The Christmas Gift by Northern Michigan Writer Jerry Dennis

We hunted three or four days without seeing another bird, until, unexpectedly, with Lady miles away, we almost stepped on one that was roosting in the snow. It blew up from the loose fluff, throwing snow like we’d stepped on a land mine. If I had been carrying the gun I would have been too startled to even think of wasting a shell. But Tony swung on the bird, fired, and it tumbled dead into the snow. We could not have been more surprised. We dressed it and took it home to store in my parents’ freezer.

Tony had already decided the only way to get a northern pike large enough to feed his entire family was to spear it. I had little hope for success. Long Lake’s pike population had continued to decline, and the few survivors were battle wizened and cautious. Besides, neither Tony nor I had any experience throwing spears at fish. It was a legal and time-honored practice, but my father frowned on it, proclaiming it underhanded and archaic, a sanctioned form of cheating that had spoiled fishing in Long Lake.

Tony’s father had at one time been enthused enough to build a shanty and equip it with a stove and spear, but an ice shanty requires almost daily maintenance. If you did not frequently jack up the corners and support them with blocks of wood, the entire structure sank gradually into the ice until the only way to get it off the lake was to chain-saw the freestanding portion, leaving the floor behind. Tony’s father had been a long-distance trucker, home too seldom to give proper attention to the shanty. Eventually he had pulled it to shore and left it there, perched on cement blocks beneath the birches.

The day before Christmas Tony and I spent the morning digging the shanty out of the snow and dragging it with his toboggan onto the lake. So much snow had fallen that the ice was sinking, forcing water to the surface and forming slush. We spudded a three-by-three-foot hole in the ice and horsed the shanty into position over it. Once it was in place, and the hole scooped clear, we banked up the snow around the shanty to keep light from seeping inside. We ignited the stove.

When we closed the door we were enveloped in darkness. as our eyes adjusted we looked down the hole into an unexpected world. Lit green like an aquarium, quiet as the inside of the earth, it was a world you wouldn’t know even existed if all you saw of a lake in winter was the featureless snow that covered it. On the bottom, ten feet down, rested wisps of pikeweed and skeletal maple leaves. On the surface of the lake everything was white and frozen to stillness. Down below was color and movement and life.

Tony picked up his father’s spear and removed the block of wood that protected its six sharp tines. The shaft measured five feet long, and was weighted at the bottom with two pounds of lead. An eyelet at the other end was attached to a coil of cord.

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