Success Tastes Sweeter When You’ve Earned It

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The truck read -35 F when we hopped in to meet our new friends at the truck stop. As Indiana and Illinois natives that moved here from Texas, the temperatures were even harder to swallow for them. That’s a 90-degree difference from the high in Austin that day. Even worse, we got the 3’ x 5’ hole cut in the ice just before our eyelashes froze shut only to set up our pop-up ice house and realize – the water is too murky. Our tip that this lake with a very healthy Northern Pike population was “probably clear enough to spear” was no good. We broke the news to the Texans who had gone back to the truck to reconsider my offer for handwarmers, and said we’d unfortunately have to pack up and head to another lake. I felt awful but they insisted they were just grateful for the opportunity to tag along. I’m ashamed to admit I wasn’t even that disappointed to get back in the heated truck and settle in for the 1.5-hour drive to the Plan B lake.

Plan B lake was a lake we dumped our 16’ aluminum boat “The Pounder” in this summer (aptly named when we upgraded it from the 14’ “Tin Can”). The lake didn’t have a boat ramp and we pulled spinners a few summer evenings, the entire lake to ourselves, rewarded with a handful of tasty eater walleyes each visit. Occasionally, my newest favorite spinner would meet its demise to a toothy Northern Pike. Thus, Plan B lake made its way to the top of the list for ice fishing season. Our first visit there in January actually produced a beautiful point and pheasant flush by our bird-dog-turned-minnow-hunter in the winter on the walk in. We proceeded to catch dozens of perch, discover the lake was crystal clear for spearing and hooked into some unexpected hefty walleyes at sunset.

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I reveled in my warm coffee and splurged on a few more of the mini powdered-sugar donuts we had left in the truck as we made the trek to the lake. I glanced out the window to the west at one point to see easily over 50 pheasants feeding in a grain field on the edge of a Wildlife Management slough. I made a mental note for next year.

We arrived at Plan B lake and I apologized again that we hadn’t just went straight to a lake we knew was clear, but our guests insisted they didn’t mind one bit. By now the sun had some time to come up and it was down-right not too shabby out, around -25 F. We got to go through how we cut the hole and setup again and these two had already caught on to the steps and quickly offered help without instruction. We probably only had the decoy down for 30 seconds when the first northern came in and Hannah speared her first fish. The day flew by as she went on to spear 2 more, and Ben another (I had taken him spearing a few weeks prior when he got his first).

We packed things up and moved the house to fish for walleyes as evening approached. While probably our slowest evening there yet, each of them managed to catch their first walleyes through the ice and we bonded over a shared dread of packing up and walking back to the vehicles, without the warmth of the sun and significantly windier than when we had arrived.

Coyotes called out into the crystal clear, piercingly cold night and I managed to bend my frozen cheeks into a smile. This is what I live for. It all connects, and I never regret a day spent in the pursuit, even when it means driving half-way across the state and cutting a spear hole only to find a lake that’s too murky. All of our effort seems to somehow pay dividends down the road, we wouldn’t have known Plan B lake was worth fishing if we hadn’t tried to dump in our boat this summer, we wouldn’t have known it was clear enough to spear if we hadn’t given it a go right away this ice season, and I can assure you I now have two new public land pheasant spots in mind for next year – in fact I’m thinking of a January 1st cast and blast excursion!

In my personal and professional life I’m often posed with the concerning declines in hunters, anglers and advocates for this lifestyle. This week alone, I fielded several calls of people citing limited access and opportunity. While I believe strongly in increasing and equalizing both of those, I can’t help but think that if people would just go outside, try something new, fail, learn, try again, make observations, take risks, bring coffee, and stay positive, that they too would stumble into their fair share of opportunities. Most importantly, take someone new and pass on this sentiment. You don’t have to provide guaranteed success, in fact, they might even appreciate it more if they learn how to earn it.

Hannah texted me two days later and said – “OMG! PIKE TASTES SO GOOD!!”

It most certainly does.

Cayla Bendel

Cayla is a conservation professional that resides in North Dakota with her husband and pudelpointer, Finley. Together they enjoy avidly hunting, fishing, and otherwise frolicking their way through the seasons.

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