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Open Season: Even if 'the fish are a bonus,' it still is a ton of fun to try

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"The fish are a bonus."

My dad's famous line; uttered in a slow, melodic way like an algebra teacher explaining the Pythagorean Theorem.

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Count on hearing it the moment a disgruntled fisherman grumbles about the day's catch - or lack thereof.

"Catching isn't important," he continues, raising a finger for emphasis. "It's the time spent outside that's a blessing."

Who does he think he is - Confucius?

Comprehension of philosophical quagmires comes to me about as quickly as translating building instructions written in Portuguese. But I get the gist: be thankful for what you have - it could always be worse.

It's been said that, as you age, the harvest becomes less important than the adventure. As an outdoorsman, you perceive the woods and lakes and sunsets as the big sundae, and consider any game felled as the cherry on top.

I must not be there quite yet, because when fishing, I aim to catch. The scenery is nice, but you can't pan fry a memory.

Oh sure, I enjoy it all; the experience, I mean. The backdrop of the world doesn't go unnoticed, I have memories ...

Of glass-still lakes and golden sunsets ...

Of whistling wings from migrating waterfowl ...

Of deep belly laughs and good-natured ribbing ...

Of patience, anticipation, jubilation and contentment.

All these, I hold within, locked away for a rainy day. But I still yearn for the next incoming flock of ducks, the next nerve-racking encounter with a wide-racked buck, the next drag-screaming battle at the end of a line.

That's what keeps people like me off the couch. The potential of what could happen, the "I know I probably won't catch a 12-pound walleye today, but then again ..."

Just like a recent ice fishing excursion with my father, Bret, and grandpa, Vern Drechsel. I'd been hearing about a lake near Park Rapids, Minn., which boasted limits of slab crappies over 11 inches.

I know I probably won't ... but then again ...

We reached the lake around noon, accompanied by below-freezing temperatures and gray skies, threatening snow. Icehouses littered the lake like multi-colored sprinkles on a glazed donut. The plan had been to find a clump of houses and fish nearby, but with so many spread out so far, we said to heck with it and headed out.

Eventually, the plowed lake trail led us past the major metropolis, and we chose a spot to park the pickup near one of the quieter suburban outcrops. It didn't take long to drill holes and set up the collapsible icehouse.

Two, three, four clicks from the electric starter and welcomed BTUs radiated from the propane heater.

Inside the small, two-man house, Dad and Grandpa rigged up their poles with fathead minnows. I, on the other hand, decided to try my luck outside, hole-hopping in hopes of finding a hot bite. With an electronic flasher in one hand and fishing pole in the other, it was just a matter of time before I found which hole held the crappie mother lode.

Good in theory, anyway.

What had worked on countless other lakes didn't amount to a hill of beans here. Harassed by bait stealing perch for hours on end, my surly mood eventfully filtered into dad's hearing range.

"The fish are a bonus," he said, his voice muffled by the tent-like structure.

I cringed and shut my eyes for the inevitable conclusion.

"It's the time spent fishing that's important."

Throwing in the proverbial towel, I sighed and plunked my jig down a hole next to the icehouse. What's the use fighting an unstoppable force? Arguing with him would be like trying to remove a tree stump with a hand trowel.

So the three of us chatted. Dad had been roused out of his noisy slumber by my vocal grumblings and Vern got to work harassing him, mimicking his snoring and exacerbating the original soundtrack tenfold.

Somehow, talk of snoring led to politics, and politics led to women, and women led to indigestion, and by that time we all were laughing so hard I had icicle tears forming at the corner of my eyes.

Then, the bank of clouds that hung forlornly above us all day finally broke to the south. Sunlight reflected blindingly white off the expanse of snow. With the clouds retreating, the wind broke ranks. What had been a steady, strong pulse all day petered out into a gentle breeze.

Maybe dad was on to something. Maybe this is what it's all about. Us, here, laughing at old stories; nodding in approval of the change in weather; solving world problems from the middle of a busy Minnesota lake.

There was no time to ponder my epiphany. Just then, flickering green lines on the flasher signified movement below. I had been jigging near the bottoms, so I quickly reeled higher to meet one of the strengthening signals. The lines faded from green to red and one instantly shot up to the line indicating my lure.

I felt a thump and set the hook. A hefty weight greeted me and I gingerly played the fish to the bottom of the hole.

"Feels like a walleye," I said, as Grandpa opened the zippered door of the icehouse to watch the action.

With slow, strong headbobs, the fish took runs that doubled over my ultra-light rod. Line peeled from the spool, the drag screamed. It took one final lunge near the bottom of the hole before its features materialized out of the shadowy turquoise.

"Holy cow, it's a crappie," Dad said, his eyes bulging. And what a crappie: every bit of 11 inches and with a mouth like a plum. It was tossed in a bucket with some fresh water and we went about replicating the event.

Lures were repositioned higher in the water column as we waited for the next school of suspended, nomadic slabs to wander past our holes.

But with the day spent and our bellies impatiently grumbling, we decided to call it quits.

Traversing the ruts and ice heaves, the truck bounced clumsily off the lake. I had the steering wheel in a vice grip.

Lanterns flickered on throughout the shanty city. From a distance, the glowing huts looked like a bunch of haphazardly placed paper luminaries, mirroring the intensifying starlit sky.

We turned onto the blacktop road paralleling the lake and headed for home. Limits of pan-sized crappies eluded us - we only had one fish to show for our work - but it was a good day, nonetheless.

I wondered, though, would it have been any less of a good day if we had been skunked instead?

No ... but it will be a lot tastier fried in butter.

Tyler Shoberg is Pioneer Sports Editor as well as an avid hunter and fisherman. He can be reached at 701-451-5717 or tshoberg@westfargopioneer.com.

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