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Image of sunfish.

Backwater Sojourn

by Tom Carpenter

I am not a modern ice fisherman. I own no shanty, snowmobile, ATV, high-slung 4x4 truck, fancy ice rods and reels, gas-powered auger, space-age electronics, or live-action underwater camera.

Rather, I use a 5-gallon bucket to sit on, boots, some old jigging rods with a few feet of light monofilament wrapped around pegs on the handles, an old Sucrets tin containing tiny ice jigs and miniature bobbers, and an old Swedish-style ice auger.

In this land of 11,842 lakes, a river serves as my home ice: the Mississippi. My forays focus not on the Old Man's main flow, but on his rich backwaters. Secluded oxbow sloughs. Side channels. Spillover lakes. Marshy back bays. Shallow places that replenish with fresh water and new panfish at times of high water.

I learned of these places from an old river rat in a tavern. We were two tired duck hunters, drawn together by our camouflage coats. The waterfowl hadn't flown much that bluebird October day, but the whiskered river rat made one comment that made me take note: "Ya know, there were some fish smacking bugs on that slough today."

Two more beers and I had its location triangulated, if not pinpointed. Later I marked the suspected hotspot on a satellite image and planned an approach.

When new ice finally locked up the wetlands and encased the sloughs in January, I took the chance. It would be a mile-long hike. Drop down off the railroad tracks. Enter the marshy maze. Follow this ditch east, that channel north. Cut across lots through a swath of cottonwood timber. Emerge back into the open. This must be it.

I am alone. Who would walk a mile for a few phantom sunfish? I would. But I am also looking for something else.

There are no crowds, shanties, snowmobiles, ATVs, or radios here. It is just me, winter's bright blue sky above, a few inches of dark new ice below, and fortune or folly awaiting. It's like that with the backwaters: You hit a pot of gold or come up with an auger full of black muck.

I get the latter on my first, second, and third drillings. But on the fourth hole, I find water, maybe three feet of it. I tip a chartreuse-fronted, silver-backed ice jig with a goldenrod grub and drop it down into the stained water.

A mixed flock of chickadees, nuthatches, creepers, and downy woodpeckers flutters through the cottonwood timber—their calls sounding larger than life in the still, crisp air. A stately bald eagle wings silently overhead, straying from the open water out on the river's main channel. A flock of winter mallards whisks past.

I am alone but in good company.

The biggest mistake you can make on a backwater is sitting and hoping. You're better off investing your hope in moving around and drilling new holes to find the fish. On my third or fourth stop, it happens.

My bobber twitches at the end of a jigging sequence. Instinctively sweeping the rod up, I set the hook. The light fiberglass shaft arcs heavily. With a careful heave, I swoosh the fish out and onto the ice: a bull bluegill! His chest is the burnt orange of winter's evening sun, his decorative bars the gray black of the night to come, his sides a backdrop of violet-splotched olive, and his tropical-turquoise gill plates the color of tomorrow's dawn.

I measure him in the palm of my hand, his nose edged up against the tip of my longest finger. He is a wrister: His tail extends beyond my wrist bone. More important, he is a palmer as well: Top to bottom, he more than covers the palm of my hand.

The fishing isn't crazy good, but steady; and an hour later, I am satisfied. Nine more fish join my original prize. Some are orange-breasted bulls like the first one, and several are fat yellow-breasted sunnies—females. They are all beautiful to behold.

I carefully place my bounty in my bucket, hook its handle over the auger, sling the auger over my shoulder, and start the long hike out, as the sun finishes its drop behind the ridges to the west. The stars will be out by the time I make the road.

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