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I have to admit that my first foray onto the ice recently was a jittery affair. We’ve had four deaths and untold close calls so far this winter, and though I know enough to stay close to shore in shallow water every creak, crack and groan emanating from the ice sent a shiver down my spine.
The official word was “No” when it came to safe ice in central Maine, but I was seeing shacks and tents set up on most of the lakes and ponds in our area – there had to be some safe ice out there! I decided to trust the only prognosticator I’ve ever trusted when it comes to matters of ice vs water – my trusty old ice spud. Six feet long, made of three pieces of steel pipe with a razor-sharp blade on the business end, my spud is one of many made by old Everett Black of Milo back in the early 1970s. Everett’s long gone now but the spud he made for me (complete with leather thong) is still going strong – and it never lies.
There have been a few times when I nearly lost my spud when I struck an unexpected soft spot in the ice and it plunged downward to its top cap, but the thong held tight around my wrist and I was able to retrieve it and keep on chiseling.
It may sound strange but one can judge the thickness of the ice just from the tone of the spud as it is tapped on the hard surface. A solid “thud” means plenty of ice, but when the spud gives off a metallic ring, run for shore! If the 6-inch blade of the spud penetrates the ice followed by a rush of water, back away quickly or you’ll be going for a swim – and doing the dog paddle in January is no one’s idea of a good time.
I was getting an encouraging series of solid thumps as I crossed the ice headed for a cove where I knew I’d find a few perch and pickerel, but I noticed a different tone as I approached an area where I knew a spring hole boiled up from the bottom of the pond. Moving water freezes slowest, and I had been to this spot enough in summer to know that if I were to go through the ice I’d be standing on the bottom in 12 feet of water before I had a chance to let go of my spud. I backed up, cut a small test hole and was gratified to find 8 inches of solid ice – at least that spot seemed safe!
I enlarged the hole and set a tip-up baited with a lively 3-inch shiner, and then moved closer to shore to cut another hole. By Hole No. 3 I had a flag, and by the time I had my fifth hole cut and working I had three pickerel and two fat white perch on the ice.
I was no more than 50 feet from shore but the water was deep and the ice was plenty thick. I wasn’t so sure about the spring hole so I stayed away from that, and the action was fast enough that I wasn’t tempted to head for the middle of the pond where, I noticed, more ambitious anglers had snowmobiled out and were setting up shop for the day. I suppose with 8 inches of shoreline ice there’d be at least as much out there where the wind blows constantly at night, but I’ve fallen through the ice a time or two in my career and never liked it. I’m neither young nor spry now, so if I did fall through my next stop would be the bottom and I’m not quite ready for that trip just yet!
As I had hoped, it only took me a few hours to fill a pail with enough pickerel, perch and bluegills to satisfy my urge for a stout fish chowder. I began to throw the smaller fish back and kept only the last few big ones. I go ice-fishing to catch fish, of course, but I also enjoy sitting out there on my bait pail, sipping some hot tea brewed off a simple twig fire, absorbing the crisp, clean atmosphere of the lake in winter. I find the bright sky and brilliant whiteness of the snow to be extremely pleasing to my soul. If I get out there early enough in the day I am often able to hear nothing but the booming of ice forming somewhere down-lake and the curious calls of the ravens that always seem to show up to greet the dawn. It’s rarely quiet on winter lakes anymore since snowmobiles, 4-wheelers, power augers and similar inventions have made the sport more convenient and efficient – though I don’t know who among the old-time ice-fishermen created the demand for such equipment. Back when I fished with Everett Black the traps were homemade, we carried our gear across the lake in pack baskets and used a sled to haul our bait and supplies. I’ll admit that cutting a hole through three feet of ice on Schoodic Lake in Lakeview was much quicker with a power auger, but “quick” isn’t what we were looking for back then. We spent our winter day cutting and skimming holes, dropping live suckers to the bottom in hopes of catching a big togue or cusk, and when the work was done we’d sit around telling jokes, lies and impossible stories while sipping on ginger brandy or beer so cold the cans were filled with ice chips and slush.
I enjoyed the eager walks out across the shimmering ice at dawn and then the long trudge back to the landing at dark, silent but for the crunching of our boots on the crispy surface of the lake. Not a bad day to spend a January day in Maine, whether the fish are biting or not.
Seems as though the ice was thicker and came in sooner 40 years ago, and maybe it was. Check before you go out this year, unless you want to be the topic of ice-anglers’ conversation this season!
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