Ice fishing in Maine can take several forms. For many it’s a social event. A time to gather together, drill a few holes, drink more than a few beers, chase flags, and bullshit. For others it’s an opportunity to poke and prod across the ice to find where the white perch are feeding and secure the fixings of a first-class fish fry. Then there’s an emerging trend in the Northland where the dedicated and obsessed pound bottom with suckers as large as a keeper-brookie looking to battle a trophy Northern Pike hand (line) to lip*. For me, at one point or another, it’s been all of these things but more often than not it’s my opportunity to relax, enjoy the peacefulness of a remote trout pond, and get lost in a sedentary activity and the inner reflection that comes with the sometimes long periods of waiting.
My fall hunting season is the antithesis of the ice fishing experience. I chase bird dogs through the grouse woods all over the state burning more boot leather, tire-rubber, and fuel than I care to admit. From the start of October until the point where the snow is too deep for the dogs to run, I have nothing but feathers on the brain. When the calendar flips I’m usually worn out and ready for a change of pace.
When it comes to ice fishing I’ve been accused of being a snob or even a species-ist. When I see a flag I like knowing that more likely than not there is a salmonid of some sort on the running end of my line. Scores have been written on the big runs a landlocked salmon will make when it takes a smelt or the quality of table-fare produced by a fresh eastern brook trout, so I don’t think I need to explain myself here. The fact is, the real allure in chasing these species is the fisheries that produce them. These are typically wild and secluded places that are only found at the end of the hard-to-get-to reaches of the State. So if anything, I’m a location-ist but not without good reason.
There is no place that I know of that’s more peaceful than a pristine remote pond in Northern Maine during the winter. At most you’ll hear the distant whine of the snowmobiles on the nearest ITS trail (personally I pretend these are chainsaws making the next great patch of bird cover). I search for these places to experience that level of solitude. Once I finish making my own racket of drilling holes, setting my five traps, and getting the Jetboil warmed up with a pot coffee, it all begins. The first hour or so is filled with anticipation. Trap to trap to trap I scan. In my head over and over again I count: “1, 2, 3, 4, 5. 5 in 5 down. 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. 5 in 5 down”. On days when the fishing is slow the anticipation fades and my compulsive counting becomes less frequent. I’ll lounge back in my chair and get my feet up off the ice (strictly to prevent them from getting too cold, I swear….).
There is no place that I know of that’s more peaceful than a pristine remote pond in Northern Maine during the winter.
I start scanning the shorelines whether it’s a familiar place or a new pond I’m fishing for the first time. Where’s the structure and the key features I look for come ice-out? Bedrock outcrops that dive into the waterline, dead fall and overhanging trees that will provide shade, points and peninsulas, inside turns along the banks, where are the inlets and outlets? “1, 2, 3, 4, 5. 5 in 5 down”. As time ticks away my thoughts drift away to the past. Reflections of the fall season take up a fair bit of the synapses while out on the hardwater. How’d the dogs run this year? Take off the rose-colored glasses and identify how we need to improve. Josey is already slowing down at 6yrs old, pick better covers for her and keep her loops short. Knox is covering ground and identifying objectives that are likely to hold birds but he’s leaving pockets of ground uncovered, and for fuck’s sake that boy can be rough with dead birds when he’s excited. What do you expect? He’s still a puppy we’ll get through it. “5, 4, 3, 2, 1. 5 in 5 down”.
I think a lot about my young family and the two boys who aren’t yet old enough to tag along. My wife was blessed with the teacher-gene but I most definitely was not. How do I expose them to the outdoors without trying to shove it down their throat? Can I be patient enough to show them the Hows and Whys of hunting and fishing? They’re both shaping up to be a lot like me. I’m fucking screwed. Has anyone written a book on this shit? “1, 2, 3, 4, 5. 5 in 5 down. Alright, let’s shake ‘em up”.
Checking bait and skimming ice starting to form in the holes takes me out of my thoughts for a short while. I don’t buy smelts to take them home but a dozen won’t last me long when things heat up. My standard for bait-liveliness drops with each trap I check.
Time to double check the rulebook I keep stashed in my pack basket. Sometimes it feels like you need a degree in English common law to navigate the fishing rules but I know this place isn’t “CI”. I wish they’d go back to organizing by county. General Law, I’m all set. “5, 4, 3, 2, 1. 5 in 5 down”.
Reading on the ice, especially Jack London’s Yukon short stories, is always a favorite. To Build A Fire resonates a bit deeper when you’re actually out in the cold. I wouldn’t be out here if there was “107 degrees of frost” but 20 degrees F has me closer than most of the intended audience. “1, 2, 3, 4, 5. 5 in 5 down”. Eventually my frontal lobes are fully purged and the active thinking and the need to do something just fades away; hardwater meditation. The deep quiet on the ice paired with the waiting somehow has me in a purgatory between my own thoughts and constantly analyzing my surroundings. It’s at this point I truly relax. There is no such thing as a distraction. Each observation or flash of movement is welcomed but I’m not doing anything that can really be interrupted. “5, 4, 3, 2, 1. 5 in 5 down”.
I’m well beyond the point of anticipating a bite. This is what I was out here to find. A few short hours without obligations, commitments, emails, chores, responsibilities, or noise. There is nothing to keep me from myself. From letting thoughts surface to consciousness to either be worked out internally or bottled back up only deeper this time. “1, 2, 3, 4, 5. 5 in 5 down”.
I’m completely sedentary but “actively” doing something all at the same time and it feels great. There’s no guilt in taking a break. The break is the activity and there’s no shame in that. “5, 4, 3, 2, 1. 5 in 5 down”.
The solitude is fully set in when the silence is broken by a sprung flag. #3, it’s always #3. Grabbing for my spoon it’s a dead sprint to the hot hole. The hole has barely started to skim over. Through the ice I can see a spinning reel. Fish on. I bet it’s a salmonid.