“Can we stay another night?” Lillian asks as we sit down to our feast of barbecued steak and salad under the warm glow of propane lights. “We haven’t even spent our first night,” I tell my young daughter, “you might not even like it.” She looks around knowingly at the 10x20-foot ice bungalow complete with bunk beds, table, chairs, propane furnace and kitchenette. “Oh I like it here”, she says with all the conviction a ten-year-old can muster.
Earlier today we met outfitter Rob Hyatt for snowmobile delivery toward a cluster of rectangular metal-clad ice fishing shacks set amongst the pine capped islands of Lake Nipissing’s Callander Bay. More than 2000 ice huts dot the surface of Ontario’s fourth largest lake through winter. With a surface area of more than 870 square kilometres enveloped by hundreds of kilometres of shoreline, the fertile waters of Lake Nipissing support a busy sport fishery. Walleye, perch, pike and whitefish are popular species for winter anglers with bass and muskellunge joining the list through open water.
We’re in one of 17 similarly equipped units that Rob says are full every weekend and many weekdays. “I think the bungalow fishing is now more popular than day hut rentals,” he says. Rob’s been at it for 20 years and is the longest running and one of the largest operators on Nipissing.
The cottage-like accommodations include a barbecue and on-ice outhouse—the prospect of staying overnight on ice is becoming much more luxurious than I first imagined. But it's Lillian who discovers the highest luxury of them all. Even before we’re fully unpacked, she crawls in her sleeping bag and lowers a hook and minnow through a hole in the floor. Catching perch and walleye from the top bunk is a novelty that never really wears off. The thrill is intensified in evening when Lillian’s cry, “ Its got legs!” signals the landing of the first of several Nipissing mud puppies, more like a large salamander than a fish.
For both parent and child the ice bungalow is like a big fort where we pull strange and tasty creatures up through the floor. The luxury of fishing from one of six interior holes is joined by the option of angling outside in the mild March weather where we connect with Nipissing’s rich stocks of walleye, perch and herring. Not only is Lillian’s angling interest piqued, even mundane chores seem to hold much more interest here than they do at home. Lillian sets and clears the table. When I wash dishes she picks up the tea towel and dries. Even her clothes are organized, folded neatly on the bottom bunk. After our steak dinner she climbs into bed without being told and is fast asleep before I can join her.
The next morning Lillian continues the low-pressure tactics she’s been applying from the beginning. “Be nice to stay another night,” she says. With my young daughter asking to fish longer my resolve to leave collapses like a house of cards. “Well, only if you can catch us enough fish for supper,” I say and Lillian spends the next few hours wielding a jigging rod and catching perch and small walleye earmarked for the pan. By the time darkness falls again we’re warming up to big plates of filets rolled in cornmeal.
The wind and driving sleet beating against the bungalow only increases our feeling of cosiness. After Lillian beats me at a few games of checkers we slide into our sleeping bags. From out of the darkness I hear, “Thanks for bringing me here Dad.” I think of what a rare and cherished time it’s been spending several days of one on one time with my youngest daughter, “It was my pleasure dear.”