Last weekend one of the custodians at my school invited me to go ice fishing. I've probably cast no more than three baited hooks into the water over the course of my whole life. I've wanted to go, but have been waiting for a good mentor. So on my way home from school on Friday, I stopped by our local outfitter to pick up a lisence. The wall behind the counter was covered with guns. I took the lisence, a rulebook, and a little carrying case to keep the lisence in while I was on the ice.
I showed up mid-morning at a cove off of a tributary of the Connecticut River. Two guys had gotten their Subaru stuck in the deep snow at the pullout and I helped dig out their car. On the ice stood a half dozen jerry-rigged shanties and about as many men. My friend called out to me, and I walked to meet him. He had arrived early that morning and had already augered several holes in the ice. He'd been jigging at one or the other since shorly after sunrise. He showed me how to loosen my line, let the hook sink to the sands below, and then draw it back in about a foot so that the hook and lure floated about a foot above the bottom. "Now you count one-one thousand, two-one thousand . . . all the way to ten and give it a little tug." I worked this at one hole or another for the next few hours. A guy near us caught a little perch and gave it to us. My guide showed me how to pop out its eyes to use as bait on our hooks. My friend caught one fish and promised my better luck in March when the perch were spawning.
We warmed ourselves in one of the shanties that belonged to an aquantance of my friend. It was over 100 degrees inside, a stinging transition from the frigid wind on the river.
While warming myself by the stove, I reflected on my day and the people on the ice. I am always hyper-aware of my upbringing on these forays into hunting and fishing culture. I always feel out of place. I grew up in the suburbs; these guys grew up in the country. I've lived in several states, these guys grew up within 20 miles of where they live now. I went to college; they got jobs right out of high school. They're Republicans; I'm some kind of left-leaning anarchist. They curse; I try to avoid four syllable words that would peg me as an outsider. I feel out of place, like some interloper on their private party.
Why is it that this part of our heritage has been so firmly rooted in conservative politics, parochialism, and, I fear, a mistrust of the intellectual? I am grateful to these men who have safeguarded these hunting and fishing traditions, but I'm uncomfortable in their presence. They have always welcomed me, but I always feel a little bit self-conscious, on guard lest I accidentally reveal that I am a not an NRA member and seriously think that carrying a concealed handgun is a bad idea.
How does a bleeding-heart liberal kid from the suburbs learn to hunt and fish? Curiously, gratefully . . . awkwardly.