The plan to go ice fishing took shape by chance. Late one evening in mid December, I was putting away striped bass gear in the basement and spotted an olive-green box beside a row of cleaned reels. In an earlier generation that little plastic box had held a military-issue first-aid kit. Now it summoned a partially formed memory. I had stuffed something in there a few years back but could not quite remember what.
I pried open the lid and pulled out several plastic bags. Each contained a small assortment of jigs. Though many of their outlines were familiar—they were spoon- or teardrop-shaped—they bore no logos or trade names, and their appearance made clear that they were not factory-made. Their chrome plating was superb, but the shapes and sizes varied ever so slightly from one to the next.
The rest of the memory flashed back. I had picked these up almost 10 years ago in two places. A few were from a tackle shop in Finland, where I had briefly spent time after one of our sons was born in a Finnish hospital in 2006. Most came from a bazaar in Izhevsk, Russia, the city where millions of Kalashnikov assault rifles have been made since the late 1940s in a mammoth gun works. I had been researching a book back then and came across these in an overstuffed booth staffed by three Russians: a young woman and a pair of men near pension age. Together the trio intimated a small-business model worthy of an understanding and conspiratorial smile. They were trained metalworkers and devoted anglers with a side business in the lure trade. For raw materials, they said, they gathered metals from the rifle plant’s scrap.
I bought a handful on the spot. Then I forgot about them for years.
I brought the box upstairs and shook out the contents onto the kitchen table. My four sons gathered round. Willie, who was 7, asked how they were to be used.
“For ice fishing,” I said.
“But how?” he asked.
So I told him the routine again, repeating a conversation we had shared each of the past several Decembers. You cut holes in the ice, I said, and lower the jigs toward the bottom. Then you snap them up and down to draw strikes from panfish, pickerel, and pike. I had grown up in upstate New York, raised by a father who had fished through the ice since the 1940s. We had passed uncountable weekends tending tip-ups and jigging his list of favorite ponds, lakes, and coves. Ice fishing had been a large part of my life and, if the weather ever lined up right, would be a part of my sons’.
Then came the follow-up from Willie: “Can we go ice fishing this year?”
I offered a reassuring smile.
Since we moved to coastal Rhode Island in 2008, when Willie was 2 years old, we had not managed a single ice-fishing trip. Recent winters had tended toward mild and muddy. There had been cold snaps—even a few bitterly cold ones—but each time temperatures stayed down long enough for local waters to form safe ice, I had been away for work and missed the chance. Now we had reason to be hopeful. It was mid December, and for three nights the temperatures had plunged to the teens. If this cold weather stuck around, I told Willie, we would have ice very soon.
He smiled in such a way that I knew we would be tracking weather reports closely through the holiday season.
Photo-illustration by Eric Heintz / Photographs by Luke Nilsson
Word traveled quickly to our other children, though it assumed a slightly warped form: Dad is taking us ice fishing, the final version went.
Back in the basement, we retrieved a few small jigging rods, replaced old line with new, and tied on an assortment of smaller lures from Izhevsk, including one that looked like a miniaturized Norwegian cod jig and a brightly plated flutter spoon with a red treble hook and small painted eye.
Then we waited.
Temperatures climbed as Christmas approached, reaching roughly 60 on Dec. 22. The skim ice on the local lake disappeared. The winter had begun like too many others. It quickly assumed the dismal pattern, as high temperatures continued intermittently into mid January. We looked longingly at the lake. Its water was black and uninviting.
The tackle waited on a shelf by the back door. Seeing it there each day, I was reminded of the origins of the jigs. Izhevsk is not known for its ice-fishing lures. It is a gun town. An industrial city in the Urals, roughly 600 miles east of Moscow, it has produced rifles since the times of the czars. During World War II and the Cold War, it was largely closed to outsiders as it churned out Soviet weapons at a pace that would be incomprehensible today. (By one account, near the close of World War II, it was working round the clock and producing 500 firearms an hour—12,000 a day.) By the late 1940s, operating under the official cover of producing motorcycles and automobile parts, it became the Eastern Bloc’s first center for the production of AK-47s and their offspring. Mikhail T. Kalashnikov lived and labored here for something like six decades, a period during which his namesakes became the most abundant infantry firearm ever made.
I had visited Izhevsk several times to meet Gen. Kalashnikov, and once had been allowed to tour the factory and watch rifle production, step by step. These jigs were mementos—reminders of the rifles’ history and costs. They also suggested other ways that natural resources and human labor might be used.
