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By now everyone’s close to recovered from the stresses of providing and participating in a merry Christmas, and that means it’s time to get back outdoors. I don’t need to see another fruitcake or coconut covered chocolate ball till next year!
This is the time of year to think about something to do that’s low key, relaxing and enjoyable. For most sportsmen, that means planning a day on the ice for some perch or pickerel fishing. This is a sport that takes place on the smaller lakes and ponds in our area, so safe ice is usually a certainty. Of course, you should never step onto any ice-covered water in Maine without first confirming that the ice is thick enough to hold you, your friends and your gear. The general rule is that any ice over 3 inches thick is safe for foot traffic, but keep in mind that ice does not form in a uniform, solid sheet. Wind, rain, snow, currents and air temperature all affect the formation of lake ice, and on many waters the ice may be 6 inches thick in one area and paper thin in another. Do not trust your own experience, local rumors or Lady Luck. We’re going to have some ice-related fatalities this season – don’t be one of them!
That said, wipe the sweat of panic off your brow and let’s go fishing! The beauty of early-winter ice-fishing is that you’re going to be targeting the most common and abundant species in Maine. Pickerel and perch are the most reliable first-trip targets. They’ll take any sort of shiner or minnow (meaning the cheaper baits) and your tackle can be anything from home-made to the best store-bought in town. For many years, I fished with a group of anglers in Milo who used LIttleway thread (the tough-as-nails cord used in shoemaking to stitch shoe soles together), a hook and, if money was no object, a bright-colored spinner about a foot above the hook. You could set up five sets of hook-and-line rigs for about $5 – a good deal in those days, when the minimum wage was below $2.50 an hour!
After cutting a hole in the ice with an axe or homemade spud, we’d set up for fishing. Instead of tip-ups, we’d simply stick the fat end of a spruce bough into the mound of ice chips around the hole, angle the line down the center of the hole and dribble a little water onto the pile to keep everything in place. Properly employed, a springy spruce or fir bough will let you know you’ve got a bite by bending sharply toward the hole or, in the wind; at least save you some work by jigging your shiner with every gust.
These days, the equipment is likely to be somewhat more up-to-date, but the strategy is the same. Find a quiet bay or weed bed, cut your holes and drop a lively, fresh bait to the bottom. Bring the minnow up another foot or two off the bottom, and then wait. You might have a bite before you turn around to set the next tip-up, or you might spend all day without a flag (as any Schoodic Lake Fishing Derby entrant can attest!). That’s the name of the game, however, and once you’re set up you can only hope that the fish will be in the mood to reward you.
What I enjoy about ice-fishing is sitting out there on a sunny winter day just soaking in the ambience of a Maine lake in winter. Sure, it’s cold out there, but all you have to do is dress for it – your first year in Maine is the training ground for that! Bring something to sit on (minimalists use a 5-gallon pickle pail to carry all their gear, and then use the bucket as a stool), a Thermos of coffee or hot chocolate, a few snacks, and maybe a bottle of water. I go out there for the peace and quiet, but some sportsmen bring cell phones, walkie-talkies, even portable TVs and other electronic gear to help them while away the hours.
Though there is some preparation involved in ice-fishing, once your “bucket” is set up with tip-ups, a spud, skimmer and other essentials, all it takes to enjoy a good morning or afternoon on the ice is to load the bucket into the vehicle, swing by the bait shop for some shiners, and head for the nearest lake. Everyone in Rolling Thunder Express country lives within minutes of some great early-season ice-fishing, and you should be on the ice and cutting holes within an hour of deciding to go. You can spend a few hours on the ice and be home by noon, or you can get your chores done early and spend the last hours of daylight on the ice. It’s great to see the sun come up (or go down) far out on the snow-covered horizon – it’s more relaxing than any TV show you could be watching today!
If you want to try some ice-fishing this season (don’t knock it till you have!), you’ll need some gear and a Maine fishing license. There are some rules to go along with all this fun and relaxation, but you’ll receive the latest regulations handbook when you purchase your license. Study the laws governing your water of choice (quite liberal for perch and pickerel anglers) and head for the ice.
If you want to know more about the winter fishing opportunities in Maine, buy a license or see the latest ice-condition reports, log onto the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife’s Website at http://www.state.me.us/ifw/.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to figure out where I put that old ice spud!
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