I just finished setting up my 17 bait sites for this years bear season. No big deal, just hard work. I started on Saturday at about 5AM and finished around 8PM, a long satisfying day. My day ended with me tired, dirty, and covered with what seemed like 1000 deer fly bites. I sat on my tailgate in the dark. I was miles from the nearest asphalt road. I was enjoying what seemed like the coldest water I had tasted in a long time. You know what I’m talking about? The kind of cold water that is so cold it hurts your teeth, but so good on a hot day of physical labor you can’t stop drinking it. I breathed in the warm summer air that always carries the hint of pine you never seem to notice. I watched the fireflies come out and brighten the dark tote road I was about to drive down. I heard the signature song of the owl as he began for his evening hunt. I was alive.
That is why it’s imperative that we all take to the woods. We’re over stimulated to the point that we can’t enjoy the pine in the air, the cold in the water, the shine in the firefly, and the mourn in the owls song. We must remove ourselves from the over stimulation of our lives to realize that the simple things are best. I encourage everyone to try it. Just watch out for the deer flies.
Don’t know where to start, hire a guide. Maine’s Registered Maine Guides are the gold standard, we will make your adventure safe and enjoyable.
In my adult life I have referred to Rudyard Kipling’s “If “when in times of trouble. It reminded me of who I am, what is expected of me as a man, and as an American. I hope it does the same for you.
If you can keep your head when all about you Are losing theirs and blaming it on you, If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you, But make allowance for their doubting too; If you can wait and not be tired by waiting, Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,Or being hated, don’t give way to hating, And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise: If you can dream—and not make dreams your master; If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim; If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster And treat those two impostors just the same; If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken, And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools: If you can make one heap of all your winnings And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,And lose, and start again at your beginnings And never breathe a word about your loss;If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew To serve your turn long after they are gone, And so hold on when there is nothing in you Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’ If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue, Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you, If all men count with you, but none too much;If you can fill the unforgiving minute With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run, Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it, And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!
The 2019 Hunting Season was a different one. We were hunting a different area of Maine at the new camp. The new camp lies in Eastern Maine, half way between Bangor and Calais. All summer long the camp neighbors I encountered would say things like, “there’s no deer here,” or, “coyotes kill all the deer, nobody sees deer anymore.” After weeks of scouting, camera checking, map looking, and generally obsessing over the season we were in it, and we couldn’t find the bucks. We found does, young bucks, bears, more bears, more bears and a few moose. I was starting to believe the neighbors were right.
Week three came and the usual suspects arrived at camp. My dad, my uncle, two of my brothers, and three great friends of mine. We always hunt week three and we almost always manage at least one good buck. During week three I’d estimate I walked over 100 miles on limited snow and frozen leaves. I managed to see over two dozen does, six in one day, and two bucks. One crotch horn and what I think was one mature buck but he was faster than me. Only one other buck was spotted. Maybe the neighbors were right? What I did see was an ungodly amount of buck sign. Rubs, scrapes, and big tracks of bucks roaming huge distances. I was still optimistic.
Towards the end of week three we were all sitting around the table having our nightly game of poker; five dollar buy in winner take all. The conversation came to what song do we listen to in our head while we’re in the woods. There were some great ones. Guns and Roses Paradise City, Merle Haggard’s Mama Tried, David Allan Coe with Mona Lisa Lost Her Smile. I sat quietly at the end of the table. Someone finally asked me. I was a bit embarrassed to say the song I sing in my head is, “Fancy” by the great Reba McEntire. They gave me the business as would be expected when a group of dudes are multiple cocktails deep and no women are around to be the voice of reason.
I had to go on and explain why. I try to be nothing but a tracker. I track on dry frozen leaves, wet leaves, crunchy snow, day old snow, and of course fresh powder. So when I cut what I think is a fresh big buck track I think to myself, here’s your once chance. Which turns into here’s your one chance Fancy, and away we go. I went even further to explain that it is my belief that during a Maine deer season you only get one chance to have everything line up, fresh good snow ending in the morning, fresh legs on the hunter, and a big track made after the snow ended. Everyone had a big laugh. I had the last laugh, I took all their money and sent them to bed with empty pockets.
Week four came and I was alone on Wednesday, the leaves were frozen and I was frustrated. I was cruising a hardwood funnel between two ridges. When I do this I carry a stick. I use the stick as a walking stick and move along at about five steps using a normal pace and then I stop. Like a deer moving through the woods. The walking stick breaks up the sound of the two step human predator. I don’t try to sneak along I move at a normal pace. When I stop I use my boot to imitate pawing at the ground, like a deer feeding. Then I stand and listen. You can get really close to deer doing this on loud days. During one of my stops I heard a deer come down one of the ridges. It was another smaller buck, a crotch horn. I almost filled my tag with him but snow was forecasted for overnight and I let him walk.
