|Winter is not over and I'm not going to be the one to say it is, but sooner or later the cold and snow is going to end and we'll be faced with one of the biggest dilemmas facing Maine sportsmen - how to get the ice-fishing shack off the ice.
Legally, ice shacks must be off the ice within three days of the end of the season, or April 3 in most cases. Also, shacks can't be taken off the ice and left on someone else's land because then you get into Situation B, in which the landowner is allowed to remove or destroy abandoned shacks at the owner's expense. It shouldn't be hard to track down the owner because, among other rules, each shack must carry the owner's name and address in nice, big letters. So, dragging your shack off the ice, dumping it on the shoreline and calling it good may not be the best approach - depending upon your definition of “good.” Few lakeshore landowners want or need another shack on their land, surely don't want to have to foot the bill for disposing of them and may not even want to spend the time it takes to chop one up and burn it.
So, all prudent signs point toward getting your shack off the ice well before the lake surface turns to slush and big, scary holes that can swallow fishermen, their shacks and the trucks they use to haul them with. A mess by any other name is still a mess, and there's nothing like being knee deep in swirling lake ice at the end of March thinking, “I should have done this a month ago!”
If you'd done a good job of setting and anchoring your shack in the ice prior to the season, you can expect to expend at least as much labor in getting it out. Even a shack placed on skids designed for easy travel across the ice is likely to have settled in a little, perhaps gotten pelted with ice and snow over the winter and maybe even banked up a bit against the cold through the season. All this adds up to a major foundation of solid ice that will need to be chipped, cut or sawn away before the dragging operation can begin.
Many fishermen sink large wooden posts or logs into the ice to anchor their shacks, and though few do so, these should be removed as well. Such obstacles left standing in the ice make dangerous obstructions for later snowmobile or 4-wheeler traffic. Hitting such an impediment at high speed can be a real treat, especially for a nighttime joy rider who has the throttle wide open and isn't expecting a sudden stop.
I knew a fellow in Brownville whose souped-up racing sled hit a solid cedar knot going about 70 - the snowmobile stopped dead with a loud crunching sound, and the rider went rolling and sliding across the ice for about 50 yards! His boots had ripped the plastic windshield off his machine as he went by, slicing the toes of his boots down to the sock line, but he suffered no damage other than a long walk home in the cold and dark.
One group of 4-wheeler riders I met had turned a former shack village into an obstacle course using the leftover stakes and log anchors from the ice-fishing season, but I shuddered to think what might happen to a group of roving snowmobilers upon encountering such a setup at high speed and at night. Come to think of it, one March night I was taking a shortcut while coming in from checking some beaver traps and tripped over a set of shack posts that had been left behind. Other than a bruised shin and some new words devised when my pack basket full of gear went flying across the ice there was no damage done, but I thought it would have been nice if the shack owner had at least cut the stubs off even with the ice!
Another thing to remember is that if you put your shack on the ice late in December when the landing was smooth, the ice was hard and black and the weather was cold and still, you might be in for a surprise on the return trip. Expect high snow banks, packed snow and ice in trails everywhere, rough going at and near the ramp, plus other unexpected obstacles. One winter, for example, the landing on my favorite lake had been used as a staging area for all the extra snow being dug up in town. The formerly big, cleared parking lot was now a mogul skier's dream, with over 100 piles of crusted, dirty snow lying shoulder to shoulder on the landing. That was a bad winter for us all, so I didn't feel too badly about having to chop my shack into bite-sized piece and haul it home in a bundle. It pays to keep an eye on such things as you start to consider bringing your shack in for the season.
I have had some amusing if not scary experiences with ice-fishing shacks. Overall, I'd have to say that the portable models you can carry in and out each day are the best options, especially if you don't hit the ice daily and each weekend. You go out, set up, fish all day and pack it in, nice and neat, at the end of the day.
Every year about this time I'm reminded of the first ice-fishing shack I built with a friend from Milo. We used borrowed 2x4s for a frame, and old oak pallet for a base and the remains of a canvas tent for the walls and roof. It seemed solid enough back in the barn, but once we got it set up on the windswept surface of Schoodic Lake it looked downright pitiful. It survived the first few trips and in fact I caught my biggest Schoodic salmon out of it, but it was no match for the relentless Maine winter.
Late in March we went out to retrieve the shack and could only find some small pieces of wood stuck in the ice. A violent blizzard had blown across the lake and torn our little shelter to pieces. We found a shattered 2x4 here, a shred of canvas there, but most of what had been our shack ended up miles away at the far end of the lake, never to be seen again.
That's one way to get your shack off the ice, but it's certainly not the thriftiest approach! I hope you take this as a warning and start making plans to get your shack off the ice before someone down the lake finds it and uses it for kindling!