I am sitting in an ice fishing shanty with Wallace in my lap and Ellen to my left, looking at our neighbor, master fisherman Mike. He and Ellen are looking into the glowing green hole in the floor — 13 feet down into the depths of Lake Leelanau where, every now and then, a few perch swim into view.
Mike helps Ellen throw a net full of minnows into the hole. “Ellen,” he whispers, “Here comes a cave dweller!” A fat fish glides towards the decoy, followed by two others. The perch look big from up here, but Mike says they shrink 40% on the way up. “How do they do that Ellen?” he asks.
She squints her eyes at him and says, “Mike! They don’t really shrink! They just look bigger in the water!” We all laugh. Mike and Ellen catch a couple of small perch and throw them back. Fishing is slow, so we decide to go outside and search for a nearby fish bed. By this time Wallace is asleep, and so we put back on our layers and head out into the sunshine.
First Mike shows Ellen how to use GPS. Then he demonstrates how the auger works. They drill one hole and then another. Mike teaches Ellen how to clear the ice out of the hole, and then he describes the fish bed to Ellen. She lays down on the ice with her head in the hole. Mike is delighted to find the fish bed. He marks the spot on his GPS — for next season — and we return to the shanty.
We see a few more perch, and Ellen reels in one that is big enough to keep. But then something happens. A tremendous dark green shape flows smoothly past, gently brushing the bottom of the lake. A pike! Mike has told us about pike. Over 40 inches long with rows and rows of teeth. Mike keeps a special rod on hand just in case. Quickly he grabs a perch out of the bucket and puts it on his special rod, which has a thicker line and a bigger hook. He drops it into the water as Ellen is saying, “It’s gone, Mike. It’s gone!”
“Oh it will come back,” he says, “Just you wait.” Sure enough, the enormous fish glides back into view. It’s so long that we can’t see both ends at once, looking through the hole in the floor. Ellen is hopping up and down with excitement. Slowly, slowly the pike approaches and then — wham — it sucks in the perch on Mike’s line. Mike sets the hook and the fish is on! Without hesitation he hands the pole to Ellen.
“Mike! It’s too hard for me!” she half yells, half whispers.
“No, you’ve got it,” he encourages. “Hang on! Have fun with him!” Mike brings the decoy up so the lines won’t get twisted. The fish goes past the opening, closer now — straining at the line. Ellen is bracing herself against a three-legged folding chair, and then Wallace wakes up. I pull him out of the ergo and turn him around. He is just in time to see his sister struggling with the biggest pike in the lake (as Mike later tells her). The beast of a fish has nearly reached the surface and Mike is ready to gaff it — when the line slides against the ice and snaps. The fish is gone.
Ellen is devastated. Mike tells her what a great job she did and smiles at me. “Will he come back, Mike?” she asks.
“That pike is on the other side of the lake by now,” he answers, “with a toothache.”
“Now we can’t eat him for dinner — and Mama didn’t even get a picture, so there’s no proof that we even had him on the line!” Ellen wails.
“True,” says Mike. “But now we have a great story to tell.”