My brother Billy and his family arrived Wednesday night. Billy is my best hunting partner. I’ve written about it before. We understand what the other is doing and work well together. We also have no fear of the woods and getting a deer out from way back. First thing out of his mouth was, “we saw a monster crossing the road not far from here.” First thing I said was, “we’ll get him tomorrow on snow.”
Thanksgiving morning arrived. I woke to my 4:00AM alarm excited to see snow. I stepped outside only to see driving rain. I went back to bed pissed off at the whole entire world. At 5:00AM my brother woke me up saying it was snowing like a bastard. Now we’re in business. A quick breakfast, and out we went in our wool pants and jackets. When the snow is driving like it was and the wind is howling I’ve learned that things aren’t moving. You can walk yourself into the ground and never cut a track. What we do is drive. We drive a big loop of about 20 miles. We analyze every track we see, make sure we step on it and continue. If after the first loop we cut a track we didn’t step on before we know it’s fresh. It works awesome and has led to many deer ending up on the game pole. Not this day. We drove until 11AM and no tracks were worth following. Billy had to go put the turkey on the smoker. The weather App had the snow ending in an hour. I decided to make a large swing around where the buck was spotted last night and see if he was moving after the storm let up.
After a two mile walk in I turned south and went 100 yards and there they were. Beautiful tracks, 10+ inches spread between the left foot and right foot indicating a wide chest, and not a flake of snow in them! The snow ended 30 minutes before. This deer was only twenty minutes in front of me. Here’s Your One Chance Fancy.
I took a quick compass reading and off I went. The buck was in the hardwoods with winter beech. The entire forest was laden with snow. The only opening was where he went and knocked the snow off. I was covered with snow within 100 feet. I struggled to keep my sights clear, I didn’t bother with my scope. After about 200 yards he stopped to eat some beechnuts and I saw his points in the snow confirming I was on a buck. After another 30 feet he stopped to eat some old mans beard off a fallen tree. Old mans beard is a lichen, I read somewhere it helps them digest, this is where I screwed up. When they eat old mans beard they tend to lay down and sleep/chew their cud. I should have really slowed down and tried to find him bedded. I stayed on his tracks only to see him looking at me from about 15 feet away. He had just walked and layed down, no circle up hill, no back track. He just plopped down in his travels. I came up quick with the carbine but everything was covered in snow, and he was gone. I swore enough to fill three swear jars and sat down on a stump. This is key. When you miss an opportunity analyze what you did wrong and what you learned. I missed the old mans beard, I didn’t keep my scope or underneath irons clean. What did I learn from him. He wasn’t ranging like the other bucks I’d followed. He was tired because he didn’t circle up to watch his back track. I predicted he’d only take those 20 foot bounds for a 200 yards and then walk. If he did that I’d catch him. I ate some brownies, had some water and waited 20 minutes. I always wait at least 20 minutes after I jump one. They tend to forget you’re there and go on about their business. Just as I’d hoped he ran 150 yards, trotted another 100 and then walked. In a fairly straight line. After about a mile he stopped again and pawed for acorns. Not this time buddy.
I went into stealth mode. One step, squat down. Look. Listen. I did this for another 100 yards. He went to another down tree and ate old mans beard. He has to be here. I peaked over a bush to see more ground pawed for acorns and just beyond that there he was laying flat out on the ground twenty feet away. In less than a second I had these thoughts, he’s dead, he’s asleep, can I shoot a sleeping buck? Where am I in the woods? Is this the right deer? Just then he picked his head up, I saw his rack, he sprang from his bed and I shot him all at the same time. He went down in a heap from a neck shot.
I fell to my knees and thanked the hunting gods for the opportunity. Pressed the stop button on the radio in my head, and put away my Reba collection until next year.
To me there is no other way to hunt. It’s hard, it’s challenging, and it is taxing to your mind, body, and spirit. But when you do it, when it all comes together you are then transformed into a hunter, in the purest form, and you will never be the same.
Don’t know where to start, hire a guide and get outside.
Guiding for me is about passion. A passion to be outdoors, to be singularly focused on a task, and to share my love of the Maine woods and waters with others. Unfortunately for me I always have to temper my desire to guide with my responsibilities as a father, husband, and with my career. I don’t guide full time. Simply put, financially it makes zero sense. Would I if I could? Without a doubt. Someday soon maybe I will, but until then I’m what I’ve heard referred to as a “part time guide.” I’ve even been told that full time guides look down upon us part timers. That makes me laugh. I’ll match my woodcraft against anyone’s.
