Extreme Ice Fishing - Lake Leelanau Association (2023)

Where our traveling reporter, Mark Smith, discovers a new sport...

We usually call it mud season: March. It's no use, really. Neither in spring nor in winter have outdoor athletes long considered the buildup of the first day of spring a long yawn. This winter, however, has been the other way around, with substantial snow and cold weather coming late after much of Lake Leelanau's already fragile ice broke up early. Ice fishermen, who generally felt deprived this winter of the chance to get out and do their own thing, had already given up when the snow and cold returned, too late to make safe ice. On St. It was here on Alpers Road that I made an appointment with three pioneers of the sport, champions of a new sport they called extreme ice fishing.

Extreme ice fishing enthusiasts are a breed apart. It's not so much a sport as a way of thinking. Even in normal winters, there are men who face the ice first, paving the way for others to follow. But extreme ice fishermen deliberately seek out the most precarious conditions, pitting man against nature in a finely tuned test of endurance. Keith, the oldest of the three, explained his philosophy of the sport to me as he unpacked the gear from his truck. It was 6:15 am and a fine mist was rising from the calm open water to the north. The sun would rise in about 40 minutes.

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“What you see here is the edge of the ice floe,” Keith said, pointing to an arch of ice that spanned the lake from the east shore to Cemetery Point on the other side. “It's thick in places, but unreliable. Beyond is a great expanse of clear, fresh ice, an inch thick at most, and to the north is open sea. There are underwater springs and various narrow sections, and it's our job to know where the danger is and deal with it. We like to travel light and stay in shape, because once we start using these new things, they could run out at any time.

Extreme Ice Fishing - Lake Leelanau Association (1)

Keith looked up at the sky and calculated how long they might have. For now all was cool and calm. A cool wind would pick up as soon as the sun came up. Then the heat would start to build up and the ice would start to break up. “You have to respect the integrity of the ice, man. Outside, you're as close to nature as you'd like to be. We don't have time to drink and play. For us, it's about being one with the ice and with ourselves." Keith took a last sip from his water bottle and passed it to Eric and Scott. “As I said, we travel light. Just a rope and a hook, and enough clothing to keep you warm for about an hour. Then he's back in the truck and on his way to work before anyone knows. We're on ice, and when we get out, it's gone. It's a great way to start the day.”

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Extreme icers claims that the fishing experience is totally different "on the edge". For them, it's not about tips and ice stands. It is a matter of focused concentration. His training involves a form of yoga known as "Uttanasana" or "Deliberate Stretch Breathing." Practitioners claim that advanced breathing techniques allow them to "walk smoothly," distributing their body weight so evenly that they barely make a mark on the thin ice. Each step is punctuated by a rhythmic exhalation that counteracts the downward pressure of walking. It is an exercise that requires a lot of discipline and skill. This technique allows anglers to venture into places that normal anglers never get to see. Extreme freezers claim that fish accumulate more intensively under a transparent layer of ice and bite more easily.

Scott stretches and takes a deep breath of the morning air. Now he's ready to don his ultra-light bhotees, or "snakeskins," special ice shoes named after the Himalayan rattlesnake, whose fur is known to fly across frozen deserts. They are a Bhutan specialty, and Scott is careful not to step on sharp rocks. The shoes are thin, with little to no insulation against the cold, but their finely woven texture allows the wearer to feel their way across the thinnest ice.

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“Usually you see four or five guys standing around a hole, you know, talking, eating, smoking, getting drunk,” Scott says. "Not us. When we're out there, we have to be as far away from each other as possible. Put too many guys around a hole, and the next thing you know, the ice breaks. Even with radios and all. We try to be quiet to hear what the ice is doing I've even seen a few times when I had to leave fish behind simply because the ice I came out on didn't support my weight plus the fish it was time to come back I literally slid like a caterpillar, just to keep my weight evenly distributed on the ice.”

For reasons of anonymity, the three declined to take pictures. The DNR frowns on any life-threatening activity and particularly discourages extreme ice fishing. They are so concerned with popularizing the sport that they refuse to even officially acknowledge its existence. When I called Lansing for official opinion on the issue of extreme ice fishing, I was met with a wall of silence. Only one official hinted at the extent of the statewide involvement, but he too declined to be identified. It seems that politics is generated by fear. If extreme ice fishing can be ignored, the DNR hopes it will just go away. Meanwhile, they wage a silent war against what they see as a danger to public safety.

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But Keith disagrees. “We live in a society of rules. It seems that every time you turn around, some public official restricts your freedom to come and go as you please. We know what we are doing. We know it's dangerous, and we live or die by that knowledge. If we leave, we only take ourselves, but we think the risk is worth it. I mean, who wants to be half alive when he can live life to the fullest. For us, that's what makes life worth living. It is exciting. This is discipline, adventure, and meaning all rolled into one. You cannot legislate against it.

As I watched Keith, Scott, and Eric walk down the steep bank toward the lake, I heard a morning vehicle pull up, the first since we'd arrived. It was the Orange County plow, taking its time on this fine spring morning, clearing the lightly glazed driveways with a fine coating of sand. I waved as it passed and watched the sand swirl around my feet and under Keith's truck. Have you seen them? I was not sure. It was still gray in the morning light. But the salty grain was already doing its job. I could see a circle of wet melt around each grain of salt. As the snowplow turned the corner out of sight, I yelled one last “good luck” to the boys and turned to continue on my way. They waved from a distance but did not respond. At that time they were in the extreme ice zone.

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