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A combination of short days, long nights and busy lives keeps most folks from enjoying Maine's outdoor bounty during winter, a shame because it's a proven fact that getting outside once in a while can be the cure for what ails you. We all know about cabin fever and its side effects (grumpy, aren't we!), but all you have to do in order to combat the ailment is to open the door and get some fresh air.
The common lament among folks I know is that they work, they're busy and the days are too short for them to participate. True enough, sunrise is around 7:15 a.m. and sunset is 4:45 p.m. or so, pretty much every person with a day job in the dark around the clock.
“So there,” the grumpy ones will say. “I can't get outdoors because I work all day and it's dark when I get home.”
Be cranky till spring if that's your wish, but if you truly feel the need to get outdoors in winter, there's still an option, and a pretty tasty one at that.
Probably one of the least-heralded outdoor activities in Maine takes place after sunset. You can do it all night, under lights, and not get into trouble, and the reward for your efforts is some of the most succulent wild meats you'll ever find. Of course, the big mystery is the ubiquitous Maine cusk, also called freshwater ling, a peculiar-looking fish that seems to be a cross between a catfish and a toad, with all the emphasis on ugly! Daytime anglers occasionally catch these coldwater bottom dwellers, but the real action takes place after dark. The average Maine cusk weighs about 2 pounds, but some specimens get much larger. The state-record cusk weighed 18 pounds, 8 ounces - more than enough for chowder!
The good news for busy folks looking for an outdoor excursion is that cusk fishing is as simple as it gets. In fact, even the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife loosens the reins on cusk fishing - you only have to check your lines once per hour, which means you can retire to your camp, tent or shack between tours to keep warm, eat and relax. Not a bad way to fish!
The most dedicated cusk anglers I know make it a nightly ritual, heading from work straight to the lake (any cold, deep lake - cusk are rarely found in shallow, muddy waters). They'll fish the same spots and even use the same holes night after night, so setting up takes about five minutes. They reopen the previous night's holes, drop a piece of cut bait or a shiner down to about a foot off the bottom, and then stand around complaining about work or telling jokes about someone else's bad day, all part of the cabin fever cure we eternally seek.
All you need for a session of cusk fishing is an auger or spud to cut holes in the ice, a skimmer to clear ice chips from the hole, some tip-ups (and enough line to reach bottom in 100 or more feet of water), some bait and some time. Be sure your hooks are sharp, check your line for frayed sections (and replace any worn line as necessary) and you're in business. Everything you'll need for a successful nighttime cusk-fishing adventure will fit nicely inside a 5-gallon bucket, which will serve as a handy seat while you fish.
You can be on the ice and “fishing” for cusk within 15 minutes of your arrival at the lake. The rest of your time can be spent enjoying the cold night air, the sparkling stars and the peace and quiet. If you don't drive or snowmobile onto the lake, I highly recommend that you bring a flashlight or at least have reflective material on your clothing (and traps or tip-ups) because most of Maine's winter lakes endure a steady stream of nighttime snowmobile traffic, and some of those guys enjoy going full blast across the ice, a definite threat to your remote cusk-fishing outpost. I used to fish at night well off Norway Point on Schoodic Lake, and recall several close calls and near disasters as troops of snowmobilers would come tearing around the point headed straight for my five little tip-ups. Jumping up and down, arm waving and shouting doesn't work well at night; so carry a bright flashlight (and have spare batteries for it) if you don't want to be the focal point for a late-night skid fest on the ice.
What I enjoy most about winter nighttime fishing is not so much the possibility of catching a fish but the amazing variety in conditions. One night may be crystal clear, still and bright, with stars overhead and the northern lights flashing. The next night could be windy and cold, with the crackle of ice and straining trees echoing across the lake. The nicest time to be out there is when it's snowing, especially during one of those storms when the flakes are huge and falling straight down. It's quiet, peaceful and serene on the ice, no sound but the hiss of falling snow and the unique squeak made by boots compressing fresh snow on the ice. On nights like that I hate to end the mood to pack up and head for home - the outdoor ambience is addicting.
If knitting, watching TV or watching ice form on your windows isn't doing it for you this winter, go out tonight and try to catch a cusk for the chowder pot. Cusk are plentiful, easy to catch and delicious no matter how you cook them. If you have good luck, be sure to mark your holes (with an evergreen tip) so you can find them next time. One good night on the ice will have you coming back for more, I'm sure of that.
There's a lot more going on out there than just standing around fishing, and it may be just the thing to turn your late-winter mood around!
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