I will admit this bear season I was starting to doubt my crazy passion to guide. I burn almost all my vacation time to guide. I get up at ridiculous o’clock to run bear baits in the dark. I then race to my real job, and pound coffee all day long pretending I’m wide awake and loving every minute of it. As soon as it’s quitting time I jump in by truck and commence to beat the hell out of it down some old logging road trying to find the perfect place to hang a tree stand for archery hunters. At dark I drag my ass home shove some food down my neck, grab a beer and head to my shop to tune fishing equipment, tinker on the ice auger, and otherwise move stuff around making sure I’m ready for the next day. After the third week of bear season, as I was driving the 30 miles to my bait sites with a truck bed full of donuts, a busted windshield in the truck I’m still making payments on, and a pounding headache I said out loud, “what in the fudge am I doing this for?” (Except I didn’t say fudge.) With all this burned vacation time I could take three trips to the tropics this winter. I could spend more time at camp. I could do whatever I wanted that didn’t involve friggin donuts. I’ve come to hate the smell of donuts.
Then it happened. The week four sports arrived. Out of their truck came a young lady I will just call “L.” See L is in a fight for her life. I won’t tell her story. That’s for her to tell, or not to tell. To provide some background the treatments she’s going through are not fun, leave her with fatigue, pain, and a general miserable feeling. Amazingly, you’d never know. With her million-watt smile, and a hug that gave no hint of her weariness she greeted me as an old friend. With L leading the pack her and her two friends bounced up the stairs to camp, and showed almost uncontainable excitement for the hunt to come. I stood outside for a minute pretending to put wood in the campfire, and thought, she is why I guide. All the doubt went away.
L is a badass. She’s travelled to Africa to hunt. She’s an off shore charter captain, and an EMT. She’s also sweet as the molasses cookies she brought to camp. As we sat around the campfire she peppered me with questions, about how things were going with my family? How we enjoyed the new camp? How I was doing? I answered them all the entire time thinking, “Christ how am I doing? I’m fine, you’re the one in the ring fighting.” Never once did she mention her fight.
The next day we headed to the range to make sure that the rifles were good. L hit the target middle middle with her first shot, and declared herself good. Who was I to argue. From there we were off to the baits. It’s a 30-mile dirt road drive to the baits. If you’ve ever ridden with a bear guide going to the baits you’d remember it. We don’t spare the horsepower. The bumps are smoother if you go faster right? Sitting in my passenger seat I could see her grimace out of the corner of my eye if I managed to nail one. She never complained once. For two days she sat as still as a stone waiting for her bear. On the third day, the last day of her hunt, I could tell it was taking a toll. Undaunted she went up the ladder, buckled in, and gave me the thumbs up. A few hours later I got a text from her saying she didn’t think she could sit the rest of the night. I replied call me if you need me. About 10 minutes later she did. I raced over there thinking I would find her weeping and sad. Wrong again. She was pissed. Pissed at her body, pissed at her situation, and pissed she had to call me. I stood at the bottom of her stand as she lowered her rifle and thought, I’ve seen tough people. I once told a Marine with his feet mangled from and IED to, “shut the fudge up so I could think.” (Again I didn’t say fudge.) I doubt I’ve seen anyone tougher than L.
After she was able to move around a little she was better. The rest of the night was fairly uneventful. We had a great dinner, sat by the campfire and laughed like loons at some of the stories that were told. The next morning L said, “I can’t wait to come back next year.” In my mind I thought, “I can’t wait to see you here next year, with your million-watt smile, your infectious attitude and your general love for the outdoors.” People like L are the reason I guide, even if only part time.
Note: L wasn’t always an outdoors person. Sometime in her life she stepped out of her comfort zone, tried something new, and found a passion that many of us would envy. Thank you L for the privilege of guiding you.
One of my real pleasures of guiding is interacting with other guides who see it like I do. I draw on their experience, knowledge, skill and passion. I also envy the ones that do it full time. A few years ago I met Captain Shawn Tibbetts while teaching a Guide’s Course. He was looking to get his hunting guide license to go on top of his tidewater guide’s license and his U.S.C.G. 100 ton Masters License. He’s also a Marine Corps Veteran, a big woods deer hunter, and a strong advocate for veteran’s support through outdoor activities.
