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It’s February 1, the dead of winter, yet folks are thinking that spring can’t be far away. After all, so much rain and warm weather must mean something!
Don’t be fooled by a pleasant burst of balmy temperatures. Claims about “global warming” to the contrary, there normally comes a thaw each month that seems to portend better times ahead, but wiser, older Mainers know it’s a long, long time till spring.
I rather enjoy these middle days of the season. Cold and snow are expected and accepted now, and the routine of winter living (and driving) comes naturally. Most days start with a fresh charge of wood in the stove, then a pot of hot coffee while considering the day’s options, and then a quick step outdoors to the bird feeders to replenish the cracked corn and sunflower seed while gauging the bite of the wind and cold. On kinder days I’ll put on my woollies and head for the woods, but if there’s a breeze of any sort I’ll consider spending the day on the ice in hopes of pulling a few trout or salmon from the depths. It’s a conscious choice for me because I’ve seen that game animals (rabbits, foxes, coyotes and bobcats) seem to be more active on “warm” winter days, whereas fish of any species seem to care less, and no wonder: encapsulated in several feet of ice, they don’t know what the weather up above may be. I’ve caught some of my best fish early and late in the day when wind and bitter cold plagued me, but busy action at the tip-ups told me that the fish weren’t affected by such things. I have no choice but to tough it out all day, or at least till the flags quit flying. Why or how fish know that it’s dawn or dusk through several feet of ice is amazing to me, but I will let them keep their secret if they will let me take a few of them home for dinner!
What’s great about February fishing is that you don’t have to worry about having enough ice or concerning yourself with season dates. If a lake or pond has ice on it you can fish it for something – perch, pickerel, bass, trout or salmon – and all you need to know is what the size and bag limits are. It’s always a good idea to test the ice before heading out, and certainly before driving any vehicle on the ice, but when you can see other anglers, their shacks or pickups out there, you can generally assume that it’s safe to proceed.
When it’s possible, I like to fish for several species at once rather than risking all my tip-ups to one species. I’ll start out with one or two baits directly on the bottom, another one or two just under the ice and a fifth tip-up (where legal) about halfway in between. If the action is slow I’ll raise and lower my baits throughout the day just to see where the fish may be. Sometimes I’ll do best just off the bottom, sometimes I’ll have better luck just under the ice, but I have learned to try all the possibilities first before I decide to put all my eggs in one basket.
Ice-fishing can be a lot of things (cold, windy and fruitless at times) but it should never be boring, as some folks suggest. One might think that once your holes are cut and skimmed and your baits are in the water all there is to do is sit and wait. Not if you plan to catch anything!
The same cold and wind that’s nipping its way through your clothes is working on the holes you just cut, too. On the worst of days you may literally have to walk around your tip-ups every five minutes just to keep the ice out of the holes. On the most bitter of days you can just stand there and watch the water freeze (talk about fun!), and if you give in and take a nap or otherwise neglect your chores, you may find your traps frozen into the ice with empty hooks dangling below.
Frigid conditions mean constantly checking your baits as well, no easy task when you are fishing in 100+ feet of water. It’s always disheartening to me to pull up my line and find an empty hook, which can only mean a fish came up, stole my bait and swam away without tripping the flag. Even worse is having the ice seal the hole so that the flag can’t be tripped, and at the end of the day you haul in a short salmon or togue that has been on the hook all day and has kept you from catching something bigger that you may have been able to keep.
One year I kept my traps out all day and, because of the heavy wind and cold, hardly stuck my nose out of the shack all day. When it came time to pick up and go home, I found a heavy fish at the end of the line, which was winding around in the hole like a runaway kitchen clock.
There’s no telling how long the fish may have been on, but it was big and it was all the way down to the bottom of Schoodic Lake, a good 80 feet or more down. I did my best to keep the fish coming in, but just as I started to pull its head out of the hole the hook came loose. I plunged my already frozen hand into the water and tried to grab the huge togue by the gills, but he was too big, fast and slippery. I sloshed around with him for a few seconds but all I could do was run my fingers along his side and down to his tail. A conservative guess would have been 20 pounds, possibly more, but all I got for my effort was a bent hook and a lost $2 sucker that I had bought special for bait.
Great adventures await you in the woods or on the ice this month. Instead of looking too hard toward spring, rejoice in the pleasures of winter. Cut a hole, catch a few fish and make the most of whatever Old Man Winter has to dish out!
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