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It’s the end of February already, and folks are starting to talk about spring, even though it’s a tad premature for that. The possibility of more cold and snow is high at least into the end of next month, and many of us remember major snowfalls into April, so keep the lawn chairs packed up and keep your mittens hands – you’re probably going to need them!
This is the time of year for some serious winter fishing, and those who crave trout, salmon or togue will be out in force wherever there is safe ice available.
Many folks wonder about the sanity of those who venture onto a windswept lake in February in hopes of catching a few fish through a foot or two of ice – surely it’s got to be cold and miserable out there! Actually, ice-fishermen are well-equipped for their sport and thoroughly enjoy themselves. I’m trying to remember if and when there’s been an incident of anyone freezing “to death” on the ice but nothing comes to mind. As far as I know there’s been no record of such an occurrence – at least not of an angler freezing solid on his bucket while he waits for a fish to bite! There have been through-the-ice accidents and such (mostly vehicle-oriented) which can’t really be blamed on ice-fishing as much as poor judgment, so the “I’ll die if I do it” approach won’t work.
The best incentive for ice-fishing now is that you are able to go anywhere you want to go and you can fish as long as you like. In summer, crowded conditions often mean you have to fish where you don’t want to be, the wind will push you off your favorite spot and bad weather will force you off the water. In winter, you can stand on the ice wherever you choose, fish there as long as you like and not even a blizzard can drive you away. Conditions under the water are static in winter (from the fishes’) point of view, and they’ll just continue to swim around looking for food throughout the day, oblivious to whatever’s going on above the ice.
Truth be told, some great ice-fishing occurs during stormy winter weather. It’s not unusual to see all flags flying as the wind whips stinging snow crystals across the lake. It takes some fortitude to stay out there in a gale, but the time to be there is when the fish are cooperating, and most anglers will tough it out till the feeding frenzy is over.
All it takes is the proper clothing, and most modern-day snowmobile suits, winter boots and heavy gloves will protect you from the cold. The bare-bones approach includes a sled to haul your gear and the determination to go out there, but many fishermen utilize snowmobiles, ATVs, power augers and shelters of varying sophistication – anything from a shelter half to a fully-equipped shack with lights, heat, a TV and a cook stove! I have been in some shacks that were as comfortable as my own living room, and I have hunkered down under a makeshift windbreak – the fishing is always good, it’s just a matter of how much “outdoors” you want to endure!
This is “salmonid” time in Maine, and the focus is on trout, salmon and togue. You can cut a hole and set your baits (a 3-inch silver shiner will do) about a foot under the ice and hope to catch your limit of landlocks; or you can drop a big chunk of cut bait (sucker, shiner or even salt pork) to the bottom and expect to haul in a big lake trout or cusk by the end of the day.
Trout (brookies and rainbows) are a bit more indecisive about where they want to be and what baits they’ll take. When the law and conditions allow, set several baits out at varying depths and reserve one hole for jigging. The jigging hole should be set up with a miniature rod and reel that will allow you to jig a shiny gold or silver lure anywhere from just under the ice to just off the bottom. In some lakes, this means a spread of 100 feet or more, so plan to spend some time sitting on your bucket and probing the depths. You may find fish just under the ice or just off the gravel, but the best way to find them is to keep jigging, dropping the lure down another five feet or so and jigging some more. Spend at least five minutes at each depth, giving cruising fish time to find and respond to your lure. Remember, winter fish are lethargic and slow to make decisions, so be patient.
Salmon are usually enthusiastic about taking a bait, but trout can be slow at responding and togue may actually take a bait and just sit there, not even tripping a flag as they take and devour your bait.
So, between getting to a lake, cutting holes and setting up for the day, keeping the holes clear of ice and keeping baits fresh, there’s a lot to do out there. If you plan to spend a day jigging (always a good idea), you’ll be so busy you won’t even notice the cold. No matter how many times I go ice-fishing, I’m always surprised and even a little disappointed when the sun goes down and it’s time to quit for the day.
I may not catch a lot and I may come home cold and hungry, but at least I’m not sitting at home, grumpy and ill-willed like my less adventurous neighbors. Complaining about the cold and snow won’t make it go away. The best defense against the winter blues is to get out there and fight back. Most ice-fishermen leave the lake feeling pretty good about their day, laughing at all the fun stuff that went on and making big plans for next time. If anyone has come up with a better way to avoid cabin fever, I’d like to hear it!
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