Not surprisingly with those shared interests Shawn and I have become friends. He came to Orono to bear hunt with me the following fall. We swapped deer tracking stories all tracking season, and in the dead of winter, just about the time I was ready to put two slugs into my snowblower out of hate for the damn machine, Shawn called me with an amazing offer. Veteran Angler Charters, one of the many veteran support not-for-profits Shawn is a part of, he was willing to take me and five other veterans on an all-inclusive off shore trip. Shawn is a put your money where your mouth is kind of guy. He doesn’t just say he supports his fellow veterans, he actually does. It goes beyond a hand shake and a thanks.
On a Sunday in August I was able to scrounge up the five guys I needed to go with me on the trip. Our group of merry fishermen was made up of; my brother Billy, a veteran of the US Army, my Uncle Ernie, a Marine Corps Veteran, his friend Bill, a Coast Guard veteran, a high school friend Mark an Air Force veteran, and Brandon, a Marine Corps veteran and former student in my guides course. We arrived at the dock a little before 6AM and the Miss Megan II with Captain Shawn at the helm was there waiting for us. After quick introductions the ritual began. When you get a group of seven veterans together who don’t really know each other there is a unique thing that happens. Being trapped in a civilian world for so long where everyone is easily upset (insert soft here) We stay on our guard talking about safe topics like the weather, the Red Sox or some mundane thing that normally bores the hell out of us. This went on for about three minutes. Suddenly I realized I was about to be on a boat for 6+ hours. I had been living on caffeine and nothing else for a few days. I better go find a sit down room. Sensing his moment to break the tension, at my expense, Shawn made a joke. Unfortunately, I can’t repeat the joke in print, all I can say is that nothing brings veterans together like a joke about someone else’s bodily functions. From there the ice was broken and we were free to be ourselves, using the language of our people a language that focuses on four letter words. Shawn had seen this before, and knew exactly how to loosen everyone up.
After a 15 mile trip off shore we started fishing. There was a study flow of haddock, and whiting coming over the rail. There was also a dynamo of activity from the Captain. I’m certain that Shawn was committed to this trip just as much as any other trip he books with paying customers. Operating without a mate for the day he mended rods and tangles, handled fish, cleaned the boat, and chatted it up with other Captains on the radio to get us on the best bite. If there was one second where someone wasn’t on a fish Shawn was fileting the day’s catch. He never stopped taking care of his sports.
For us it was a banner day. Everyone had their limit on haddock (15 each), and a half a dozen whiting each for a bonus. The water was relatively calm, the sun wasn’t brutal, and the boat was comfortable. We laughed we joked, again nothing I can repeat here. Some of us made plans for other trips with each other, and we all relaxed. The governor we install on our stream of thought to keep our, jobs, civilian friendships, or from ending up on the governments watch list was off for a few hours and it was pretty friggin cool.
As we made our way back, there was a sense of; “shit, it’s over.” The limited out fisherman each approached me and asked what the appropriate tip should be. I told them he wouldn’t take it. They didn’t believe me. When we hit the dock Shawn went back at it cleaning the fish, getting great pictures, and putting a few of the guys on his pet striped bass he keeps under the dock. There was that awkward moment when we all knew it was time to go but nobody wanted to say good bye. Someone tried to tip Captain Shawn and he refused. He said make a donation to Veterans Anglers, we did.
As I drove away from the dock I saw Captain Shawn Tibbetts scurrying around the deck cleaning the Miss Megan II and getting ready for the next trip. I thought to myself if those folks got half the experience we had, they would leave with a lifetime of memories and a cooler full of fish.
Shawn is a helleva Captain, one of the real deal. He’s not in it for the money, he’s not in it to better than someone else. He’s in it because he loves it. He is one of the good ones.
If you’ve been reading my articles for a while you may have noticed that I have an affection for the simplicity of a canoe. I think I have six in my fleet right now, I’ve yet to figure out how to paddle more than one at a time. It could be because it was my first taste of independence growing up on a small lake. My canoe allowed me to escape on my own for what I thought at the time were grand adventures. It could be because some of my fondest memories as a child involve my brothers, my parents, and I with assorted friends and family doing canoe trips on the Saco River and other smaller rivers. I can still feel the water spray as we hit rapids, I can still hear the pounding of the water as I rode along in the current. It could be that the first real purchase my wife and I made as I evolved into a woodsman was an Old Town Guide Canoe. We ventured into the factory outlet in Old Town and I saw the most perfect canoe. We didn’t have a lot of money. Like many times before, and many times since my wife saw the spark in my eye as I imagined being in the stern navigating some wild river. She said, “buy it.” I did, and I was as happy as I could be. (Side note, never trade a good canoe, I wish I had that Guide back.)
