|Were at that time of year again when were forced to choose between being legal and being sensible (not always easy if youre an outdoorsman!). Of course, following the law is simple enough, but the law tells us it is legal to fish through the ice until March 31st, giving us at least two more weeks of ice-fishing opportunities until we have to trade the power auger for hip boots.
The problem is that even though the law makes it legal to go ice-fishing, it may not always be sensible to go out there and do it. Every year, people are injured or killed when they tempt the limits of common sense and make a run across an apparently frozen lake in a snowmobile or ATV. Its cant be good to feel the ice give way beneath you when youre well out on the lake over deep water, and it cant be good to know that, even if you survive and recover your expensive ride, youre still going to have some serious explaining to do when the game wardens come looking for you.
This is the time of year when it is imperative that anyone who plans to ride any sort of recreational vehicle across a Maine lake or pond contact the local game warden or county sheriff and ask if it is safe to do so. There is a well-oiled network of people watching ice conditions throughout Maine, and the warnings go out at the first sign of danger. Conditions can change from day to day or even from morning till afternoon, especially when things start to warm up toward the end of this month. Its most sensible to call ahead and find out what the situation is rather than just head for the hills and take your chances.
Ive had a few near-death experiences on the ice, mostly related to ice-fishing. In every case it was my insistence on going out to fish, visit other people far down the lake or, a couple of times, trying to get a shack off the ice at the end of the season. While it is technically legal to fish from a shack on the last day of the season, it is more sensible to get the shack off the ice much earlier than that. In fact, you have till April 10th to get your stuff off the ice, but that is really stretching it, and in fact if you wait too long and cant get your shack to shore, you risk paying a major fine for the violation.
I did most of my shack fishing on Schoodic Lake in Brownville, and at least twice I ended up out there in late March having to spend a couple of uncomfortable, harrowing hours shoving a heavy, unwieldy homemade shack back to the landing in knee-deep (and cold!) slush. There was a layer of solid ice below, luckily, but there were also many holes made by winter fishermen, and these were about a foot wide and straight through the ice, so that whenever I fell into one (about every other step, or so it seemed), it felt as if I were going right to the bottom in 90 feet of water! Of course, Id only go as far as my leg would allow, but that meant Id be nearly to my shoulders in cold slush not the best way to spend a brisk March afternoon!
Every year Id vow to get my shack off the ice by March 15th, but of course some of the best fishing comes late in the year, so I would procrastinate until it was too late and end up having to pay the price for my malingering. If there was a saving grace at all, it would be watching the guys whod put their shacks a mile or more out on the ice struggle in with their loads. I remember seeing one group whose snowmobile got stuck pulling the shack to shore, so they hooked up a Jeep to tow it that also got stuck, and when I left they were going out with a larger truck in hopes of towing the whole mess back to the landing. Of course, all this was going on with slush slopping around up to the rocker panels, and theres not much traction to be had on slush-covered black ice! This meant putting the chains on, no mean feat when kneeling in ice-cold slurry the consistency of a margarita.
A couple of times I decided that Id outsmart the elements and build a pre-fab shack I could dismantle and carry off the ice one piece at a time, but I would always end up with one corner frozen into the lake or so rimed with frost that I couldnt get a wrench on the bolts, so Id have to chop the thing up with an axe and take it out splinter by splinter.
One year, a friend and I built a frame for an old tent we had and thought it a nifty windbreak for most of the season, but we didnt anchor it well and those warm breezes of March are actually quite stiff when they have 10 miles of open lake ahead of them, and that shack ended up somewhere down by the sawdust pile we never found it, though we did try!
All of this sounds rather humorous 20 or more years later, but Im willing to bet that someone in our area is going to suffer an ice-related tragedy before winter is over, or someone is going to lose a snowmobile or ATV (perhaps even a late-season ice-fishing shack) because they didnt take the time to monitor ice conditions before heading out for the day.
The best thing to do now is keep in close contact with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife via its Internet Web site (http://www.state.me.us/ifw/index.html), where youll find all sorts of information related to ice-fishing, snowmobile and ATV safety and related issues. There is much to do outdoors and there is no reason to fear doing it, but you should be aware of the risks and find a way to do it all safely.
Im sure the states recreational safety statistics will change in the next few weeks, and we would all hate to see your name show up on the new list. Be safe and dont take any unnecessary risks!