Yup that’s right, if you’re reading this hot off the press December is here. If you haven’t filled your buck tag in Maine yet don’t fret. You still have up to two weeks of black powder. Hopefully the snow gods have shined on you and you can track one down and get that meat for the iceshack.
I said ice shack. For the people from away, one of our great traditions in Maine is venturing out on a frozen pond, drilling some holes with some sort of tool, catching fish, or not catching fish, and most importantly not freezing. Increasingly I see less and less people taking part in the joys of avoiding hypothermia and death. For the life of me I can’t figure out why. What could be more fun than getting up early on a booger freezing morning, driving with your buddy and a trailer full of gear, trying to get some two stroke engine to turn over, and freezing your appendages until purple. Then waiting eight hours for a fish only to learn fish don’t like the cold. Then you repeat that process in reverse to pick up all your gear and drive home.
Sounds like a real blast right? Trust me it is. I’ll tell you how to make it enjoyable for even the most ardent hater of cold.
Don’t go on miserable days. Some people are die hard and go no matter what the weather. Don’t be that guy. If the winds blowing a gale and it’s snowing so hard that you can’t see 10 feet stay home, have a hot toddy and wait for a better day. There’s no need to practice being miserable, when the time comes misery comes naturally.
Plan to go on a good day. “Good day” is a relative term during a Maine winter. Pick a day with no or light snow, light wind, and maybe even a little sunshine. We can get our weather two weeks in advance online. The internet is actually a pretty powerful tool in trip planning… who knew? I thought it was for political rants and looking up your old high school girlfriend.
Make sure the ice is safe. This goes without saying… on second thought no it doesn’t. Every year I see some absolute crazy stuff on the ice. Guys venturing out with their entire family on 3 inches of new ice. Folks drinking Budweiser breakfasts and driving half ton fishing lures disguised as pick-up trucks near inlets and outlets. Don’t be a dub, know the conditions and your capabilities. If you don’t know how to read the conditions, and that’s the only thing holding you back, hire a guide for the day. You’ll learn enough to get out on your own.
Have the right gear. It doesn’t take much, some traps, some bait, an implement to get a hole in the ice, a way to get warm, and some food and entertainment. You can get traps real cheap at yard sales. The local big box stores have some that are pretty inexpensive. For bait, go to your local bait and tackle with a five-gallon bucket. Get a few dozen shiners and you are ready to go. As far as getting a hole in the ice. In the early season a chisel works fine, an axe does the job, and in a pinch I have been known to use a chainsaw to cut me a square hole in the ice. If you really want to you can spend the money to get a power auger that runs on gas, propane, or even electric battery. I don’t recommend that until you’re sure that ice fishing is your thing. Here’s a little tip. When I was younger and didn’t have a lot of money to throw around I would just ask someone out fishing if I could trade them a few beers for them to come over to drill me a few holes. Amazingly people icefishing like beer. Imagine my surprise.
Now the most important part, food warmth, and entertainment. One of my favorite ways to keep warm is to have a fire. I bring a little half barrel and collect up a bunch of dead wood and touch her off. Don’t worry the ice won’t melt that much. I bring some skates for the kids, hockey sticks, and hotdogs to cook on a stick and that’s living. Just make sure you clean up your mess.
You can get elaborate and build yourself an iceshack, or buy a portable one. I’ve moved away from the permanent stick built shacks and have gotten myself a portable. I’m nothing short of comfortable when I take trips. I’ll take the time to breakout exactly how I set up my shack. I’m doing this because I’ve yet to see a better portable set up.
My shack is 8 foot by 8 foot and quilted for good insulation. It all fits in a bag I can carry on my shoulder. I first shovel all the snow out to the bare ice. And then lay a tarp down. If there is too much snow I pack the snow down with either my snow shoes or my snowmobile. Insider tip; when there’s a lot of snow on the ice that’s a lot of weight. When you pop a hole in the ice that down pressure from the weight pushes water up through the ice. If you shovel clear spot for your shack on 18 inches of snow you’ll get about 6 inches of water in that spot when you pop your hole nearby, isn’t science fun? Back on topic. I lay a tarp down and then I piece together my floor. I use snap together foam flooring from Lowes it serves as excellent insulation. I then set my shack on top. I anchor all my corners and my tie outs. The last thing you want is a big blow coming down the lake and your shack is blown away and you’re chasing it down the lake like a dog chasing a car. The ice anchors can be hard. I bring a small cordless drill to start my holes, makes life a lot easier. I can have this thing set up in about 10 minutes. For heat I bring a full 20-gallon propane tank and a propane heater with a low CO2 safety shut off. I make sure that the heater is elevated off the ground that keeps the ice from melting. I also bring a two burner propane stove for cooking. In a Rubbermaid tote I carry a cribbage board, books, and other games, the tote doubles as a table. I use those bag chairs that everyone has laying around. I keep the temperature at about 70 degrees inside. A few times a year when I make long trips I spend the night on a cot in the shack, it can sleep two comfortably and three if needed. It’s an eerie feeling the ice settle around you.
Finally, the food. Deer steak is the choice of food so get out there and fill your tag. In the event that you don’t get your deer there are other options. I make sausage, eggs, and homefries for breakfast. I usually do red hotdogs and chips for lunch, and in the event that I’m staying the night I do some sort of chili, or stew for dinner. They sky is the limit. The key is to prep everything before you leave so all you have to do it mix and cook.
There is really no need to sit inside to be miserable during the winter. Icefishing is an excellent way to experience a Maine winter and all it has to offer. It comes with excitement and anticipation of what is on the other end of the line. Plus, you really get to learn a lot about the people you’re with when you’re trapped on a frozen lake in zero degrees in an 8’x8’ tent. If all that is holding you back is the unknown, hire a guide, they are there to ease your concern, make your trip safe, and make it memorable.
Now go fill that tag, the freezer is getting empty.