Now, as a parent, I’ve discovered a different use for a good canoe, parenting. If you haven’t been told, or haven’t figured it out, parenting is hard. Sue and I have raised two adult children and have an eleven-year-old that is rapidly becoming a challenge to her sister and brother’s title of most difficult. I’ve found that the best way to reach them is to put them in a canoe.
The bow seat of a canoe is a great place for a kid to sit. They have their back to you as you blubber on about doing the right thing for the right reasons, and the warning about giving into peer pressure. They are free to roll their eyes and yawn without you noticing. I’ve discovered with my youngest child a new twist to my canoe parenting technique. It’s very important that they have a paddle. It’s not to help you propel your parenting vessel of wisdom along, it’s to keep them from grabbing their phone to text their friends about how lame their dad is.
Having them in the front seat also allows you to show emotion. In my case my son and I were in a canoe a few weeks ago. He was in the bow seat filling it with his man sized frame. He’s 24 years old now. I watched as he made powerful strokes with confidence. I flashed back to taking him fishing and him sitting in the bow seat with a paddle that was two feet taller than he was. I remembered his lifejacket that was two sizes two big. I remembered when he was teenage boy and I took him fishing not to catch fish but to talk to him about how to treat a woman, and his first real girlfriend. I can still see his neck turning red as we discussed the “S” word, and I don’t mean salmon. I also remembered wondering what kind of man he would become. A few weeks ago I realized the answer was right in front of me.
The most vivid memories I have as a canoe parent is of my middle daughter. Always a free spirit, and a fighter, we would verbally spar as we tried to cross a windblown lake. She gave as much as she got and beat me in several arguments, forcing me to resort to the age old parenting technique of, “I’m the adult that’s why,” to stop the fight. One day the dock broke free from its anchor and was blowing down the lake. I grabbed my daughter and said, “let’s go.” The wind was blowing a gale and there were some monster white caps. Off we went in the canoe. We tossed, turned, and bungled our way down the lake. We secured the raft to a tree along the shore and walked back to the house. She handled herself in the bow well, I on the other hand fought to keep the boat tracking well. In the heat of the moment I blamed her, I called her a “canoeing liability.” Well that was that. She was done paddling and because of my poor canoe seat parenting I missed a lot of canoe time with her until she was willing to get back in a boat with me. Funny side story, when she finally did get in again we promptly dumped the canoe in the river and lost half our gear. I had learned my lesson though. It was my fault not hers, I was the liability.
Now I’m left with one more bow person to raise. We’ll fish, we’ll talk about rights and wrongs, and the importance of self-worth. I’ll teach her the proper strokes and how to read the water. Just like her brother and sister before her she’ll teach me that the bow is not the only place a person can learn how to be a better person. The person in the stern can learn too.
I was cruising one of those online hunting channels with the state of the art bows, guns, camo, calls, and the flashy girls. You know, the ones that have product in every shot. I thought to myself, cripes on a cracker this doesn’t look much like hunting.” About when I was about to click off, the very loud and animated host of the show said something like this, “In the industry of deer hunting, you have to be cutting edge.” He was all dramatic, holding some overpriced knife, probably made in some third world sweatshop by an 8 year old. “Industry? friggin industry?” It’s hunting bro. People use to do it with spears. Alright I get it. People make money on hunting. I try. I don’t even break even. Maybe I should be more industrious?
Nah. See you don’t need the greatest camo. You don’t need to bath in the freshest doe piss $100.00 can buy. You don’t need a $1200.00 rifle that has more attachments than a Marine infantryman’s black gun. You don’t even have to travel to far off exotic places to have a good time. You can hunt right in your area and be successful. What you need is the two W’s; will, and wood sense.
Will. The most important aspect of a routinely successful hunter is will. You have to be willing to get in the woods year round. You have to be willing to deal with rain, mud, and bugs in the spring. Heat, dense undergrowth and bugs in the summer, and deep snow and cold in the winter. You have to have the will to get up morning after morning during your chosen season and get after it. I mean really push. If you’re a stump sitter, you need to push to sit still and be alert. If you’re a tracker you need to push to read the pieces of the puzzle the deer is leaving and not just trudge along half in a daze wondering why you left your warm bed. If you’re a waterfowler you have to push to break ice, set out a good decoy spread, and have the discipline to wait for the best shot. Whatever your chosen form of hunting is you have to have the will to push beyond what is comfortable. When you do that you’ll see your success sky rocket.