The old men who made them had been cagey about the exact origins of the metals and plating materials—they were not quite clear as to whether their raw materials had been scrap from the assembly lines, or had merely been pilfered. They switched the subject to discussions about fishing, during which they insisted that their lures worked, including on two species the U.S. and Russia share: northern pike and yellow perch.
The Plot (and Ice) Thickens
In late January, cold weather settled in at last. The lake near our house—home to yellow perch, largemouth bass, chain pickerel, and sunfish—locked up with perhaps 3 inches of ice. Early Feb. 1, while his older brothers were away at swim-team practice, Willie and I bundled up, put the jigging rods into a bucket, grabbed a short crowbar, and set out to put the jigs through their paces.
We ventured out onto the first cove, cleared a small area of the snow, and chipped out a hole in the ice with the crowbar, opening the first window through which we would fish. The water was gimlet clear. I lowered the jig, showed Willie the basics of how to work it, and moved on to cut a line of holes, thinking that we might prospect the submerged weedbeds along the right bank.
Willie fished perhaps 20 minutes without a strike. Then he laid himself belly-down on the ice and pressed his face tight to the small hole, peering into another winter world. He seemed mesmerized for a few minutes, then abruptly announced that he needed to return home briefly. I figured he needed to use the toilet. He scurried away, over the bank and around the corner.
I kept jigging, working through the collection from Izhevsk.
Within 10 minutes Willie had returned. I was moving between a set of holes about 50 yards away, and watched Willie begin jigging again. His back was to me. His parka hood was up. He seemed intent, a young hunter in his own zone. I was impressed.
“Get one!” I called to him. His hood moved as he nodded.
Within a minute he called out in delight. “Dad!” he yelled. “Fish!”
I jogged toward him. I had left my glasses at home, but as I got close I could see that Willie had a small fish swinging on the end of his line. I could make out its silhouette. He was hopping and shouting. “Dad!” he said. “Dad!”
He spun toward me and showed the catch. It was made of cloth and brightened with beads—an ornament from our Christmas tree. He had retrieved it from the house.
“Fooled you!” he said, and laughed.
I placed my cold palms on either side of his face, bent over and kissed him on his forehead. “Yes,” I said. “You did.”
I went back to the holes by the submerged weedbed and resumed jigging. The rod jolted. The line went taut and sideways, as it will when a fish is hooked in shallow water. Pulling line, hand over hand, I saw a flash of yellow and orange. It was a yellow perch in bright winter dress.
Just as their makers had insisted to me almost a decade before, these jigs worked.
When the boys returned from swim practice, the next level of lobbying began. If the ice was safe, and fish were found, why settle for jigging? They reminded me of the box of old tip-ups in the attic over the shed. Why not set a line of traps?
Rhode Island law allows five tip-ups per angler. With our big family, the boys reasoned, we’d cover a large area of water and work a range of depths, then could jig the Russian lures after the traps had been set. Most any father would like a moment like this. Spurred to the ice by an unexpected find in the basement, our family had caught the ice-fishing jones—after hearing of a single cooperative perch.
By mid February we had rerigged tip-ups that my father and I had bought in the 1970s and early 1980s, tied leaders, selected hooks, repurposed an old cooler as a bait bucket, made a gaff with a shark hook and a piece of broken dowel, and cached everything in a sled.
And so it came to pass that on a weekend, as a snowstorm bore down on the Northeast, we were out on the ice as its smooth bluish-white sheen was pelted by flakes and gradually disappeared as the inches piled high. Our fish traps, baited with live minnows, were spread in a formation along one shoreline where deep water creeps close to the bank, and out in various depths toward the small lake’s center.
Flags began to fly. My children tended them. By lunchtime the boys had a fine display of pickerel, bass, and perch spread over the snow. They were mindless to the weather, which included precipitation moving sideways.
The jigs from the rifle plant had set us on a course that defined our winter. And with a crew to chase the flags, I had time to use them.
Moving from hole to hole over deeper water, I prospected around and near the tips-up, finding perch and an occasional largemouth bass willing to bite. When I spiced the jigs with a piece of grub, the bites were even more frequent. Time was bending like the little rod: I remembered decades before when I used to run a line of fish traps while my father jigged around me. Now my sons were running the fish traps, and I had taken up my father’s role.
The next night, as we sat to a dinner of local potatoes and pan-fried perch fillets, we said a quiet thank-you to the gray-market lure makers of Izhevsk. This wasn’t swords-to-ploughshares, at least not exactly. But from the shadow of that old Soviet arms plant, an unlikely path to a winter of happiness had been cut.