January thaw puts ice shanty on hold

Every winter about this time for the past several years, my dad and I would inevitably look out over the frozen form of Millhouse Bayou, noticing a handful of spearing shanties situated on the ice.
Matt DeYoung
Jan 27, 2012

And each  year, we’d look at the dilapidated old ice shanty in the corner of his yard and say, ‘You know what? Next summer, we should fix that old shanty up, get it ready to go, so that next winter we can go spearing.”

This year, we finally made it happen. But instead of fixing up that rotted old shanty, we started from scratch and built a new darkhouse for spearing pike and any other unfortunate fish that might swim under our shanty.

Carpenters we are not, but we actually did an OK job of building our shanty. We found some scrap shingles to cover the roof, and after reading about it online, used old aluminum printing plates from the Tribune to line the outside.

With our busy schedules, construction took much longer than it should have, but we finished it just in time for the first good ice of the season last weekend.

It would have been too easy to simply put the shanty out in front of my dad’s house on Millhouse Bayou. Instead, we strapped it precariously to an old boat trailer and hauled it to my cousin’s house on Pottawattomi Bayou.

We were about to push the shanty out on the ice when my cousin mentioned the forecast for the next day — rain and wind.

Herein lies the fundamental difference between my dad and I. I looked at him and said, “Maybe we should just wait and put it out later.”

He shrugged it off and said, “Eh, it’ll be fine.”

Hey, he’s my dad, how do you argue with that? So we pushed the shanty out onto the solid 4-5 inches of ice, cut the hole with his chain saw (which is much, much easier that using a spud), and in no time had our spearing shanty situated over a promising spot of water about 6 feet deep.

I ran home and picked up my 9-year-old daughter and my 8-year-old son and we raced back onto the ice, eager after weeks of anticipation for our first outing in the shanty.

I have very fond memories of sitting in my dad’s spearing shanty as a kid, watching huge schools of shad swim by, along with the occasional carp and dogfish. I recall jigging the string to get the wooden decoy minnow to flutter around in an attempt to lure in a big pike.

My kids might not have such fond memories. My daughter’s feet were frozen solid after about 5 minutes (she sounded disturbingly like Clark Griswold’s daughter, Audrey, from “Christmas Vacation” as they searched for the family Christmas tree). My son had a much more enjoyable time, but he didn’t see anything other than a few minnows dart across the hole.

We abandoned the shanty after a uneventful hour, eager to get back out over the next few days.

But that never happened.

Instead, a freak January thunderstorm came through that night. The heavy rains washed away all the snow on the ice, and temperatures nearing 50 the next day created such a thaw that there was 6 feet of open water between shore and the edge of the ice.

Every day, I’d drive by and check on our shanty, making sure it was still on top of the ice, not sinking through it. I watched the advanced forecast, praying for temps in the 20s, but they never came.

Finally, on Wednesday night, with a couple more warm days expected, I called my dad and said, “Enough. Let’s go get our shanty off the ice.”

That was easier said than done. In order to get out to it, we had to drag a small plastic rowboat down to the water and push it out onto the ice. I climbed in, tied a rope to the bow, and began pushing myself out toward the shanty with a spud. Every 10 feet I’d check the ice, which proved to be mushy and soft. The spud inevitably punched through the ice within the first two or three hits — not a good sign.

I made it out to the shanty and was happy to see that the ice around it looked strong, but I wasn’t about to test it. Instead, I tied the rope onto the runners, then my cousin hitched the other end to his Polaris Ranger side-by-side. As is usually the case, having the right tools makes all the difference. The Ranger pulled the shanty off the ice as easily as if it were pulling a little kid in a sled. When it hit the open water by shore, the shanty tipped down onto its runners. Another few yards and our shanty was safely ashore.

How long will it sit there? It could be a while. A look at the 10-day forecast on Weather.com shows promising temps down to 28 on Saturday and 23 on Sunday, but highs in the 40s next Tuesday and Wednesday, with rain showers likely.

I’m hoping for an unexpected freeze, but I’m not holding my breath.

Maybe  we should have waited until next year to build our shanty.

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