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We’re halfway through February and the sage of weather predictions, Punxsutawney Phil (a woodchuck, for heaven’s sake!) has predicted a short winter. Not a big follower of rodential prognostications (though I enjoy a good woodchuck hunt in spring and have eaten more than my share of them!), it’s irrelevant to the Maine outdoorsman when or how winter finally ends. Common sense suggests that there will be more cold, more snow and more wind between now and the time the skunk cabbage is knee high along the trout brooks, and that’s something we can all take to the bank.
More critical to us are the season dates, which are cast in stone each year in defiance of the present climate, global warming or the ruminations of some overfed pet woodchuck in Pennsylvania! By law, we have till the end of March to hunt rabbits and to ice-fish (in most cases, that is – check the current regulations booklet for details on the specific lake or pond you want to fish in late winter). Open water fishing opens April 1, which is quite a ways off from a sporting perspective, so the options now are into the woods or onto the ice – not a bad choice no matter how you look at it!
My preference throughout the year is to hit the woods with rifle or shotgun in hand, and it’s a gift from Augusta to know that I can at least chase snowshoe hares around the swamps right through the end of March. We’re entering the time of year when hares begin to mate, which means the males will travel far and wide in search of mates. The average person probably would not notice the difference from one day to the next, but sic a pack of hot-nosed beagles on the trail of a wandering hare and you’ll quickly find out how far they are willing to go!
I think the most radical example of “where did he go?” rabbit hunting was a hare we started in early morning somewhere around Boyd Lake in Milo. Normally, the dogs will pick up a scent, get the rabbit going and, in a few minutes, have the hare finishing its loop around the swamp and heading in the direction of a well-placed stander armed with a shotgun or .22. Well, this particular hopper was in no mood for “normal.” As I recall, the chase began just after daylight and the hounds quickly pushed the long-legged leaper out of hearing. We dubbed around in various states of boredom for most of the morning, sure that the dogs had run off on a deer, more sure that they had been picked up by the dog warden, slightly concerned that the whole pack may have hit an unfortunate patch of rotten ice and had plunged through the shallow end of the little lake.
Well, we fussed around there for a few hours, ate our lunches, drank all our coffee and pretty much came to the conclusion that something had gone seriously awry with our hunt. Just then (about 4 hours after the dogs first struck the rabbit) we heard them coming back around! Where in the world that rabbit took those dogs was anyone’s guess, but the bigger news was that four experienced hunters emptied their shotguns at the fleeing white target and no one hit the mark! We took a hasty vote and decided to pick up the dogs and head somewhere else, a smaller patch of woods bordered by roads and a brook where we could at least confine the chase to a township-sized parcel.
The memory of that hunt led me to go ice-fishing the following weekend, and my chosen hotspot was Schoodic Lake in Lakeview. Deep and cold with miles of solid ice still begging for an auger, I planned to arrive early and stay late because winter was waning and it would be many weeks before the ice that finally rotted and broke would go out for good.
Schoodic in the 70s was known for its surprisingly poor fishing. A February ice-fishing derby winner might be a barely-legal salmon or inch-over togue – hardly the fish of memories! I recall one such derby when hardly one flag few all weekend – and I could see all the way up the lake from Knight’s Landing to the sawdust pile! (Things have improved and this weekend’s 45th Annual Derby winners should post some better-than-average catches. Good luck!)
Anyway, I had my baits (three on bottom for togue and two just under the ice for salmon) set and working by daylight. I stood out there all day without having so much as a wind flag, and about the time the sun set over the cold blue hills in the distance I decided enough was enough! I pulled four of the five traps and was headed for the fifth when it happened. FLAG! I slipped and slid toward the only flag flying on the lake and was elated to see that not only was it set for togue, but the line in the hole was spinning round and round at a rapid pace. I let the fish take all the slack it wanted, counted to 10 and set the hook. Whatever was down there actually struck back – I felt the strong, determined pull of a big fish and settled down by the hole to slowly work my prize to the top.
It didn’t help that I was set up in over 100 feet of water and that I was using old Littleway machine thread for line. I piled the thread onto the ice where it froze immediately, resembling a neat pile of whole wheat spaghetti. I brought the fish to within 10 feet of the hole and then let it swim. Twice it came by the hole and I could see a dorsal fin that had to be 6 inches long. Nice fish! I carefully led the tiring lunker to the hole, reached down toward the fish’s gaping mouth to grab it behind the gills . . . and the hook pulled out! I all but dove into the hole to grab that fish and actually had my hand on it for a few seconds, but it was too fast, too big and too slippery . . . and just like that it was gone.
Forget about woodchucks and hopeful predictions of winter’s end. Go hunt or go fish, but do something outdoors this week. Fond memories await!
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