|It may be hard to believe that winter is almost over (well, almost but not quite), but the signs are there and they are encouraging to those who have had enough of the cold, wind, snow and ice that has plagued us since last fall. I have heard the common refrain ‘Winter’s almost over” for weeks now, as if the Feb. 2 prediction of Punxatawney Phil for six more weeks of winter were ignored. He was right, at least from the looks of things!
It may also be hard to believe that there is some good hunting and fishing to be had while we wait for winter to wane. It is still open season on snowshoe rabbits, our ubiquitous small-game target that seems to survive and thrive despite being the No. 1 food source for predators of all sorts, including humans with beagles, shotguns and snowshoes of their own!
Also, it is still legal to ply the frozen waters of Maine’s lakes and ponds till the end of the month. This is risky business to be sure because in fact winter IS almost over and the ice is not particularly thick, safe or trustworthy in many areas. I’d suggest contacting the local game warden before venturing onto any lake or pond at this end of the season. A good indication of the ice-fishing potential on any given water is the existence (or absence) of other anglers. If you don’t see anyone out there, can find no vehicle tracks or snowmobile trails leading onto the ice, and there have been no holes cut in the ice in recent days, odds are that the locals know the ice isn’t safe and you’d better find some other place to go.
When the ice goes out, it goes gradually, in waves. There may be open water everywhere, or there may be layers of ice, slush and water two or three feet down. I have been on the ice in late March and had the supreme pleasure of falling through an apparently “safe” top layer to my waist, thankfully finding more hard ice some three feet below. The layer of ice-cold slush between didn’t support much weight, and it was cold enough to turn my legs blue in about 10 seconds. The bad news at the time was that I had delayed bringing my ice-fishing shack off the ice till the last minute (as did dozens of other anglers), and I was required by law (and conscience) to get it off the ice or pay a hefty fine for littering!
I did manage to get the shack off the lake and onto shore, but it took four men, 200 feet of rope, three snowmobiles and a lot of choice language. We’d done such a good job of installing the shack (using 3-foot deadmen of spruce pulpwood and heavy naval rope for our anchors) that we could not get it out! We ended up cutting around the deadmen with a chainsaw (a fine mess in waist-deep slush) and then constructing a sled of plywood and poles to skid the shack off the ice using the snowmobiles and every inch of that rope.
I think the project took us three full days and there was no time for fishing, either!
The amusing part of all this is that we had planned to get the shack off the ice a month earlier, but the fishing was good and we kept procrastinating. By the end of February we knew we’d missed the boat, and by mid-March we were lucky to have gotten the job done at all.
A better way to spend the final days of March would be to head into the woods and find a rabbit or two for the Saturday bean supper. It’s going to be wet in the woods as long as the snow cover remains, so plan on that. Most folks don’t know it but that nice, dense layer of snow that lingers out there is not really all it seems. In truth, it’s a dirty, grainy crust over a foot or more of standing water. The snow is on top and melts slowly, but the ground is still frozen, so the water has nowhere to go. So, as you’re walking (or running) through the woods in an attempt to find a bunny for the pot, you can expect to fall through to the waist several times a day. It’s an aggravating, difficult and trying way to travel in the woods, but it’s the price you’ll pay for your dinner. You can try snowshoes or even skis, but the trouble is that the snow cover is erratic, variable and unpredictable. Some hunters use 4-wheelers to get in and out of the woods, but at some point you’re going to have to do some walking or stalking, and that means you’ll be putting a lot of boot-sized holes in the snow. I remember many a season’s-end trip where I’d come home worn and tired with a couple of rabbits in hand and my shins worn raw from crashing through the crusty snow all day. It took me a week or more to recover from my wounds, but those rabbits tasted mighty good simmered all day in a crock of home-made baked beans.
The end of March means winter is coming to an end, but till it’s truly over, make the most of the time you have left. Soon it will be spring and then summer, and I know more than one avid Maine sportsman who finds himself wistfully wishing for cooler weather and a chance to get those snowshoes on again during the heat of a July afternoon.
It’s never good to rush through our time on earth (we don’t get much of it as it is) but there are only two weeks of good sport waiting for you out there. Dress for the occasion and make the most of your opportunities as another hunting and ice-fishing season ends. Be sure you check for safe ice, and wear the proper outfit. It’s going to be wet and cold out there, but there is plenty of good fun to be had as March fades in to April. Lion or lamb, you can find something good to do outdoors this week. Find the time and make something happen!