[Beyond the Garden Gate]

Friendship on a Frozen Lake

Story by Johnny C.Y. Lam

Photography by Johnny C.Y. Lam

What does it take to persuade a group of men to spend a freezing afternoon on a windswept lake staring down a fishing hole? Apparently a couple of text messages and the promise of fresh fish, cooked and enjoyed al fresco. Or should that be ‘al freezo?’.

IF YOU’RE READING this story by a roaring fire, you may shake your head and wonder why anyone in their right mind would go fishing on a frozen lake in -20°C temperatures. In part the answer is that the Bay of Quinte is as good as it gets for catching walleye, yellow and white perch, large and smallmouth bass, northern pike, whitefish, and crappie. But it’s also about camaraderie which, they say, is best expressed under harsh and difficult conditions. Ice fishing fits those conditions perfectly. It’s about being together, helping one another, and sharing – a story, a joke, a steaming cup of coffee or, if you’re lucky, a toasty fish-on-a-bun in the middle of a frozen lake.

Setting up our tents with the wind whipping across the ice was a challenge. It took all of us, each holding a corner while screwing down a peg, to secure our shelters.

My most recent ice fishing excursion started with a text message from my friend, Kyle Otsuka: The conditions look perfect for tomorrow boys! That text set off a flurry of messages, each ping confirming who was in and what they could bring along. I just got a brand new gas-powered auger that I’ve been dying to use, texted Dustin Coldicott. I’m in too but I don’t have any gear, messaged Albert Ponzo. Another friend, Neil Dowson, came in on the thread: I’ll bring things for fish-on-a-bun in case we catch something.

I smiled to myself. I would be in pretty good company – three of my fellow fishermen work in the food and hospitality business and the other is an outdoorsman. Neil is a professional chef who once cooked for the Queen. He moved here from England seven years ago and is now the executive chef at Midtown Brewery in Wellington. He admits the winter takes a fair bit of getting used to but he’s embraced the Canadian lifestyle. It didn’t take him long to recognize that the Bay of Quinte is home to world-class fishing in the summer and the winter. Albert is the executive chef at Picton’s Royal Hotel, Kyle is co-owner of Zest Kitchen Shop and Dustin is an all-round outdoorsman. Yup, pretty good company…

We set out on one of the coldest days in February – so cold my eyes watered in the outside air and tears froze on my lashes. But the sun was shining. We packed up our gear – tents, stoves, heaters, chairs, bait, food, drinks, fishing gear, camera equipment, sub-zero clothing and cooking supplies – after all, there were three chefs among us. We even packed a table. All of our supplies fit inside two sleds which we pulled behind us.

The wind chill was brutal as we dragged the two heavy sleds a kilometre north on the snow-covered lake. Occasionally, we came across patches of clear ice where we could see into the dark abyss under our feet. White air pockets in organic shapes appeared trapped in frozen time capsules; large crack lines made geometric patterns in the ice.

From left to right: Kyle Otsuka, Dustin Coldicott, Neil Dowson

Setting up our tents with the wind whipping across the ice was a challenge. It took all of us, each holding a corner while screwing down a peg, to secure our shelters.

“Thank goodness you brought the gas-powered auger, Dustin. Otherwise, we’d have had to drill each hole by hand and sweated through our clothes doing it,” said Kyle with a smile. That day the ice was 50 centimetres thick, a tough task for a hand auger.

Once our holes were drilled and we had settled inside the tents out of the wind, we warmed up with the help of propane heaters and our combined body heat. We each had our mise en place and a hole of our own to drop our lines into. We shared stories and jokes but at times we were quiet, sitting with our own thoughts as the frozen lake burped and cracked. But the fish weren’t biting.

After a few hours, Neil popped his head in our tent. “Hungry gents?” he asked with a smile. He then pulled out a bag of frozen walleye fillets from his knapsack. Kyle brought out a brand new cast iron pan. “Let’s put this thing to the test!” he said, firing up the multi-fuel cook stove. The walleye sizzled in hot butter for ten minutes. Neil produced some fresh brioche, chopped lettuce and his homemade tartar sauce.

“This is incredible Neil… The tartar sauce is insane!” said Albert – high compliments from a discerning chef.

For the rest of that afternoon leading up to sunset, we ate, laughed and stared into our fishing holes patiently. Suddenly, I heard a scream from the other tent. “Fish on!” It was Dustin, who caught the one and only fish that day – a bite-size walleye.