Wood sense is a little harder. It comes with time. Understanding the flow of the terrain, the flow of the animals that use it, and how they come together. Understanding preferred food sources, and the subtle sign your quarry leaves in the snow, in the mud, or on the trees. Understanding how the wind affects waterfowl. Learning migration patterns and generational stopping points along those patterns. Knowing where to get the good southern sun on a cold day. How to build a fire if you get stranded? How to administer self-aid if you get hurt. How to navigate using a map and compass. I really believe that most people don’t push themselves because they fear getting lost, getting injured, or getting dead. A little fear is good for you. Know how to use your compass, have lineal terrain features like roads, rivers, and streams to guide you, or stop you, and you’ll be fine.
All of these things I discussed are free. I buy my hunting clothes at Goodwill. I have a great rifle now, but for years I hunted with one that cost me $200 and a 12 pack of Budweiser. I killed my biggest racked deer to date with that rifle. I carry a twenty-one-dollar compass, a 10-year-old GPS, a bottle of water, some matches and a knife that was given to me as a gift. I do alright.
You don’t need to spend a ton of money. You need to have the will, develop the wood sense, and realize that the trophy is the journey, not the kill. All of which is nearly free, however the return on your investment is a lot more than if you get caught up in the industry.
Don’t know where to start. Hire a guide to get you pointed
in the right direction.
My wife and I recently bought a new camp. It sits out on a point and you can see Upper Lead Mountain Pond out three sides. On our first weekend there I got up early, set my icefishing traps, and sat at the camp table with a strong cup of coffee, everyone else was asleep. My mind drifted back to one of the last fishing trips I took with my grandfather. I was about 16 years old.
We loaded up his car in Sanford, Maine and headed to a camp on Springy Pond, east of Bangor. The camp belonged to my grandfather’s brother David Brooks. We were going to meet David, as well as another one of my grandfather’s brothers, Bob Brooks, and a cousin Bob LeBretton. We arrived at camp to find three men well into their cups, and a camp that was somewhere north of 95 degrees Fahrenheit. These men liked their camp hot.
The next morning out we ventured onto the frozen pond. My grandfather’s auger sputtered and smoked and eventually fired. He drilled one hole, handed it to me and said, “it’s running good, drill the rest.” I was quick to figure that was twenty-five holes through two feet of ice. As I finished drilling hole number two of twenty-five, I turned to find my party of mentors going back inside. It had been ten minutes since they put logs on the fire, I’m sure they were concerned it had dropped below the minimum 90-degree mark.
Determined to show my manliness, I drilled all the holes and went to setting my traps. With the buzz of the old Jiffy still ringing in my ears, and through the haze of two stroke smoke hanging over the pond I saw the party of three come back outside. They quickly set their traps and back in they went. I followed wondering if they even put bait on their hooks.
Inside I was greeted by the amazing smell of Uncle Bob’s
potato friccus cooking in cast iron on the glowing wood stove, and bacon and
eggs sizzling on the stove top as I thawed out. Staring out the window I
eagerly awaited our first flag. No one else even bothered to look, weird. Just about the time I was supposed to eat,
Gramps directed me to go check the bait in the bait tank. David had a brilliant set up to keep his bait
alive and fresh. A stream along the side of his camp flowed into a 55-gallon
drum tipped on its side, and out the other side. A door cut in the top with a
light bulb was enough to keep it from freezing. Screens at the inlet and outlet
kept the bait from making a break for it, which I was debating doing except I
had no idea where I was, or how to get back to Sanford.
I checked the bait. The shiners seemed to be having more fun
than me. I went back inside to report to my tormentors all was well. I got a
semi warm breakfast, and was asked by the two Bobs if I brought any money? I
thought back to my preparation for the trip. Right before I got in the car my grandmother
handed me a Tupperware bowl filled with loose change. She said, “in case I need
it.” Why in the hell would I need five dollars in nickels and dimes, I’m sure
she kept the quarters. Was my grandmother in on this initiation to Brooks
manhood? As soon as I answered the two Bobs that I had some change a deck of
cards was produced.
What followed was nothing short of a robbery. The three men
I was so eager to learn the secrets of icefishing from didn’t teach me anything
at all to do with icefishing. Slowly they whittled away at my Tupperware
container while at the same time asking me to fetch drinks, bring wood in from
the outside, or check for flags, they never looked. Just about the time I was
down to a few dirty nickels I was asked to go skim the holes. Skimming the holes
for people that don’t icefish means going and cleaning out the newly built up
ice around the traps. The first time I asked if they wanted me to check their
bait, they said in unison, “no.” Weird.
