A World Beneath the Ice

As Oliver Barker tells it, fish taught him how to walk.

“My family had this fish tank balanced on a crate in our living room,” he explains.

“I used to haul myself up using the edge of the crate to see the fish—but every time I did that the fish would spook and swim to the other side of the tank.

“I would then have to edge my way along the crate to get a better look. Eventually I had been doing that long enough that I learned how to walk.”

Barker is a fisheries biologist with Yukon Environment, an avid fisherman and a graduate of the University of Alberta with a master’s degree in (you guessed it) fisheries.

He recently spent a beautiful Sunday afternoon teaching me and some friends how to ice fish on Chadden Lake.

Barker has been fascinated with fish his entire life.

“Fish inhabit this world that is inherently mysterious to us. We can interact with it, but we can’t exist within it. That has always fascinated me,” he says.

And one very accessible way to interact with this realm is to go fishing.

“Most people wouldn’t be comfortable taking a five-year-old moose hunting,” Barker laughs, “but fishing is something young children can do.

“Fish stay within a confined area. I know, for example, that there are kokanee and rainbow trout somewhere in this lake. You can throw them back alive after you catch them, and you’re not likely to get yourself into too much (physical) trouble.”

That said, Barker admits to his uncle calling him a “neck fisherman” as a young child.

“Every time I got a bite on my line I would get really excited and yank on my pole so hard that I would end up with my arms back behind my head. That would often result in the line and the fish flying out of the water,” he says.

“The line tended to wrap itself around my neck a few times and I’d end up with the fish flapping on my shoulder, looking at me reproachfully.”

To allow us to try our hand at the sport, Barker drilled a series of holes in the surface of ChaddenLake with his modified ice auger. His brother, who “likes to tinker”, had equipped the auger with an old wheelchair motor, making it the most efficient ice auger I had ever seen.

“I think I’m the only person in town with an auger quite like this,” Barker laughs.

He made sure to drill a couple of holes close together so that Tyler Kuhn could get some shots using his underwater camera.

Of course, that involved Kuhn getting a tad wet and caused him to lose feeling in his arm for a time (who would have guessed that continuously sinking your arm in a frozen lake up to your shoulder could do that?).

But he did get some fun pictures of people peering into ice-fishing holes from above and of my lure dangling beneath the ice.

Barker then set up a black dome tent over one hole (the dark colour blocks light, making it easier to see what’s happening beneath the surface).

To this set-up he added his “fish TV”.

He drops a waterproof camera into the water, linked to a small screen at the surface to give a better idea of what is happening in the mysterious world beneath your feet.

I admit I didn’t see any fish on the fish TV— a log floating past at one point was the highlight of my viewing experience— but it was still fascinating to play with.

Outside the tent, Barker placed Thermarests beside the holes, where we lay holding baited lines we could bob up and down to attract the fish.

Barker then threw jackets over our heads to block out the light in much the same way as the tent did over the other hole. For awhile the whole world was just me and my fishing hole.

I enjoyed the experience (my father would be proud), but didn’t catch any fish (maybe we should downgrade my father’s pride factor to “content that she tried”).

Barker did catch fish, though. Apparently experience counts for something.

Barker also explained that during ice fishing with a group he often uses little devices called “tip-ups”.

“Essentially you drill a bunch of holes, set up lines for each hole on a tip-up, and then you hang out and wait for bite,” he explains Barker.

“When a line gets snagged the tip-up flips up a flag. Since everyone wants to be the one to catch the fish, everyone goes running for it, pushing each other out of the way. The only rule is you need to shout out ‘flag’ before you start heading for the tip-up to give everyone a chance.”

I imagine this looks something akin to rugby on a frozen lake and decide I’ll have to try it out at some point.

As we pack up and start to haul the sled filled with the gear back to our vehicles, Barker explains that for the next two days he and a number of conservation officers will be taking classes of high school students ice fishing on the Hidden Lakes.

Given Barker’s contagious enthusiasm, I figure that’s probably a good thing.

Amber Church is a painter, writer and sports enthusiast. You can reach her at [email protected].

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