It’s been 25 years since I last went ice fishing. I remember that the ice was so thick that Mainiacs drove their brand new Buicks across the ice, and even raced cars across frozen lakes in northern Maine. But conditions are different nowadays, the ice isn’t as thick this year and people are more fearful of driving a car onto the ice. This has been called the ‘strangest Maine winter’ in 25 years. There have been several deaths this past month due to people falling through the ice in New England. Ice conditions change from year to year. My friend’sbrother, Caleb Lane, told me about ice fishing on East Musquash Pond in Maine about 10 years ago, and having to build a bridge using logs with his friends to access their gear, after the temperature unexpectedly rose from the teens to 50°F from one day to the next. This story, in particular, illustrates how a rise in temperature can dramatically alter the day’s events.
Caleb described it best: “The pond was so inundated by the rainwater that the ice had melted around the rim of the pond and there were about 10 feet of open water between the shore and the ice. This posed a major problem on how to get our gear that was left out on the ice. Fortunately we had driven the snowmobiles and 4-wheelers off the ice the night before. But we still had pack baskets and bait buckets and traps out on the ice. We found some lumber under the camps and made a bridge from shore to ice. We then ran around trying to find all our gear. The water on the ice was calf-deep most places and some were up to knee-deep. Each ice hole that we had drilled throughout the weekend was functioning as a large drain for that water. It was quite a sight to look out and see 200 holes with whirlpools going down them. And they were strong. Some that still had traps in them were going round and round very fast, while the holes got bigger and bigger…about a 10 foot radius, about 4 times the original size. And the traps had long since been dragged under the ice. …Fortunately no one went through the ice.”
This month a local ice fishing derby in southern Maine was postponed until February 25th because the ice on Crystal Lake was too thin. Normally in January, it’s about three-feet thick. An ice fishing derby isn’t necessarily a fast race. It might last a day or a weekend or the terms of a tournament might challenge the participants to “catch the most fish between January 1st-March 31st, 2012.” Plus, derbies often include related competitions, including ice shanty decorations.
Saturday I strapped ice cleats over my sheepskin-lined boots, and regretted my choice in footwear, as a slush of puddles coated Crystal Lake. There was no way I was going to “blend in” among the ice fishermen, since I wore a hot pink vest and not camouflage hunting clothes. I joined a group of a dozen excavators, and quickly learned a few things about their traditions. The first two things I learned about ice fishing—“you can never have enough beer” and trout was “the prized fish.” I asked about togus and pike, invasive fish that show up in Sebago Lake. The ice fishermen told me that Crystal Lake is a small pond with coldwater and warmwater fish, only about 59 feet deep and no known invasive species. But if they were ice fishing on Sebago Lake, then they would have a different strategy. On Crystal Lake, the guys baited their gear with shiners to attract trout, weighing the line so that the hook reached the bottom. They taught me how to set the gear, sometimes using homemade equipment, other times using hi-tech ice fishing tackle. A spring-like action, similar to a mouse-trap, triggered a wire with an orange flag if a fish nibbled the hook. In the few hours I was on the ice, none of the 10 or so flags moved. At night, the men planned to sleep inside the shacks, and used a trap-door in the floor with gear set for overnight fishing. The fish are more active at night, I learned. (Of course, I was not spending the night out there! So I had to take their word for it.)
Barely a foot of ice held up their four-wheeled ATVs and shacks, fully decked with woodstoves, camping gear, coolers full of beer and food, and extra boots. A barbecue grill sat directly on the ice between two shacks (“the heat rises,” they assured me). Few people walked across the pond, like I did, except for one man, who accidentally stepped right down into a hole, which had been left unmarked, and he waddled back with his leg wet up to the knee. He held up his beer and said, “It’s okay, I’ve got heat in a can!” They all laughed. These guys seemed a hardy bunch. They were disappointed that the local derby had been postponed until late February, but remarked that it had to do with the slushy conditions and safety issues. In other parts of the country, ice conditions are a concern as well.
MI: Fish report: Ice iffy because of temperature changes, DNR says
WI: Greater Emphasis on safety at Weekend Fishing Tournaments
MI: With video: Weathering the warmer winter
NH/CT: For plenty of reliable ice, go north to CT lakes
MN: Lake Elmo Lions Ice Fishing Contest Cancelled Due to Thin-Ice Conditions
MI: Ice anglers in southern MI need to be careful because of fluctuating temperatures
MA: Accidents stir warnings over dangers of thin ice
CAN: Fishing season thin ice (Ontario)