As the afternoon went on I began to realize that every time I was sent out to do a chore I would return to find a few more coins in my precious bank made of molded plastic. I was on to them. They were sending me out to give me a few coins to keep me in the game. I listened to them talk about growing up in Orono, and getting in fights behind Pat’s pizza with the college boys. I listened to them talk about their successes and their failures, and their what if’s. Somewhere late in the day one of the Bobs gave me a beer, gramps gave me one of his favorite lines, “don’t tell your grandmother.” At the end of the day they took all my money. The sun was going down quick. We went outside and took some pictures. I’m guessing to prove that we actually went to the camp, we didn’t have any fish. They actually picked up their own traps, I know now it was probably because they didn’t want me to know there was no bait on their hooks. We went inside and I heard more stories. I fell asleep to the sound of three men snoring the night away.
Early the next morning we parted ways. Gramps and I kind of grew apart over the rest of my teenage years. I will forever regret that. I was a teenage boy filled with piss and vinegar, making my own memories that I may share someday while sitting at the camp table. Telling another one of the Brooks descendants to go fill the wood box. While he’s away I may drop a few dimes in his Tupperware to teach him about life, but I may include a little fishing lesson too.
Authors note: They may have drilled more than one hole, they
may have baited their hooks, but I get to write it as I remember it because
they took my money. An indisputable fact is we never caught a fish.
*Don’t miss the opportunity to have these moments. You’re
never too busy to take a few days for an adventure. Don’t know where to start,
hire a guide, you won’t regret it.
We just went through one of those winter cold snaps that just hurts. The cold air actually hurts your face. The news folks tell you to bring your pets in. The trees crack in half from being frozen, and dubs state wide throw pots of water in the air to make instant snow. On my fourth trip of the day to the chicken coop to swap out the water the thermometer read -20 degrees. I watched the water freeze about half way to the coop. The chickens looked at me with their weird chicken eyes as if to say they heard the weatherman say bring them in. Icicles of snot clung to my beard after my two-minute trip “north of the wall.” I went back into the house, broke off the boogercicles frozen to my beard, looked at my wife and said “why Maine?”
We’ve lived in lovely places like San Diego, Coastal Carolina, Chesapeake Bay Maryland, and Miami, Florida to name a few. We would swim in our pool under the palm trees on Christmas Day and laugh at all the people we knew in the frozen north. One could say in hindsight I’m a damn fool for moving back here. On days that it’s colder than an outhouse seat in the Allagash I can almost agree… almost.
Maine’s a place of freedom. I know New Hampshire jumped on the live free or die marketing genius before Maine did. In reality Maine is equally, or even more free. I can walk out my back door with my rifle and hunt until my heart’s content. I can fish any body of water I can get onto and nobody will tell me I can’t. I have access to thousands and thousands of acres of privately owned land that owners allow others to use. Any fee I pay is minimal and goes to maintaining the dirt roads that go on forever; I just leave it better than I found it. I can go places without cell phone reception, or even roads. It is truly that last free wilderness of the east.
Maine is unique in its makeup. People like to say there are two Maines. I disagree, we’re like 50 Shades of Maine without all the kinky stuff. (Authors note: Mom don’t read the book I just referenced) There are people that have no desire to enjoy the wilds of Maine with a rifle, but hike Katahdin every year. There are people who love the state but never go to places like Jackman, Lubec, or the Allagash. They never venture north of Augusta. Then there are people that would only be caught in Bangor, Augusta, or Portland if it was tourney time. For people from away tourney time is when entire towns shut down to follow their high school basketball teams. It’s a true melting pot. We have people that live off the grid 45 minutes from Portland. We have island communities that rely on the ferry for resupply. There’s one common thread in all of these peoples make up. They will help each other when the chips are down.
I vividly remember my
dad plowing the ice with his pick-up truck for us to play pond hockey when we
were kids. We’d play until we were so cold we’d have to cut the laces to get
our skates off. One day he got a little too close to the shore and in the water
he went. It was about 4 feet deep. He climbed out the window, surveyed the
situation and knew he needed a dozer. He went to talk to our only neighbor. My
dad and our neighbor were two different Mainers. They didn’t, and still don’t
share a lot of common ground except they were, and still are good Maine men.
The neighbor came over, surveyed the situation, looked at his son and said, “go
get that brown bottle with the black label way back under the sink.” After a
few hours of chainsaw work, several pulls off the bottle of “ol number 7” and
some tugging with the dozer the truck was out. The neighbor went home, my dad
got yelled at by my mom, and all was back to normal. There was no offer of
money and no request for any, just tipsy neighbors that went on to resume their
I guess that’s why Maine. Its more than a place. It’s more than the sunrise on Cadillac Mountain. It’s more than a buck track in the snow in the big woods. It’s more than lobster dipped in butter. It’s more than a fly rod and a native brook or a coastal striped bass.
