The first thing I noticed about Kyleah Jarvi was that she was barefoot. Alongside her dad, John Jarvi of Duluth, she was jigging for walleyes — or crappies or northern pike or whatever — on Boulder Lake north of Duluth last weekend.
Granted, she was in a fishing shelter. Yes, it was nearly 40 degrees outside. But, still. You just don’t run into many barefoot ice anglers.
Kyleah, 11, could explain.
“My boots are drying out,” she said.
Sure enough, there they were, hanging from the top of the portable fishing shelter over a propane heater. They had become wet from walking in slush on the lake.
John and Kyleah had caught one northern pike, and the night before, John had caught a walleye. The fishing was hardly fast. But like nearly two dozen other anglers I encountered on the lake that afternoon, the Jarvis seemed — there’s no other way to say it — happy.
They were regular folks, fishing close to home, hoping to put a few fish in a frying pan at the end of the day. Among them:
Three brothers — aged 8 to 20 — and plenty of potato chips. A half-dozen college-age buddies and Milo the wonder dog. A solo angler in a Minnesota Vikings jacket. A Carlton man and his yellow Lab, Sarge. A father and his grown son. Two brothers fishing out the doors of their pickup. A young man and woman and a six-pack of Bent Paddle Black Ale.
Eric Raisanen, 10, of Duluth was having a great day. Munching cheddar potato chips from the bag, he had landed a small walleye.
“It’s the first fish I’ve caught through the ice,” he beamed from the shelter he shared with brothers Lars, 8, and Luke, 20.
He demonstrated how it happened, first holding his fishing rod out straight in front of him.
“My rod was like this,” he said. “And then it went like this.”
He grabbed the tip of his rod and yanked it toward his fishing hole. He threw the walleye back, he said.
I asked brother Lars how he was doing.
“Good,” he said. “But I didn’t get anything.”
Not yet, anyway.
Chris Flinck, 27, and Lesia Tchobaniouk, 25, of Duluth were sharing a fishing shelter over 8 feet of water. We were chatting about fishing when Tchobaniouk’s bobber twitched. She set the hook and had a fish on momentarily. Then the line went limp.
Within seconds, a bobber in a nearby hole bobbed. Flinck grabbed the rod and waited. When he felt a tap, he lifted the rod and winched up a walleye. The fish was about 16 inches long — perfect eater — and its glittering green flanks made you forget all about the blank and white world outside. Flinck caught the walleye on a white glo-jig and a shiner minnow.
He stepped outside and put the fish in his sled.
Although a few anglers drove out onto the lake, the slush beneath the snow cover compelled most anglers to travel by snowmobile or on foot.
Rich Lathrop of Proctor, however, had given it a try in his four-wheel-drive pickup but mired down in slush. He spent 45 minutes trying to work his way out of the mess and finally made it.
“I shouldn’t have done that,” Lathrop said, gesturing to the spot.
He was headed back for dry land.
Slush remains an issue on several area lakes, although a plowed ice road on Fish Lake has made access easier for anglers.
John Williams, 58, and son Sam Williams, 27, were pulling their fishing gear back to the landing after almost catching one fish.
“I had one on,” Sam Williams said, “but the line wrapped around the (fish locator’s transducer) cord.”
There are so many ways to lose fish.
Not far away, Kieth — no, not “Keith,” — Montgomery of Rice Lake was jigging for walleyes and catching perch. A modest pile of five plump perch lay on the ice outside his two-person shelter. He was fishing next to his wife, Sharon Montgomery. Outside, his daughter Jessica fished with friend Steve Butler of Grantsburg, Wis. Butler had caught a couple of perch, too.
“By the way, I did catch the biggest fish,” Kieth announced.
It was perhaps a 12-incher, a respectable representative of the species.
The perch looked almost tropical against the snow outside, with bold black stripes against green-gold bodies and their flame-orange fins.
Aaryn Bergman, 21, and brother Zach, 17, both of Duluth, were brave enough to drive their 1997 Ford pickup onto the ice. They were sitting inside, doors mostly shut, with lines running under the doors into holes outside. Dangling 11 feet down were a couple of crappie minnows. The heater fan was cranked up. I asked the brothers how they were doing in there.
“It’s perfect,” Aaryn said.
They were fishless but usually have decent luck on the lake.
“In general, it’s OK,” Zach said. “You have to be here on the right days.”
How does an angler know when it’s the right day? You don’t. You just show up as many days as you can. You grab your daughter or your dad or a brother. You put some minnows in a bucket. You haul your gear out there, one way or the other. You pick a spot. You set up.
And while you fish, you talk. You have a sandwich you packed at home. You munch some sunflower seeds. You dry your boots over the heater. And you wonder what’s happening Down There.
That’s all you do, really. It’s slow and simple and completely unlike the rest of your life. Which is what makes it so good.
In the parking lot at the landing, Abraham Samich — “Like ‘Ham Samich’,” he said — wanted to show me the only fish he had caught. It was a beautiful crappie, pushing 13 inches long.
“It’s the nicest one I’ve ever caught,” the Duluth angler said.
Sam Cook is a Duluth News Tribune outdoors writer and columnist. Reach him at (218) 723-5332 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Find his Facebook page at facebook.com/Sam Cook Outdoors or his blog at samcook.areavoices.com.