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It’s mid-February now, halfway through winter. The barren hillsides show no signs of spring, of course. It’s far too early to be dreaming about warm sunshine, green grass and balmier temperatures. We can all sit by a window and pine over the remaining weeks of winter, or we can get out there and find a way to enjoy what we have.
There is no reason to fear the cold and snow. Between today’s heat-retaining clothing, hand warmers, sturdy boots, hats and gloves, you can actually get out there and be too hot, believe it or not, especially if you are walking, cross-country skiing or snowshoeing. In fact, when I go ice-fishing, I often do the work of cutting holes (often in 3 or more feet of ice!) wearing nothing more than an insulated T-shirt, wool pants and gloves. By the time I’ve cut my second hole, using the traditional spud, of course (a long-handled chisel made specifically for cutting holes in the ice), steam will be rising off my shoulders, and when I have cut five or six holes, I’ll have ice in my hair and frost in my moustache. As long as I keep moving, I can stay warm down to minus 20! Of course, when I stop working, sit down and begin the process of staring down my flags, the cold seeps in and little by little I start layering up against the cold. By then, I hope, I’ll have a few fish in the bucket to show for my efforts, and it’s a rare February day when I can’t fool at least a few trout, salmon, pickerel or perch.
I think the one aspect of being outdoors in February I enjoy most is the solitude and quiet. When you’re the first one on the lake at dawn, all you can hear is the moan and groan of shifting ice (nothing to fear, by the way), the distant clucking of wandering ravens and the squeak of light snow under your boots. I like to get as far out on the ice as I can get and just sit on my bait bucket to watch the sun come up. There is just something rejuvenating about being the first one out there as the new day begins, not a sign of human activity anywhere. It always amazes me that there will be flocks of evening grosbeaks, a blue jay or maybe a sparrow flitting around overhead. I wonder what they are doing out there in the middle of a frozen lake, but then I’m sure they wonder the same thing about me!
One time I was sitting on my bucket, having a cup of tea and enjoying the morning wake-up, when a Canada jay flew out and landed on my pack basket. He looked inside and saw nothing worth eating or stealing, but he sat there for a good five minutes while I finished my tea. These are normally bold, trusting birds that are often the first to show up when you kill a deer, moose or bear. They know that there will be some nice, fatty treats to be had once the hunters are done fooling around. In fact, I have had them land on the antlers of dead deer as I was in the act of gutting them! These guys are the ultimate scavengers of the woods; quiet but aggressive, showing up out of nowhere any time there’s a free meal to be had.
They are often called “camp robbers” for obvious reasons. Back in my homesteading days in Orneville I noticed that a batch of oatmeal cookies I’d baked in the wood stove was disappearing rather quickly considering there was no one home but me! I was cutting wood behind the house and came in for a break to find my cookie sheet almost cleaned off! I made a cup of tea and sat there watching, and soon a Canada jay landed on the open window sill, reached in to the table and grabbed himself another cookie!
They say that Canada jays are the wandering souls of old loggers, who, by the way, were always hungry. (I have spent some time running a chainsaw so I know how that is!) Anyway, I didn’t begrudge the jay his share of the cookies, although I did shut the window before I went back outside!
But back to the ice in February . . .
I think one of the oddest sights I’ve ever seen while hunkering over a reluctant ice-fishing flag was a troop of otters that burst out of the woods on the far side of the lake and began leap-frogging across the ice like a bunch of Bulgarian acrobats auditioning for The Ed Sullivan Show. I have seen otters rambling through the woods during deer season and occasionally in winter, but this was the only time I ever saw them come across a frozen lake in the dead of winter. I would think the risk of being attacked by foxes, coyotes, owls or dogs would be too high, but these otters seemed to be oblivious to anything remotely connected to danger.
The shore-to-shore distance they traveled was about one-half mile (a long time to be exposed in the wild world), but they traveled fast and headed straight for the nearest point of land from whence they’d come. It seemed to be some kind of slide race, because none of the otters spent much time running – they all seemed to be slipping and sliding on their backs or their bellies, maybe making two or three jumps at a time, then sliding for 20 feet or more on the slick ice. Some were rolling, some were spinning and some skidded tail first, but they seemed to be enjoying the game, as I did.
I had trapped many an otter during the halcyon 1970s, when fur prices were outrageous (up to $150 for a prime otter compared to only $20 today), but I was content to watch this little group of mustelids skidding across the ice and had no desire to put their hides on a drying rack.
Come to think of it, I don’t remember if I caught any fish that day, but I won’t forget my encounter with the otters. Could that be one of the reasons I keep going back out there in the dead of winter? I think I’ll let you be the judge of that!
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