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Christmas is over and the second half of winter is upon us. Now's the time to take a collective gasp of fresh air, leave the stress and anxiety of the holidays behind and do something relaxing and uplifting. For Maine outdoorsmen, the choice is a simple one.
While we've all been running around trying to make everyone else happy, ice has been slowly forming on local lakes and ponds. In many cases, the ice is now thick enough to support the weight of an eager early-season angler and his gear. Of course, the wise approach is to check the ice thickness every few feet to be sure that it is safe to cut holes. Popular wisdom suggests that the ice be at least 3 inches thick to be considered safe for foot traffic, and in normal winters that standard was reached long before now. I have fished through the ice as early as Thanksgiving and, of course, during some winters safe ice has never formed, but those are the extremes. In general, it's safe to be on the ice right now, especially if your quarry is the chain pickerel, a common, plentiful and worthy target for December fishermen.
It's a safe bet to say that most winter anglers have learned the tricks of the ice-fishing trade while plying local waters for pickerel. There is no easier, more aggressive fish to catch in winter than the pickerel. In fact, it's hard to keep a pickerel off the hook when you're targeting other species. Any pickerel is a “sucker” for a lively shiner or minnow, and on good days you'll be hard pressed to keep enough bait on hand.
Another good thing about pickerel is that they tend to be found in swarms (not really schools, but in great numbers), so if you catch one fish you are likely to end up with a bucketful as long as the bait holds out. If you hit the jackpot, it's often possible to catch all the pickerel you want and not have to cut a third hole. I have had this happen many times in many places, but perhaps the best pickerel hole I ever encountered was just upstream from the dam at Brann's Mill Pond in Dover-Foxcroft. I once took my sister and her then-boyfriend out there to introduce Don to the finer points of pickerel fishing and I simply was not able to get that third hole cut! In fact, I barely got the second line down when the first flag when up. I hauled in a nice pickerel, reset the flag and turned around to see the flag up on the second trap. Back and forth it went for the next hour or so, and in the end we had the better part of two buckets full of pickerel, no bait and three traps still waiting to go into the water!
That doesn't happen every time, but banner days are the norm when pickerel fishing. These voracious predators just won't quit (and that's true in summer, too), so if you want to enjoy some exciting fishing with minimal effort and very little waiting, head for the nearest pickerel pond this week.
Everything you need for a fun day on the ice will fit into a 5-gallon pail. Five traps or tip-ups, an ice chisel or spud, a skimmer and some bait are all you'll need. You can go “plush” by bringing along something to sit on, a power auger or ice drill, a small stove to cook on and the fixings for a hot meal and drinks. Many anglers start out this way and eventually graduate to fancier fixin's including lit and heated ice shacks, snowmobiles and even permanent shoreline camps, but none of that will catch you more fish - it just makes fishing on a cold, bitter day more bearable.
For pickerel, there is no need to arrive at a lake and then head for the far, distant horizon. You can catch winter pickerel in water that is scarcely more than 3 feet deep. Of course, only the pickerel know for sure where they are going to be at any given time, so the standard “search” procedure is to cut one hole near shore, another about 20 feet out, then another and another until you have your five tip-ups set at varying depths perpendicular to shore. When the fish start to hit at a certain depth or distance from shore, simply adjust to the change and cluster your baits in the “hot” zone.
Keep in mind that the action can vary throughout the day, so be ready to move your tip-ups as the fish dictate. You may need to go deeper, wider or shallower, but try to keep up with the changes as they come. In some cases you'll get continuous hits on every tip-up, but that is rare. If you fish often enough you'll have the occasional “couldn't keep the hooks baited” event, but most often you'll have plenty of time to ponder the mysteries of life as you wait for a flag to fly.
In general, the best fishing takes place at dawn and dusk, although winter pickerel are apt to hit throughout the day. In fact, if you sit beside a pickerel pond in mid-July you will see the occasional fish swipe at a bug, a frog or a snake in the middle of the day. For this reason, it's best to get there early, set up quickly and plan to be there all day. I've caught pickerel at first light and again at sunset, and nothing in, on or above the ice ever offered a clue as to when the big “bite” would take place.
Pickerel are good to eat but there's a point of diminishing returns on fish often referred to as “hoe handles.” If you can easily get your hand around a pickerel it's probably to small to bother with. Any pickerel will have some meat on it, but the best fish are the ones over 16 inches. Scale the fish, fillet the fish and then make a series of cuts in the flesh down to the skin and about one-quarter inch apart. Done correctly, you'll hear a crackling sound as the knife blade cuts through those notorious Y-shaped bones.
Bread and fry the fish and then stand back - there won't be any leftovers. The series of cuts in the meat helps disintegrate the bones during cooking, leaving a helping of sweet, bone-free meat for the plate.
If you've had pickerel prepared this way before you probably can't wait for safe ice to form, either. Forget your holiday woes, cut some holes and buy plenty of bait. Go early, stay late - and fish like you mean it!
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