear and shovel and find a spot for his pop up shack.

First, the auger.

Frog’s first attempt at using an auger spins her like a Looney Tunes character. I laugh and she does too before breaking through to the water below. We begin to prepare the traps. Frog and I exchange glances looking at the live bait before us. Queen had painted all our nails the night before with vibrant colors that have now turned deadly as we hook bait. We think about the potential cruelty we may or may not be committing against the pail of unaware shinners. Frog thanks each one for their sacrifice.

After an hour or so of setting up we take up residence in the warmth of the shack. Frog sits down just in time to receive a message from Queen that she’s ready to be picked up. The timing is perfect and Frog heads out, leaving Pike and I to discuss fishing. This brings up a whole series of memories and nostalgia of fishing with my father that I wasn’t quite ready to experience. We have a pole in the shack with a lure on it that we jig.

Upon Frog and Queen’s return, Frog hears our fishing conversations and the emotions involved with the loss of a lure. The way the fish that broke the line weighs on the mind and occupies it as you apply a new lure to the line.

“Woah, that’s emotional. Is that how men process emotions?”

She says that with the energy of an idea taking off. She may be right. We look outside and see a single man sitting in the center of the lake in a summer lawn chair, wearing what looks like a simple flannel.

“Guys, he’s processing his feelings.” Frog proclaims.

I can’t argue. The deep silence of the lake and the absence of the outside world combined with the emotional experience that fishing apparently produces is all solid evidence for me. I think the next time I decide to go fishing I’ll just be more honest and just say I have some processing to do.

The day passes quickly as do all days shared in the presence of a new companion who can keep up conversation. Like the first time, we bring the charcoal grill, but this time we bring the high end delights, pickled kielbasa, beats and sauerkraut, all delicious products of Berry’s Fruit Farm. Queen may have been late, but she came ready to prepare an Argentinian dish: charred bell peppers with an egg cradled in their crest.

Yes, there are fish here.

The eggs are cooking and the bread is toasting quickly, the meal is on the edge of completion when a flag reaches for the sky. The God beneath the ice has accepted our sacrifices. In an instant the food on the grill is forgotten, abandoned and we circle the hole. Pike begins to pull him up without a fight. We expect something small, but as the line accumulates on the ice’s edge the anticipation grows until the fish reaches the top and is gently pulled out. Pike holds him triumphantly as all fishermen do. We cheer in excitement as to inform the rest of the lake that yes, there are fish here.

A 22-inch lake trout sits on the ice before us. Do we keep it? Frog and I have wanted to cook a whole fish for quite some time and now here it is in front of us. I’ll omit the details of the trout’s passing over, but after it’s done we want Queen to hold it, an idea that she is less than keen on, but she does it with her eyes closed and her face scrunched like she’s tasted something sour.

The drama is over quickly and I feel strange eating casually with a dead fish on the ice. We’d been waiting for hours for that and now we’re back to waiting. It’s almost as if it didn’t happen and we’re still waiting for a fish that is yet to come.

The rest of the day passes gently with a golden sun draping white mountains. We dismantle camp and part ways with our new acquaintance. The fish comes with us as the chosen to be decorated, turned ornate, a dead beautiful creature whose beauty we worship in our preparation of it’s corpse ( I don’t think Queen shares my world view here).

The stuffed trout.

Calling from Larousse Gastronomique (aka the French Bible) we find a recipe for trout that calls for stuffing. Frog and I set to work, Queen prefers to stay away from the body until it’s abstracted into simple meat. On the stove, celery, onions, garlic carrot and dill all simmer on the stove top while bread crumbs soak in milk. After combining it all we stuff the fish and set it in a pan of white wine, thyme and parsley and let it bake, head and all.

Queen has completely lost her appetite, and Frog’s constitution waivers as the head begins to shrivel into the form of a mythic sea creature. Frog, who had been so fervent, is now reconsidering.

“It was a beautiful creature and we just took it out of the ice and killed it,” Frog said, growing more intense as the sentence went on. Mind you she is saying this about something she was just posing for pictures with. Queen says something that basically amounts to “I told you so.”

The episode isn’t quick to pass and furthers our narrative that we are slowly losing our minds in our pandemic isolation. I feel fine and increasingly hungry so I serve the fish. The stuffing is full of life, toasted to the perfect degree, but the fish is disappointedly bland, lacking totally in flavor. I was the only one who went back for seconds.

After a few days in the fridge, resting in the pan the fish did absorb some flavor and now actually tastes quite good, especially having now been removed from the bones. Frog and I are the only ones still eating it, Queen has respectfully opted out.

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