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From the non-animal tracks I see in the woods every day, I have a feeling I’m not the only one who’s enjoying this snowy winter. Snowmobile trails are active everywhere, even during the week, and on weekends I often have to step off the trail and let pods of 20 or more machines go by. I use the trails to cut corners on my snowshoe or cross-country skiing treks – they make great winter highways for us all.
I have noticed a surprising number of other snowshoe trails in the woods where I wander, and from the size of the “shoe tracks” it looks like there are some pretty small explorers out there. The same goes for skiers, who seem to be putting on some miles this winter as well. Most folks keep to the snowmobile trails or logging roads, and I often cross their paths in my daily ramblings. I don’t often see anyone to talk to because I usually hit the woods at daylight or at dusk. I’m more interested in seeing game trails and sign, and the wild things don’t like to be where there are lots of boisterous people.
To get the most out of my trips, I duck off the established trails every time I come to a swamp or thicket. I have a nice, old set of wood-and-rawhide snowshoes in the pickerel style – long and lean, ideal for trekking in open woods and on deep snow. I’ve used these old shoes for more than 40 years and they are still as sturdy and tight as they were the day I bought them. The bindings are getting a little worn, but I have always kept a spare set on hand just in case. I’m still not sure when I’ll ever get a chance to use them!
Come February, the odds are that the small lakes and ponds in our area that hold trout are hard hit but winter fishermen, but most of the action takes place where the camps and marinas are. When the ice is right, I like to snowshoe in to my favorite lake from a long forgotten back road or logging trail. The trip may require an hour or more of walking through some dense forestland, but when I get to my spot it’s generally pristine and I’m the only one there. Sometimes in the far, far distance I can see snowmobilers or ice-fisherman moving around, but I rarely have to share my ice with anyone.
Because I don’t go by snow machine or vehicle, I have to bring everything I need for the day in a pack basket or sled. If I’m careful I can make a nice, packed trail with my snowshoes so the sled can follow along easily without spilling the bait bucket. I have had a few mishaps where the bucket rolled off into the snow, but I keep the lid on the bucket and secure it with thumb screws so the only trauma the minnows suffer is a little bit of gravitational disorientation. They may not know which end is up for a while, but this way I rarely lose a bait on the way in!
It doesn’t require much gear to have a great day on the ice. A collapsible spud or auger, a skimmer, some freeze-proof traps, hooks and bait are all you really need. When I really want to lighten my load I’ll forget the traps and just make sapling tip-ups when I get to my destination. While cutting a hole I’ll pile the ice chips neatly beside the opening and then stick a long, thin sapling into the ice mound so that the springy tip hands over the center of the hole. I’ll tie on a hook and minnow, drop them into the water and then, at the desired depth (shallow for salmon, mid-depths for trout or just off the bottom for togue), I’ll make a loop and slip it over the tip of the sapling.
With all my “traps” in, I’ll stay busy making a windproof shelter, maybe a small fire, and just keep an eye on things while I have some tea and enjoy the day. When the sapling tip starts to bend toward the hole, I know I have a fish on. The limber nature of the sapling often helps hook the fish and keeps him on the line till I get there. The fish actually plays itself out – all I have to do is wait for the sapling to settle down and then start hauling in line, hand over hand.
I use heavy, stiff braided line for my winter fishing. I still have a spool of Littleway Machine thread left over from my shoe shop days, and I use that as my main line. With about 10 feet of 8-pound-test monofilament as a leader and a small gold spinner tied on just above the hook, I can catch trout, salmon, togue and even a cusk or two on a good day.
When the fishing is lively and the weather is balmy, I’ll put a little more effort into keeping a fire going. The goal is coals, enough to bake a fat trout or salmon for lunch, so I bring along a two-foot square piece of heavy aluminum foil and use it as my fire base. I’ll put the best hardwood chunks on the foil side till it’s all burned down to a glowing bed of coals. Then, I’ll cut another sapling that I stick in the snow with a gutted trout or salmon on the other end, suspended just high enough over the coals to roast the fish evenly on both sides.
Between tending the fire, fishing and eating my catch it has turned into a long day. I’m about ready to douse the fire and pack up by the time the sun is dipping behind the horizon to the southwest. It’s hard to close the door on another great Maine winter day, but as I snowshoe back to the truck I remind myself that there’s always tomorrow. All I have to do is decide how I will spend it: on a snowmobile, skis or snowshoes!
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