Having grown up on a lake in a town full of lakes, ice fishing was just another thing we did as kids in the winter time. It was really no different than building a fort in the snow piles left by the town plow or sledding on any of the hills in the neighborhood. If it was winter time and you felt like fishing, you fished. Of course, in those early years when I was old enough to go fishing on my own or with friends, but still too young to have a car, snow sled, ice auger or any of the other conveniences I have now, every aspect of ice fishing was work – we just didn’t think much of the extra work at the time.
If I hadn’t planned ahead (who plans ahead when you’re a kid?) I’d grab my bucket in the morning and walk up to the bait shop on Lee Street to get a dozen shiners. The shop was an enclosed porch with pre-bagged shiners, each bag floating in a large tank of water- $2.00 per dozen. You could pick the bag you wanted, then drop your money through the slot in the door. I remember always being a bit creeped out when I dropped the money through the slot – the owner had a pair of sunglasses affixed over the slot along with a bold-printed sign “We Have Our Eyes on You!” to dissuade anyone from skipping out without paying. I’m not sure how effective the glasses and sign were, but I know I was always extra careful to double count my money before I dropped it in that slot!
In the early years, we only had an ice chisel, so it was much easier to fish in December when the ice was still relatively thin than later in the winter when chiseling through several feet of ice was much more difficult. But even when the ice got thick, I went fishing; it just required more work to get five holes through the ice. Everyone develops their own habits for doing things – my habit was always to chisel a hole, clean it out, then set a trap, rather than chisel all my holes first. Given how much time it took to chisel a hole when the ice was thick, I figured it just made sense to fish while I was chiseling.
My first set of fish traps were the old wooden, two-piece flip ups. The base was a wooden slat with two nails on the side to hold line, and a slot cut in the top with a nail through it as a pivot point for the “flag” portion of the trap. The flag piece was simply another wooden slat with a groove along the belly. On one end, a piece of red felt served as the flag; the other end had a nail protruding from it. To set the trap, I would pile up snow into a little hill beside the hole, then stick the base into the snow, leaning a little bit over the hole.
I would unwind line from the nail “reel”, hook a minnow just behind the dorsal fin, then lower the hook and minnow into the hole. How much line I put out depended on where I was fishing and what kind of fish I was hoping to catch – a foot or so off the bottom for pickerel, several feet off the bottom for perch, and just below the ice for trout or salmon. Once I determined the depth, I would tie a small loop in the line, then, after balancing the groove of the “flag” slat on the nail on the base slat, would hook the little loop on the nail protruding from the end.
Of course, on cold days the line suspended from the old two-piece traps would always freeze in the hole, so it required near constant checking to keep the lines free. Often, on those bitter, windy days in mid-winter, the lines would freeze in enough that fish could tug the bait off the hook and the tip up wouldn’t even jiggle, let alone flip up to signal a fish, so it made sense to keep cleaning the skim of ice out of the hole and check the bait often.
Since I liked to fish, just about every Christmas I got new things to make it more enjoyable. I got a nice ash pack basket when I was 12, along with a couple of new traps that had a plastic spool for line and a spring steel flag that was much more reliable for detecting a fish. I got an aluminum double walled bait pail, a nice long handled skimmer with a mini chisel built into the handle, and at some point, Bill got a Jiffy ice auger that I learned to use (and borrow!) as soon as I was big enough to start it on my own.
My dad built a hand sled for me that had steel runners and an enclosed box that was big enough to fit all my gear, either inside the box or strapped to the top and often times my friends and I would drag that sled up the Mattanawcook to fish by Weatherbee Island, or perhaps when we were really ambitious we would walk up the lake and cross the thoroughfare to fish in the narrows between Folsom and Crooked Pond. We would almost always build a fire on the shore to stay warm and would cook hotdogs on sticks at lunch time.
I fished a lot as a kid and didn’t slow down that much as I got older. Even when I got more and more invested in my track career in high school and college, if I wasn’t at practice or at a track meet, I was on the ice. When Chris and I started going out in college, she and I fished all over the lakes near the University of Maine. Chemo Pond, Pushaw Lake, Mud Pond, Green Lake, Brewer Lake, Hermon Pond, Pleasant Lake, we fished them all, caught lots of fish, and had lots of fun. No matter how cold it got, we always seemed to catch fish, always had fun, and found things to laugh about. But we always had the most fun when we would find time to head home to Lincoln and spend a day fishing with my family. About the only thing that changed over the years was the quantity of gear and quality of food we took onto the ice.
