With the blue tent cover flipped over us and the ice hole before him meticulously cleaned after an entertaining five minutes of scooping, my nearly three-year-old son A.J. was receptive to dropping his first wriggling minnow down the silver-blue cylinder toward the gravelly bottom below. I clicked open the bail on the reel while he held the cork-and-electrician-tape handle and the yellow foam bobber hit the slush free surface of the eight-inch circle with a plop and his small split shot and fathead spiraled down the hole. He laughed as the foam stick stood upright in the hole, and stared intently, singing “walleye, walleye, walleye” to the tune of the recently-listened-to “Farmer in the Dell.”
I timed our trip to the small lake that was filled with a good number, though usually smaller sized and readily-biting walleyes to coincide with the witching hour around sunset, knowing that we had that stretch, and maybe an extra half hour, before his attention span met its match. Earlier in the afternoon, I pre-rigged two bobber rods to up the odds and had a spoon rigged on my jigging rod to help bring active fish in to our still offerings. Additionally, I bagged a trio of juice boxes and a selection of granola bars and Goldfish crackers, knowing that even if we didn’t catch anything for the frying pan, he’d have a handful of smiley baked fish to keep him satiated. The rod case, heater, sonar and other gear was loaded in position in the sled base of the house, ready for deployment straight out of the truck’s tailgate upon our arrival at the lake. Efficiency in situations involving young anglers is key, and once I had the four holes punched, it was a matter of moments between taking our seats on the house’s padded chairs, popping the white plastic straw into a fresh juice box for my new angling buddy and having everything set for the first fish to swim through on the now whirring sonar.
With his bobber in place and bait suspended just above the bottom, my son stared up at the blue fabric ceiling, noting how the stitching pattern quickly shifted from a set of diamonds to squares when he slanted his head a quarter turn. Though certainly his neck wasn’t sore from the two dozen “now diamond…now square” verbal confirmations he made, he eventually turned his attention to the few pieces of slush that remained in the hole which housed the puck for our sonar. Picking up his trusty orange skimmer, he set to work as the display jumped around each time he bumped the unit’s white Styrofoam float while lifting out the last remaining pieces of ice. On his last trip around, he bumped the gain on the Vexilar with his glove, and the colors dramatically shifted from green and yellow to red and white and my spoon showed up as a two-foot-thick bar on the display.
“Ohhh, look at all the colors,” he shouted with a thrilled laugh.
I lifted his bobber rod up and set it back down to show him his presentation on the screen, and the two giant white flickers of a split shot and hook-and-minnow offering elicited a “whoooa” of excitement as they took up nearly half the auto-zoomed side of the display. As he cranked the dial back and forth, the pairing would disappear and then reappear in full color until the minnow finally settled just out of view on the bottom and only the lead weight would pulse in and out with the gain adjustment. Without so much as a blip on the back-and-forth of the sonar, his yellow foam bobber slipped silently under the surface; first just far enough to cover the top, then an inch, and then a slow descent along the far edge of the hole.
“I think you have a fish,” I remarked as I handed him his rod, and helped him lift it up into the air in order to set the hook.
The rod barely bent with the slight weight of one of the lake’s many undersized denizens, but my son’s steely stare at the pulsing eyelets and thump at the end of the blank, and continuous shouts as he turned the reel made it seem like it could have been a state record. With a little coaching, and a couple seconds of my steadying hands around his own, he had the splashing, nine-inch walleye up on the ice between the edges of the black sled and the hole. Reluctant to hold it, I lifted it up for him and snapped a quick photo of his first fish through the ice, and his first walleye ever. I popped the hook loose and prepared to release it, when he quickly interrupted me.
“A.J. throws it back,” he stated sternly enough in a third-person, post-toddler-phase voice to get me to hand over the fish, which we dropped together into the hole. With a splash it was gone, eliciting a continuous and hearty laugh from my son, which rang out from our fabric-tarped house and echoed across the lake.
Only one other cigar-shaped walleye, coming on my jigged spoon, would grace our evening efforts and the middle stretch of the trip was rather slow. But the excitement coming near the start of our late afternoon outing carried my boy through the darkness as I pulled him on the sled back to the truck. He chattered about his fish and the diamonds and squares and his orange skimmer all along the highway drive back to town and through the front door where the first thing he would report with a shout to my wife was “I caught a walleye.”
I nodded a confirmation as she hugged him and congratulated him on his first hardwater fish and while she did, I smiled and hoped for more empty juice boxes, head turning observations, near-dark sled rides back to the truck and laugh-filled releases in his adventures to come…in our outdoors.