Following a week of temperatures ranging from 0 to 50, rain and snow, ice on the Interstate and daffodils emerging from beneath the grainy leftovers of winter it’s probably a good bet that winter is almost over, but not quite.
Still, despite an amazing variety of weather conditions since last week I’ve seen increased evidence that nature will have its way no matter what the forecasters predict. In just the last few days I’ve seen ducks, red-winged blackbirds, bluebirds and robins already into bobbing mode across the pasture. All of these and some others showed up despite prolonged, bitterly-cold winds and frigid nights. Raccoons have been coming into the yard in pairs and trios of late, suggesting that the season for hibernation is over. I’m losing a few gallons of sunflower seed and cracked corn to the midnight marauders every week, including the resident gray foxes. I don’t think the raccoons are very impressed with my offerings but I don’t really want to start catering to their dietary needs because they can easily eat a pound or more of food per day. Given that I’ve documented as many as 30 different raccoons passing through my yard it’s clear that feeding them all will be costly if not impossible. I’ll put out the usual bucketful of feed every evening but they’ll have to make do with that. From the looks of my neighbors’ trash cans the masked bandits are getting plenty of choice leftovers in addition to my skimpy source of provender. In this case I’m more than happy to share the wealth.
Recent changes in weather patterns have made ice-fishing a bit of a risk because instead of a foot or more of ice we now have ice over slush over water over ice – a real mess for anyone trying to walk across a lake or for someone trying to take their shack off the ice. There have been several ice-shack mishaps across the state where shack owners waited a day or two longer than they should have and now their shack is belly up in several layers of unstable footing. It’s likely that things will begin to warm up rather than get colder, and this means ice conditions are not going to improve.
Back in the 1970s I had a shack on the ice at Schoodic Lake and, for various reasons my fishing partner and I decided to leave the shelter on the ice just a tad longer than was prudent. Fishing was good and there was plenty of ice (at first) but an early thaw turned the entire lake to mush over water and layers of ice that were often just a few inches thick. Using ropes and come-alongs we did our best to get the shack back on land but for a few hours we were up to our hips in ice-cold slush, this over an area that was 90 feet deep! I actually wore a PFD just in case I broke through, which of course made working on the project that much more difficult. We ended up attaching a winch to some shoreline trees and essentially destroyed the shack in our efforts to get it and its log foundation off the ice. The parts and pieces ended up being fuel for the following spring’s bonfires. As I recall that was our last attempt at putting a permanent shack on the ice. From then on it was tents or V-shaped shelters, or we simply sat on the ice and toughed it out. Whenever I see someone struggling to get their shack off the ice these days I think back 40 years and am ever so thankful I’m not one of them.
If I had to guess I’d say that the smaller lakes and ponds, sheltered bays and secluded coves are probably still safe enough for ice-fishing but we’re at the end of winter where caution is the watchword. There’s no doubt that some people will continue to risk life, limb and property by continuing to fish or travel on the ice right up through the end of the month. We’re almost certain to be hearing about them along with another lecture from law enforcement about staying off unsafe ice. Heed the warnings and take the safer route if you want to be around to fish through the ice next winter.
Perhaps a safer pursuit would be to head into the woods for a day of snowshoe hare hunting. Conditions can be terrible in some spots due to the varying depths of crusty snow but at least you can recover from a slip or fall. Hares are easy to find and relatively abundant in low-lying cedar bogs and alder patches, but as crunchy as it is out there right now it’s not going to be easy to sneak up on one. I like to squat down and scan the area ahead of me using binoculars in hopes that I’ll be able to spot a sitting hare in shotgun or .22 range. The technique works quite well if I move slowly and scan frequently. Fast walking on crusty snow only tells the hares where you are and which direction you are traveling, so it’s an easy matter for them to just hop a few yards off to the side and let you pass. Go slowly, get low and look all around you. Take plenty of time to reconnoiter the area because many hares will just sit tight and hope you can’t see them. Hares have a very liberal “personal space” but sooner or later they are going to take action and flee. On a good day I can bag a limit of four hares using my binoculars and trusty .410 or .22, but I’ll usually settle for just one or two for the Saturday night bean pot.
In any case, it’s a safe bet that we’re all looking for signs of spring. Patches of bare ground, potholes in the road or the distant calls of migrating geese tell the tale. It may still look and feel like winter out there but the worst (we hope) is over!