Jan 4, 2012

Riding the Pine Highway: On proper tip up etiquette and procedure

Everyone calls the moment differently...

It all depends on the situation, of course. Who you are with. Where you are fishing. How long it's been since a fish has been caught, and a multitude of other factors. The classic is calling it by name: "Tip-Upppp!" I use that out of habit nine out of ten times. Sometimes I just yell "Flag!" Other calls I've used include "Yep" and "There it is!" Occasionally I'll just start running towards a struck trap with swift silence. The key is not the words or actions used but the tone. When your trap has been hit you must convey the excitement of the moment in your call... You must let your fellow anglers know - instantly - that the time for action has arrived. A big rule we have on the ice is "No Running or Yelling!" There are exceptions, like if we are playing football... But excitable actions like running or yelling are primarily reserved for the big moment we are all seeking out there on frozen lakes.

I would say there is a sort of honor in getting to make the call... Of course you have to be the first to see the flag to sound the alarm, and so over the years I have developed a 'constant scan' when I am on the ice with bait in the water. I do this automatically, like breathing. I program the spread into my internal GPS and then I spend the hours looking for the slight change in picture that tells me the moment is here. It's not that I'm looking for the risen flag, so much as I'm looking for the motion or ... or what is out of place here. The sensation of that realization is one of my most alluring addictions, and I'm not ashamed to admit such foolishness. I take pride is editing the spread, on noticing, on sensing the attack. It's one thing to land a fish using a fishing rod and nets, but quite another when the line is in your hand, when the net is literally your hand... and so every second is crucial for success.

Watching your traps is just one part of the big picture, out there. Unless you are in the right spot at the right time, with your traps set at proper depths with the perfect bait, you are already of-pace. It takes many correct decisions just to get that bite, and even then nothing is guaranteed.

The complexities of ice fishing dynamics could fill a book but there is no substitute for actual trapping experience. You really must know the thoughts of your fellow anglers, and this can only be achieved through many days and nights on frozen waters. I have a telepathic connection with my main crew of ice fishing buddies - Chinwhisker Charlie, The Warden, Silly Deen,Wolfspotter and Slowhand Lucious - but we only share that bond because of the systems we have perfected through the years. And I would say the system allowed us to more quickly form the bonds that join our thoughts on the trap-line.

(Another fun part of ice fishing culture is the selection of a fun 'ice fishing character' that is tuned for precision setup and flag-watching and hand-to-hand combat with massive cold-blooded fishes ... mine is Ike Walter).

We call our system "Riding the Pine Highway." The origins of this peculiar name are unimportant... It was coined after a day of drinking beer in sub-zero temperatures and it is fun to say. So it stuck. What that phrase means is the subject of tonight's post.

You could say the Pine Highway is a philosophy... But I guess it's more an extension of the laws of nature. At the heart of this system is this truth: You will be judged by your peers. Each angler is responsible for his or her own traps (or 'rigs'), and when it is your turn on the Highway and the moment arrives, your form and results carry weight. There is pressure to do well, but what the system really requires is that you are honest in assessing your effort once the moment has passed.

The Pine Highway is a communal system designed to give each angler the best chance at catching a fish. When I first started ice fishing each guy would bring his own rigs and it was kind of an 'everyone for themselves' deal. If you were new to the sport and didn't know what you were doing, you learned by watching... The Highway is more of an apprenticeship, it offers a sense of teamsmanship in the cold wind. I am sure we are not the only ones that use this sort of approach, but I don't think it's the norm. Essentially, when we are using the Highway, each angler will put his or her best three traps into the collective trap-line (you are allowed three lines in Wisconsin, at least). So say four of us are fishing. Normally you would have your three traps and if you happened to pick an unlucky location, then that was your problem. But with the Pine Highway, all twelve of those traps are now in play. We use a 'shotgun start' method, so that if you have a good rig with a good bait in the right spot, and it goes up first, then you get to take that flag. Eventually a 'lineup' is created through this process and then the sharing begins.

Riding the Pine Highway indicates that you are 'up to bat' ... that all of the group's traps are now yours. So instead of fishing with three traps you are now using all 12 ... or all 21 ... or all 30. Whenever that next flag pops it is yours to take. Doing this ensures everyone gets some action and usually everyone ends up with a fish at the end of the day. At this point I am always hoping I catch a big one, but if Chinwhisker catches a monster then I consider the day a huge success. And if I have a fish on the board, then I am always hoping my buddies get the next one. So I guess I'm a Bolshevik.

The key 'moment within the moment' comes when you are on the Highway and a trap springs... Hopefully you catch a fish, but often there is no fish to catch. Sometimes they hit the minnow and drop it before you can reach the line. Sometimes the minnow is a rascal and the flag is false. The brilliance of the Pine Highway system is giving the 'rider' the power to 'make the call.' Was it really a fish or not? If not, you are still on the highway, but remember, you will be judged by your peers! Even if you end up getting two 'falsies' in a row it is usually time to jump off the highway, making way for the next in line. There are only so many flags to go around on most days, and so, you don't want to be greedy with your opportunities. On good days we might go through the lineup three times fully. Sometimes it's your day and sometimes it's not. This is the nature of trapping.

While I enjoy the basic philosophy and real-world application of the Pine Highway, it is not a perfect system. Like communism, it fails on a larger scale. The more people in the system, the more impracticle it becomes. Once you have six or seven people on the highway, it is likely the people in positions six or seven won't get an opportunity unless you are on a high-action lake. So there are still cases where 'every angler for him- or herself' is the best option. But, in groups of 2-6, the Pine Highway is an ideal method for giving everyone the best chance for success, and that is why we have enjoyed utilizing the system whenever possible.