When he heard the stories, John Esposito was blown away. He’d hear them at breakfast with his fishing buddies, before they ventured out onto the ice of Lake Superior. He’d hear his friends telling the stories among themselves out on the ice, or afterward at a bar.
They weren’t so much stories about big fish — although some were. They were stories of adventure, of risk, of natural elements conspiring to put these Lake Superior anglers in peril.
“They’d be telling these stories,” said Esposito, 61, “and I was astonished and amazed at some of the adventures these guys had had. I thought, ‘Somebody has to preserve these stories.’ So, I took it on.”
Esposito, who lives in Bayfield, has written a book, “Lake Superior: Blood on the Ice,” full of those anglers’ stories, many of them harrowing tales of narrow escapes, unplanned swims and resourceful self-rescues. Some are tragic, including Esposito’s account of Bayfield fishing guide Jim Hudson’s drowning in 2013. The stories all take place on the big lake, from the Brule River east to Michigan waters, many of them set in the Apostle Islands.
Esposito, a schoolteacher and principal for 25 years, did most of the interviews on tape in 2004 and some as recently as 2015. The book’s title refers not to human blood but the blood spots left behind on the ice from fish caught by anglers.
He tells the anglers’ stories in their own words, capturing their passion for fishing — and for adventure — on the big lake. The collection paints a clear picture of Lake Superior “bobbing” — the time-honored practice of deep-water ice fishing for lake trout in which anglers use hand lines (often wire) and cut baits such as smelt or herring.
The book, for $24.95, is available from area bookstores and online at Amazon and Barnes & Noble. The News Tribune had a chance to visit with Esposito about his book recently.
Q: Your book includes one story after another in which anglers find themselves in perilous situations on the ice of Lake Superior. Many of the accounts include anglers who find themselves in open water or drifting away from land on an ice floe. Put those events in context with more routine outings that most anglers have.
A: When someone tells a story for a book, they’re going to tell the things that are most dramatic to them. Ninety-nine percent of the time, not that much happens. But it depends on the group you’re with and how they fish. If they like to get away from the crowd, they’re going to be going to the edge of the ice a lot.
Q: Can you generalize about the kind of anglers whose stories you tell?
A: A lot of guys told stories from when they were young and they took a lot of risks. They were the pioneers. They went beyond their comfort zones. Don’t forget, too, in a lot of groups, when you’ve got guys among guys, it’s sophomoric rules. It’s competitive. You don’t want to say, “This is too dangerous.”
Q: Is it possible to minimize the risks inherent in fishing on Lake Superior’s ice?
A: You need to follow some basic pre-ice and on-the-ice procedures. Before you get on the ice, go to breakfast. Talk to the locals — fishermen or commercial fishermen. They can tell you what the current ice conditions are like. When you go out on the ice, you must have some flotation, whether it’s your (fishing) suit or something you wear, like an inflatable collar. Some guys even wear life jackets under their coats.
Q: You talk about other safety practices anglers employ.
A: The most important piece of equipment is your chisel because you use it to check the ice. If there are some bad cracks, you know you have to be careful in that area. You have to walk ahead, hitting the ice with the chisel. I give it three good plunks. If it doesn’t break through, I know it’ll hold me. You should also have at least 50 feet of rope and a float cushion to throw to somebody. A compass is essential when weather gets bad. GPS units don’t always work.
Be 100 percent prepared to get yourself out of the water. It’s very important to practice, even in your mind, how you’ll get out if you fall through the ice. Have clear steps and envision yourself performing them — with ice picks or on one’s back are most effective.
Q: What are other factors anglers need to be aware of?
A: You have to know about current. There are plenty of places that always have current — the South Channel, and between Stockton, Hermit and Camp Five of Oak Island. Off points, there’s often current. The other thing is the wind. Depending on how far along the ice has developed and how strong the wind is, a northeast wind can break up the ice and pull it out. It might refreeze overnight, but it might be only three-quarters of an inch thick and yet look just like other ice.
Q: Given all the risk factors and close calls, are you at all surprised that more lives have not been lost in ice fishing on Lake Superior?
A: Oh, my gosh, yes.
Q: Are anglers safer now than in the past?
A: More and more guys are wearing ice-fishing suits that have flotation. … Now, you have the Nebulus flotation units that can hold up a snow machine. It’s not big, but it’s big enough to hold your machine and you. More and more guys have ‘em.
Q: Is the risk worth it to catch some lake trout?
A: It’s all worth it because of what — It’s kind of what men do. It’s not like they’re drinking out there. Part of it is pushing the limits a little bit, also getting that solitude, the adventure and going where the average person doesn’t go.
Upcoming book signings for John Esposito’s “Lake Superior: Blood on the Ice”:
* Vaughn Public Library, Ashland, 6 p.m. Thursday
* Bayfield Carnegie Library, Bayfield, 6 p.m. Feb. 8
* Washburn Public Library, Washburn, 6 p.m. Feb. 16