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These are the times that try men’s souls (stealing from Thomas Paine’s oft-used quote from 1776), but this time it’s the souls of ice-fishermen, specifically those who spent time back in December and January putting their ice-fishing shacks onto the ice of their favorite lake or pond. Well, the bell tolls (good grief!), and it tolls for those who think or hope they can squeeze another few weeks out of the winter fishing season before they venture back onto the ice to retrieve their wind-worn shelters.
Take it from one who’s done it: Don’t wait! The joys of dragging a heavy, sodden shack off rotten ice in late March are few, but the threat of a heavy fine courtesy of your local representative of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife can provide the necessary incentive to boot up and get the job done before the thing sinks to the bottom of the lake, prompting an expensive visit from the game warden.
My first such shack was little more than a framework of sticks covered by an old, abandoned wall tent that one of my shoe factory buddies had hanging around in his garage. One night we slapped the flimsy mess together and hauled it onto Schoodic Lake, somewhere right off the tip of Norway Point coming in from the Brownville side. Never mind that we were the first vehicle on the untested lake that winter (talk about trying one’s soul!), and it’s probably very fortunate that the lake was, indeed, frozen, though we only half suspected it! I drove out with the doors open, ready to bail out, but somehow we made it out and back without suffering the embarrassment of going through the ice.
Speaking of embarrassing, we propped our forlorn tent-shack on the ice anchored it with chunks of ice and water scooped from the lake, and left it with big plans for a glorious upcoming weekend of angling. We actually did get a couple of trips out of it, but one gray night the wind and snow came up like a blizzard, and when we went out to see how the shack had weathered the storm, we were just a tad surprised that it not only hadn’t weathered the storm, it had gone north with it! I’m sure somewhere up along the shores of Italian Cove there are remnants of our hasty structure. If you see bits of a tattered green canvas tent, you had better luck finding our shack than we did! Nothing, not even our impromptu anchor ropes, survived!
Of course, we learned our lesson that year and, the following fall, labored hard and long to build the Titanic of ice-fishing shacks. This creation was serious from top to bottom. We used heavy 10x10 beams for the base, to which we bolted a stout 6x6 frame that we covered with half-inch plywood, roof to floor. We had windows in each all, a sturdy door, two 12-inch jigging holes and room for chairs, a cooler, a wood stove, all our gear and enough food and drink to last all weekend.
We had some great trips in that shack. The fishing was productive, it was cozy and warm on long nights hovering over our cusk lines, and no matter how much wind, snow or cold we endured, the shack was solid and stable, fully imbedded in the ice and, as we proudly told our many drop-in visitors, impossible to move.
Oh, how we lived to regret those words!
Come the end of March, we were still busy fishing for salmon, togue and cusk when we finally agreed it was time to drag the shack back to shore. After all, we had to walk out to it in waders because the sudden, early spring had turned the lake surface to slush, and in trudging the mile or so out to the shack we’d break through up to our hips, getting soaked with ice water in the process.
Sound like fun? Well, imagine the thrill of trying to drag a tank through broken, slushy ice on a cold and windy March day. All you have to do is tie your hands and feet together and try hopping upstream while carrying a grand piano on your back. In fact, it was even more fun than that! We had to chainsaw the beams out of the ice, tie the shack to three snowmobiles and, with all engines revved, push, pull, kick and curse the thing off the lake, one freezing cold inch at a time. Luckily, I was mad enough and working hard enough to melt the ice around me, and after 10 hours of work we’d barely gotten the ark to shore, but could move it no farther. The snowmobiles dug in but the shack dug in harder, and being heavier, clumsier and halfway buried in slush, it was going to win the day.
That meant leaving it in the ice for another week, and the following Saturday we started on it at daylight, expecting a quick exit. Keep dreaming! By then the shack was frozen in solid again, the shoreline rocks were partly exposed and the angle of the ropes and come-alongs was too sharp — the shack just would not move!
So, we did what any sensible person would do with the eyes of the game warden resting upon him from the Brownville landing. We gassed up the saw and chopped the stinking thing into kindling! We took it home and used it to start a great “season’s end” bonfire, which gave us time to think about what we’d done how wrong it was and how we certainly did not need to do that again. I fished Schoodic, Sebec, Silver Lake, Moosehead, Chesuncook and all the others with a bait bucket as a stool and a jury-rigged Space Blanket for shelter, and caught just as many fish as anyone else.
Take it from me, get your shack off the ice early, while you can still use a heavy vehicle. Every day you wait puts you that much close to the most expensive bonfire you’ll ever light!
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