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With the strange range in weather patterns we’ve experienced over the last month or so (from warm temperatures to rain, snow, sleet, wind and bitter cold) it’s not easy to come up with a fun plan for a day outdoors. One constant I have observed over a lifetime of enthusiastic woodland wandering is that it never seems to be as bad as it looks out there. Even on the windiest days, with snow squalls billowing across the fields and trees creaking and groaning against the gusts, I find that if I dress right and get into the woods and out of the wind it’s invariably pretty darned nice out there, or at least not half as bad as it looks on TV or from the kitchen window.
The simple trick is to get low in the evergreens, out of the way of wind and blizzard-like conditions. It’s surprisingly calm and serene close to the ground with buffering cedars, spruces and firs all around. The fierce winds can be heard high in the tree tops, limbs clattering against each other like wooden swords, but down at ground level it’s comparatively peaceful. If you’re looking for wildlife this is the place to be, because all of the birds, small mammals, even deer and moose, sensibly take refuge in areas where they are somewhat protected from the cold and wind. How the tiniest chickadees, nuthatches and creepers manage to survive while singing a happy tune is beyond me, but they are used to it as are the other creatures that don’t enjoy the luxury of hibernation. No human could endure the bitter cold that the average titmouse or blue jay ignores, and even when dressed appropriately in layers of fleece, wool and nylon we can only beat the cold for a few hours before our hands, feet and noses begin to complain.
The best advice is to keep moving, to generate heat and to see more of what’s going on out there. At this time of year I’m forever testing the ice on local small ponds and lakes in hopes that I’ll find the 6-inch minimum I need to make a day of ice-fishing a safe and logical pastime. This year the weather has been anything but predictable or amenable. I go forth most days dressed in my best woollies carrying a lightweight ice spud so I can chisel a few quick sample holes and make an assessment that won’t have me standing on the bottom of the lake in 10 feet of water. Been there, done that – and it’s not as thrilling as one might imagine!
The process of finding safe ice is a progressive one. I stop when the ice is 5 inches thick, mark the spot and then come back a few days later to try again. I don’t need the entire lake covered with a foot of ice but I do want the shallow bays and coves to have a uniform covering of ice that’s about half that thick. Ice, by the way, does not form as a continuous, constant sheet of uniform thickness. It may look that way on top but if we were able to turn the ice upside down we’d discover a topographic marvel containing mountains, ridges, pockets and even holes big enough to swallow a fisherman and all his gear. I’ve seen video of ice viewed from below and find it fascinating, remarkable and interesting with some room for caution. I well remember walking across a small pond years ago with a friend who happened to trudge across one of those hidden thin spots. He plunged through the ice just 5 feet from me, right up to his armpits. Had I not been there I’m sure he would have drowned or died of hypothermia. It was extremely windy and cold that day and we’d made several test holes the weekend before, yet halfway across the pond we managed to find the only spot thin enough to give way under a 5-foot tall teenager who probably didn’t weigh more than 120 pounds. I check now – and often!
There may be some good trout ponds open now but early in the year I like to focus my winter fishing efforts on the more abundant, easy-to-catch species such as bluegills, yellow perch, white perch, pickerel and bass – where legal, of course. Study the most recent copy of Maine’s ice-fishing regulations to know where you may or may not fish and for which species. Understanding the lingo contained within the regulations booklet will keep even an experienced angler busy for most of a cup of coffee, maybe two. If you’re new to the sport plan on spending even more time reviewing the winter fishing laws.
Most of what you need for a successful day on the ice can be carried in a 5-gallon bucket including bait, traps, hooks, skimmer and chisel, and then the bucket may be used as a convenient seat. To have the most fun on the worst of winter days choose small waters and fish close to shore where stout evergreens will help block some of the wind. More adventurous types may want to use a snowmobile, trailer and portable ice-fishing shack and get farther out on the lake after first determining that the ice is indeed thick enough to hold all that gear. Not many snow machines and shacks go through the ice each year but there’s no doubt that we’ll be hearing about some 4WD vehicles going through as well as the occasional snowmobiler who chose to ignore the signs, venture too close to open water or simply make the mistake of riding in unknown territory off established trails.
Bottom line in anything you decide to do outdoors now that winter is unquestionably upon us is to proceed with safety in mind. Be certain that what you plan to do is possible, sensible and reasonable. If you have doubts, choose another route. Sadly, we will have fatalities on the ice and snow this winter – don’t be one of them!
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