One year during Christmas break, we planned to make a trip to Lincoln to go fishing for perch on Long Pond with Bill, my mother, and my little brother. The day we planned to go was clear but cold. I asked Bill if we should take his new pop-up ice shack. The ice shack had a folding 4x8 foot plywood floor, aluminum poles, and a black fabric tent with a clear window on each end. When set up, the shack was about six feet high and the sun would warm it up inside, and if it was cold, like today, turning on the propane heater kept it warm and toasty. Since we would be walking from the boat landing to the spot we wanted to fish, Bill was concerned that the ice shack was too heavy to bring along. I told him I would happily drag it on my sled, so we threw it in the truck at the last minute and headed to North Lincoln.
It had been an unusual winter that year. In the first part of the new year, there was still very little snow on the ground so the walk from the boat landing to the lake was easier than normal since there were no snow drifts to clamber through to get to the lake. It was even fairly easy walking on the lake – what little snow had fallen on the lake had blown into shallow, sporadic drifts and we could walk with our boots on hard packed snow from drift to drift while dragging the sled on the glare ice right beside us.
It was less than half a mile east to the spot where the lake began to narrow where we had fished before with good luck, and as soon as we got to a good-looking spot, I fired up the auger and started drilling holes. Chris, Bill and my mother were setting traps right behind me as I went, and even before Bill took over the auger so I could set my own traps they had several flags and a few fish on the ice.
As is often the case when fishing for perch, we had a stretch of near constant action and were busy running from flag to flag, often having four of five flags up at the same time early in the morning. But by mid-morning the action stopped and as soon as we stopped running around, we started to get chilly from the wind.
Chris and I set up the ice shack, and Bill fired up the heater. In no time, we were all huddled inside to get out of the wind that was starting to pick up. It was a tight fit in the shack with all five of us, but it certainly was warm! My mother had made corn chowder for lunch and asked Bill to set up the Coleman stove so she could heat it up. Of course, in such close quarters, there was no room to set up the little folding table for the stove if we were all inside, so Chris and I took Billy out to check the traps while Bill got things organized.
I had brought my skates along, so decided with the lull in fishing action would do a little skating before having lunch. I took turns pulling Billy and Chris in the sled as I skated down the long narrow stretch of lake and would spin and whip the sled around before heading back toward the ice shack. It was perfect for skating in that stretch – the ice was smooth and clear with only small patches of snow that were easy to avoid. But I did notice it was easier skating away from the shack than back toward it. The wind had picked up heading into the narrows.
As I got the sled with Billy back to the traps, I saw that Chris and Bill were both hustling for flags. I skated up to Chris just as she was pulling an empty hook onto the ice – no bait. I turned to get the bait bucket that was next to the shack just in time to see a gust of wind billow against the sides of the shack, then watched as the plywood bottom slide a few feet to the left. It stopped half on and half off the snow drift we had set it up on. I then felt, saw and heard three things simultaneously.
I felt the next gust hit me at the same time I saw it hit the side of the shack and watched the bottom slide the last few feet off the snow to once again stop, this time sitting on glare ice. And I heard my mother’s voice from inside the shack, some forty feet from me, as she cried “Help!” in a plaintive wail as she felt the shack shift beneath her feet.
Before I could fully comprehend what was happening another wind gust hit the shack and this time, unencumbered by any snow, the shack started sliding along the ice, picking up speed as the fabric billowed inward to form a perfect sail. I yelled for Bill and Chris, then took off after the shack.
I grew up on skates, kept a rink cleared of snow all winter long, every winter I lived with my mother, and could absolutely fly when I got going. I needed every bit of that speed now as I tore after the shack. I could hear Chris and Bill yelling behind me, but their yells were faint compared to the sound of my mother yelling for me to catch her. “Daaannnnnyyyyyyy!!!” I’m not sure how far I chased the shack, two hundred yards at least, maybe more. And I never would have caught it until it crashed into the shore on the east end of the lake over a mile away if the wind hadn’t died when it did. As it was, the shack slowed enough for me to catch up and as I approached it, my mother unzipped the door and poked her head out – wide eyed but laughing.
“Are you all right?” I asked.
“Yes, but I almost spilled the chowder!”
I dragged the shack back to the traps, and Bill drilled an anchor hole on either side to tie it down with big metal hooks that we had been too busy to remember earlier. Once we got it secured, we sat back down and had lunch, and laughed and laughed and laughed about how mom can keep the chowder cooking even as she is wind sailing down Long Pond.