|For many folks, the end of March can be a major do-nothing period, but avid Maine outdoorsmen have no such luxury. With luck and good weather you can still get in some great rabbit hunting this week, and there is still some legal ice-fishing to be done in the next few days. If that wasn't enough, the open water fishing season opens on Saturday, and that alone is enough to send eager anglers into a tailspin. There's a lot going on and not much time left to do it!
Ice-fishing can be risky at this end of March, but lakes with solid ice cover are still producing great catches. It's often the case that March-caught fish are the biggest of the year, and over the years many of Maine's state-record fish were taken in March (pickerel and cusk come to mind).
Because ice conditions can be tricky this late in the winter, the best bet is to travel light if you're going to go on a late-season fishing expedition. Walk onto the ice rather than ride (there have been fatalities in New England involving snowmobiles and ATVs going through the ice), use a walking stick or ice spud to probe for soft spots, and be prepared for trouble should you encounter thin spots or “rotten” ice. Many anglers carry a set of ice picks in case they need to chip their way out of a situation, and a length of rope and even an inflatable life jacket wouldn't be a bad idea. It's not likely that you'll fall through the ice in March, but you're pushing the envelope in some cases, so do one of two things: Don't go out on questionable ice, or be prepared if you do!
I think the highest risk of all right now is stumbling into an old ice-fishing hole that may be skimmed over. If the weather is warm and the ice is melting fast, a typical 8-inch auger hole can turn into a tub-sized opening in no time. I was fishing one March with a friend who was more interested in fishing than in thinking about getting safely onto the ice and, as he was jabbering away about all the fish he was going to catch, he simply disappeared from sight down a big, thawed hole left over from two months ago! For a second there, all I could see was his hat! I reached down and pulled him out of the hole just as he began to surface on his own, but we had to end the trip right there because he was soaked and already speechless from the cold.
Anyway, such hazards are possible but not the norm; so don't let the threat of a cold dunking keep you off the ice when conditions are generally safe. It's the last ice-fishing you'll be able to do till next winter, so make the most of it.
The same with a last-minute rabbit hunt. If the snow is gone or even patchy in spots, finding a white rabbit (more likely “dirty” white at this time of year) in the open woods is a cinch. Conditions in the alders can be touchy as well if the grainy, end-of-season snow is dense enough. You'll be doing a lot of falling through snow pack as melting continues underneath, so wear rubber boots and expect to get wet. And, balmy as it may be, the last remnants of snow can make temperatures quite chilly at ground level, so dress accordingly, especially if you can only get out early or later in the day.
It's not necessary to have a pack of beagles in order to enjoy some good rabbit hunting at this end of the season. Get into the thickest woods you can find (cedars and alders are the general hiding places of March hares) and move slowly as you scan the woods for the telltale form of a rabbit sitting high and dry on a hummock or beneath a blow down. Rabbits are notorious for sitting tight while impatient hunters walk on by, so move slowly and look often. The trick is to find the rounded form of a sitting rabbit, which is not easy when half the world is small, round and white as the snow slowly dissipates. You'll see more objects that look like rabbits than actual rabbits, but that's part of the game. I've stared at rounded, white forms that, to me, seemed to be nothing but piles of dirty snow, only to see them suddenly jump up and run off through the underbrush! Other times, I'll be sure it's a rabbit sitting there only to find that I've been carefully watching a snow-covered rock for the last 30 minutes!
If sloshing around in the cold and wet doesn't appeal to you this week, that's fine. You can use the time to get ready for Saturday's opening day of fishing season, which can put you into similar situations except with a fishing rod rather than a shotgun or ice spud. Depending on how things go, you can expect to spend Saturday morning standing in thigh-deep slush at a bend in the stream where you're sure trout are holding in the dark, still water. You may have to stand there a long time, too, in order to goad a lethargic winter trout into taking your bait, but it is possible to do. Fish deep and slow, be patient, and expect to lose a lot of hooks on the bottom!
I'm sure the average Maine citizen would find any or all of the above to be a complete waste of time, but lovers of the outdoors will want to try all three pursuits because, after all, winter's last days are truly upon us. Guns and snowshoes will be traded for waders and fishing tackle very soon, and as exciting as the new season is, it's somehow sad to see the last one end so quickly.
In any case, get out there and do something, even if it's just walking in the woods or along the lake watching others get cold, wet and tired. Spring is nearly sprung and you don't want to miss a minute of it!