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By now you've probably noticed growing communities of shacks and shelters on the many lakes in our area, placed by optimistic winter anglers anticipating a long and productive winter of ice-fishing for trout, salmon, smelts or cusk.
It often surprises me to find that many lake-region residents don't know what goes on in those shacks, and even some die-hard rod-and-reel types have never set foot on the ice. A number of devout fly-fishermen have even told me they “don't believe in ice-fishing,” whatever that means. It exists, it's legal and it's the only way to catch fish in the winter - what's not to believe in?
Besides, some of the biggest fish of the year are taken through the ice, including Maine's recent state-record cusk, brown trout, pike and pickerel, and someone will almost certainly haul a 20-pound lake trout from Schoodic, Sebec or Moosehead before the winter angling season is over.
If it's fear of the unknown that's been keeping you off the ice, try to imagine what it must be like to sit quietly for hours on end staring blankly into the distance. That's what ice-fishing consists of, at least 90 percent of the time. There's a good deal of hustle and bustle getting set up and a long period of waiting following by another few minutes of activity getting things packed up at the end of the day. It's nothing the average 8-year-old couldn't do, but the rewards include fresh air, sunshine and a rejuvenation of spirit every time a flag flies signaling a fish on the line.
I have noticed that most of the grumpy people I know are non-ice-fishermen, while the enthusiastic, forward-looking folks with a gleam in their eyes are the ones who have a new trick in mind for next weekend's winter fishing expedition. I am not one to tarry long where cabin fever reigns, and, like most ice-anglers, I count a day on the ice without a flag superior to sitting at home carping about the weather, the bills or the state of politics in Augusta.
One of the best things about ice-fishing is that it is as much a social sport as it is an angling endeavor. Sure, anyone with a line down wants to catch a fish, but you can drop into any shack or pull up a bucket and chat with any angler you meet and have coffee, a snack and some conversation, a faux pas if you did the same with a fly-fisherman, for example. Ice-fishing wasn't meant to be exclusive or secretive. If you've never done it, there is no rule against just walking around on the ice and visiting anglers as you come to them. Watch what they are doing, ask them what they are fishing for, see what gear they are using and learn what you can about the sport - they'll all talk your ear off, especially if you show up carrying a Thermos of hot coffee or a bag of freshly-made donuts.
If you like to eat and enjoy camp cookery, visit anglers who've set up shop for the winter in a sturdy shack or shanty. Some of these guys fish through the floor of the shack and may not venture outdoors all day, content to stay inside the shack that may be furnished with a cozy chair, a portable TV, a well-stocked cooler and a gas stove. You can find anything from hotdogs to prime rib sizzling in frying pans far out on the ice. Some anglers fry their catch as it comes from the water, others bring complete gourmet meals (including appetizer and a sparkling wine) and there's invariably some to share with visitors. Watch the Rolling Thunder Express for news on ice-fishing derbies in the region and plan to observe the action on those days. You'll likely find hundreds of anglers on the ice vying for all sorts of prizes and awards, and the majority of them will share their knowledge, if not their lunch, with anyone who stops by.
If you've never fished through the ice before, spending a morning as an impartial observer will probably save years of trial and error (mostly error) when you decide to give it a go on your own. You can catch fish through the ice with little more than a hook, a minnow and a length of line tied to a pine bough stuck in the ice, but the ice-fishing industry is no different than any other. Things have progressed to the point that high-end anglers now use snowmobiles, power augers, electric bait buckets, sonar units (to find fish) and sophisticated tip-ups that all but bait the hook for you. That's quite an investment when your first catch is likely to be a 12-inch pickerel, but it's a start!
For the most fun, the best places to fish in winter are the smaller ponds and lakes that contain such species as perch, pickerel, bass and pike. These fish are numerous, aggressive and easy to fool, and the regulations governing them are relatively generous. If you want to specialize in trout or salmon fishing, the rules are tighter (one fish per day is the limit on many waters) and the fishing is more challenging. There are always red-letter days on any water, but if you choose to target lunker salmon or trout, you're going to be doing a lot of fishing but not a lot of catching!
A license is required if you're over age 16 and plan to fish through the ice in Maine, and regulations vary from water to water and county to county. Before you decide to visit a lake and cut a hole, spend a few minutes on the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife's Website (www.mefishwildlife.com) to find out the particulars on season dates, species size and bag limits and special regulations on gear, bait and access. It's a lot easier than having the game warden or circuit court judge explain them to you!
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