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The Last Windrow: A winter day on the Big Sioux River

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I’m walking on the ice of the Big Sioux River. It’s January and the winding river that separates Iowa from South Dakota gurgles under the ice and my five-buckle overshoes.

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The ice should be thick enough to hold me, but I’m ever watchful of dark patches that indicate the current is not far below.

I carry a fish spear on the end of a 10-foot pole. I found the antique looking spear in our farm’s machine shed. No one knew where it had come from and I guess that it was owned by either my grandfather or great-grandfather and that they might have used this five-tined piece of steel to secure a fish dinner or two in their time.

But, now the spear is being use by me in a quest for a fish of some sort. It might be a carp, a catfish or perhaps even an errant northern pike, which has been known to show up in these waters from time to time.

My cousin, Bob, follows me down the river and he, too, is careful where to place his weight. We know from fishing this stream in the summer time that there are places that are 20 feet deep and that if we go in, we would be in trouble.

But, that doesn’t stop us for you see, January has become a rather boring month for those of us who live in the country. Not much happens on a farm in January that could be considered fun. Risking one’s life by walking on a frozen river tends to make the heart beat a little faster.

In front of me in the snow I see a line of perfectly placed, roaming red fox tracks. The fox has evidently been looking for a fish meal as well. Its trail waddles from one side of the river to the other, pausing at every overturned snag.

I guess the fox has had dinner at such places from time to time when an unlucky rabbit or pheasant sought shelter there. The fox’s trail winds to a high bank of the river where open water flows along the edge of the ice. A spring has evidently opened up the ice and this is where fish like to hang out.

Bob moves to the edge, testing the depth of the ice with the back end of his spear pole. It seems safe enough to hold a human. As he stands motionless at the edge of the water, I go upstream and start to tap on the ice with my spear handle as I move toward him.

Halfway to his Bob’s position I see him throw his spear into the icy depths. The spear comes up with a good sized carp on the end. Bob yells, “Got one!” It is the only fish we will take today.

I’m walking back to where our car is parked. The snow crackles as Bob follows not 20 feet behind me. Just as we round the bend I hear a “sloosh” behind me and I stop to look back at Bob. He’s standing very still just three feet from where a hole has opened up in our just-placed tracks and we can see dark water flowing south, back under the ice.

Both of us quick step to the shore, breathing a little faster as we go.

The earth feels good beneath our boots as we climb the steep incline. We stand for a minute and stare down at the hole that has opened up just behind our tracks.

“That might have been bad,” Bob says without emotion.

“Yep, it could have been bad,” I reply.

We toss the carp in the trunk and head his 1957 Mercury back east to our warm homes and supper.

That night, as I laid in my warm bed, I thought of that open hole in the Big Sioux River with our tracks on either edge of it. That could have been bad.

See you next time. Okay?

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