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January's warm spell had many optimistic folks calling for an early spring, but you don't have to live in Maine for too many years to learn the folly of such thinking. Anticipation is one thing, delusion is another! Though it's hard to ignore balmy temperatures, warm winds and bare ground, there's a reason we call it a “thaw” and not “the official end of winter.” You're likely to see why in a day or two, or next week. Winter has a way of slapping us with icy reminders of who's really in charge! Luckily, Maine sportsmen are not concerned with the weather other than for help in deciding whether to wear a hat or not.
This mid-February period is the best of times for togue fishermen, thaw or not. The ice is thick and solid, and when conditions are right it makes sense to spend all day, any day, probing the lake bottom in search of a king-sized lake trout.
Togue fishing is a distinctly Northeastern pastime and unusual in many ways, even within the ice-fishing corps. Three elements are requisite: Use big baits, fish deep and be patient. When targeting 20-pound fish, you can't expect to hook one on every trip. In fact, most anglers never even see one, but many more come close, failing only because they did not follow the fundamentals. Some anglers have taken several of these coveted trophy-class fish and deserve their accolades. Getting out of bed at 5 a.m. on a frosty February morning (your only day off!) is just the first step.
Togue may be found just about anywhere in the bigger, coldwater lakes in our region. Schoodic, Sebec, Moosehead and the like contain togue that are certifiably scary in size and weight. Favored places to look for them are in the deepest holes, near points and in thoroughfares or narrows. Most anglers who catch a big togue (or see one caught) will return to that area year after year for decades, hopeful that, one day, a similar lunker will find its way to the end of the line
For some anglers, picking a spot is the challenge. A local sporting goods store or bait shop will give you at least a vague idea of where to start (“I think Joe's buddy's brother from Brunswick lost a nice one in the narrows a couple of years ago!”). For starters, I'd suggest studying a lake map, looking for sudden depth changes in the deeper part of the lake. Fish the edge of dropoffs and the deepest water nearby (as the tip-up regulations allow) and see what happens.
Because you're targeting big fish, use big baits. Many serious togue fishermen use foot-long suckers (live or dead) and big chunks of cut bait. If the lake you're fishing is open to the use of multiple lines, most anglers put baits down on all but one line, and then use a shiny jig or spoon tipped with a piece of cut bait. They'll sit on a bucket, jigging slowly all day, sitting and watching, hoping a fly will fly. It's slow, monotonous work, but if you want to catch a big Maine togue, that is the minimum down payment. Can you say “patience?”
To increase your odds for success, plan on being on the ice ready to fish one-half hour before sunrise and leave your baits down till one-half hour after sunset. I can't tell you how many times I've caught a serious fish in the first few minutes of the day, and without a doubt my biggest togue (18 pounds) was caught in Schoodic Lake as I was about to pull the last trap of the day. I was standing there admiring the cobalt glow on the horizon, slowly packing up my gear for the day, thinking another day had been shot to pieces (the local joke is that Schoodic is the Indian word for “skunk”), when I noticed my line swirling slowly around and around the hole just before the flag leaped into the air.
This is the moment when most togue are either caught or lost, and I knew it. The first thing I did was . . . nothing! A togue is a big, slow, methodical eater. Many an eager angler dives on the line, gives a heroic yank and accomplishes nothing more than ripping the bait out of the fish's mouth. I let the togue work on his meal, feeding out slack line till I was down to a few feet wrapped around my palm.
I waited till the fish had taken up all the slack and was obviously tugging and struggling for more, and then I gave him a good, sharp double-haul. Remember, your fish may be 100 feet or more away - a tentative pull may not even take the natural bow out of the line. The fish may not even feel the connection. I had the slack out and felt the fish, so I knew I was close. Some anglers grab the line tight and run full speed away from the fish - as good a technique as any if the water is deep.
At any rate, my fish was on. The game became one of hope and caution. The goal is to keep the line tight and keep the fish from gaining slack so he can throw the hook. Steady pressure is the key, and it may take some time to bring a big fish to the surface.
When the togue first passed the hole I was glad I'd made it oversized - the head alone would not have fit through the standard 8-inch auger hole. I always chisel an extra two inches around each hole, and I was glad I did!
You can flip a small fish through the ice using the line and hook, but too many togue are saved by this approach. For whatever reason, the hook will straighten and the fish will escape, sometimes with his head and “shoulders” out of the hole! Close enough for nightmares, I can tell you that! The more sensible approach is to bring the fish to the surface, line his head up with the hole, reach slowly down along the line to his head and, with a four-fingered grip on his gills, hoist him onto the ice head first. Sure, it's going to be cold and wet, but you'll have your fish safely in hand, and wasn't that the point of the exercise?
I can't explain the euphoria one feels when a lunker togue comes splashing out of the lake, but I assure you it's an experience that's worth the effort. As added incentive, keep in mind that most of the biggest togue in Maine are caught through the ice.
Go out, cut a hole and see what happens. Save a space on the den wall, just in case!
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