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Word is out that the trout and salmon are biting in some of our area lakes and ponds, good news for those who are tired of sitting indoors watching the thermometer make its way slowly into the minus numbers.
“Cold” is a relative term, and most Maine sportsmen ignore it. The know that with the proper clothing and precautions, you can be warm as toast on the ice and not even realize it’s cold enough to freeze a brass monkey, as the saying (partially) goes!
Believe it or not, you can dress up in basic wool from head to toe and be warm and comfortable all day. The trend now is away from the traditional green wool pants and plaid jackets that our grandfathers wore up till the late 1970s, when insulated clothing of all sorts became the rage. Now, it’s a rarity to see anyone outdoors in other than nylon, down or fleece clothing, but if that’s what it takes to get them out there, so be it.
Most winter fishermen combine snowmobile or 4-wheeler riding with their fishing, so they’ll wear a heavy-duty, one-piece insulated suit, warm gloves and boots, and a wool hat under their hoods and helmets. Riding in winter seems to double the true temperature – no doubt the “wind-chill effect” from speeding around in sub-zero weather – so it makes sense to cover every inch of skin you don’t want affected by frostbite!
If you don the right stuff and linger in the kitchen too long, you’ll know soon enough that it’s time to get outdoors! Winter clothing has its purpose, and it’s not huddling around the wood stove! Get outside before you start to sweat or you’ll be miserable, cold and wet, before you ever get to cut that first hole in the ice.
Oddly enough, the sensible thing to do once you arrive at the lake is remove a layer or two of heavy clothing! The reason is simple – for the next hour or so you’re going to be cutting, trimming and skimming holes in two feet or more of ice, and that is a lot of work. You do not want to work up a sweat, because when the work is over you’ll have several hours of down time to endure, and there’s nothing like that cold, clammy feeling you get from sweaty clothing that’s now slowly freezing. Not only does the cold transfer to your body, but also the hard, stiff fabric can give you a world-class abrasion, especially on your wrists, neck, thighs and knees. Back in my young and careless days, I’d come home literally rubbed bloody by frozen clothing, and it would take close to a week to recover. Believe me, once the numbness of being cold wears off, that stuff hurts!
If you’re of the old-fashioned type and like to walk onto the ice towing a sled filled with ice-fishing gear, be sure to doff a layer of outer clothing before you set out so you won’t be soaked with sweat when you get there. I enjoy walking on our frozen lakes, the squeak of the snow underfoot and the rumble of shifting ice echoing off the hillsides, but it’s work of a sort and you will begin to sweat if you overdo it. I force myself to take short breaks on the way out, maybe have a sip of tea or hot chocolate while I enjoy the winter scenery. I try not to rush through my arrival and preparation because it’s going to be an all-day outing and I want to enjoy every minute of it.
I sometimes use a power auger to cut my holes in the ice, but if the ice is less than a foot thick I like to bring my old chisel with me. Mine is a custom-made, taken-down unit put together by Everett Black of Milo back in the 1970s. It was basically three pieces of heavy pipe fitted with a “Don’t lose it!” cap and a chisel point made of an old leaf spring. The whole thing fits in my pack basket. Some 30 years later, Everett’s “spud” is still razor sharp and I use it no matter where I’m fishing. I think of old Everett every time I use it, and he’d be proud to know that the chunks of ice still fly!
Aside from dressing right, keeping warm and getting your holes cut, there’s not much more to the mystery of winter trout fishing other than dropping a night crawler or lively shiner anywhere from right under the ice (for salmon) to just off the bottom (for lake trout). You can experiment with different baits and depths until you find where the brook trout are spending their time, but once your bait is in place there’s nothing left to do but wait . . . and wait . . . and wait!
It’s important to keep your holes skimmed, and it pays to check baits every hour or so just to make sure they haven’t been stolen. Salmon hit like freight trains and usually leave a flag flying even if they took the bait without getting hooked. Lake trout are a little trickier: they’ll sneak up on a bait, glom down on it and just sit there, not tripping the flag and not moving, either. There have been may times when I starting packing up for the day and found a nice togue on the other end of the line – no flag, no bait, but a nice fish that was too lazy to swim away!
I know it seems to cold to be outdoors, or I could be home chipping ice off the roof, thawing frozen pipes or cursing the little cracks in the windows where frost forms as big as a baseball overnight, but what fun is that? I’d much rather take my seat on a bait bucket in the middle of the lake and use my prodigious psychic skills to lure a big, fat trout or salmon onto my hook. Sometimes it actually works!
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