It’s also more than the people. More than the junk
collecting guy down the road that can help you out in a pinch when you need a
part for your mower. It’s more than the vibrant entertainers and artists in
Portland and other coastal towns. It’s
more than the town meetings where selectmen and women can’t do anything right,
but nobody want’s their job. It’s more than the old veteran that lives down the
long dirt road and wants to be left alone. It’s more than the manufacturing and
innovation. It’s more than the Guides that take so much joy from others
experiencing the woods and waters.
Just as I’m about to lose my mind shoveling, filling the wood box, and paying the propane guy for his seemingly weekly visit to fill my tank it happens, Schoodic Derby Weekend. I’ve fished dozens of derbies in Maine. Schoodic is by far and away the best. The scenery is amazing with blue skies and Katahdin looming to the north, the fishing is usually good, and the company is top notch. It’s my unofficial notice that spring is just around the corner. Schoodic is my ground hog.
An icefishing derby is a fishing tournament. The Schoodic Derby is a fishing adventure. Every year a few weeks in advance we start planning. How many sleds do we need? How much bait? Who’s bringing food? Is the lake safe? Then it happens, and all that planning goes out the window. Someone’s sled breaks, someone else forgets the propane, one guy forgets his boots, you name it and it’s been forgotten, except beer, we never forget beer. We always scramble to get enough crap together to enjoy our two days on the ice. Then there’s actually getting to the lake. See Schoodic isn’t surrounded by hotels. You have to know somebody who knows somebody who has a camp to stay in or you’re staying on the ice. Over the last three years we’ve had the pleasure at staying at a very nice camp because of a friend of a friend. That’s one of the special things about my Maine. If you associate with good people, it’s assumed that you to are a good person, there is a trust there built solely on your reputation through others. This year the cast of characters staying in camp were our friend Tony, his son Colby, my brother Billy, his son Owen, and our friend Luke. At a quick glance you notice we all pee standing up that will be important later in the story.
We take our ice fishing pretty serious. We use several online apps to see the contours of the bottom. We use fishfinders to mark fish. We tend our traps with the delicacy you’d give fine china. We’re there to catch fish. We usually do well. For the last two years my nephew Owen has been in the lead for the youth division right up until the last minute.
This year fishing was a little slower. We caught a few short salmon but never could catch the 23-inch monster we were looking for. We marked fish while jigging but they barely paid attention to any of our offerings. We did catch a fish here and there but nothing like the normal fast action we experienced in the past.
Even our very own “fish whisperer,” Luke was having a hard time. It’s been said that Luke can catch fish in a bath tub. In the particular place we fished this year he usually smashes the lake trout. We think it’s because he dropped his cell phone down the hole into 100 feet of water in this spot two years ago.
All Saturday morning, we struggled to get on the bite. Frustration mounted. Then it happened. The girl showed up. Our good friend Tony is married to our good friend Sally. Sally is, and always will be a country girl. She can back up a boat trailer, shoot a bow, track a buck, and do all the country things that make a girl country. She’s a lovely woman, and a great friend. Sally could only fish for the day because of other commitments. She only needed 15 minutes. She set her traps, started chatting with the crew of intrepid ice walkers and wouldn’t you know it, she got a flag. After a 5-minute tug of war she iced the biggest fish if the weekend, a 4.5 pound Togue. We all congratulated her, but after a 3AM wake up, a freezing morning, and little fish my only thought was, “who invited the girl.” To be honest I think I yelled it.
The day went on. Sally didn’t gloat much, there were a few
more fish caught. (none by me) we got a nice visit from the world famous owner
of Boot Life Magazine and her husband. A very friendly biologist came and
explained to the two boys the importance of what he was doing for fish
research. Family and friends stopped by on their snowmobiles with hamburgers
and hot dogs and we enjoyed a beverage or two. All in all, despite the tight
lipped fish, it was a hell of a derby.
At the end of the day we retired to the warm camp, had a few more beverages, and gorged on deer chili and other gastrointestinal challenges. Sunday brought little excitement and only one fish. We packed up, left the camp nicer than we found it, and headed our separate ways home only to be brought together again by a call from the southern Maine bound contingent, they lost a tire on the trailer. Luckily I had a new spare. The slick they had for a spare was not going to make the four-hour trip to Newfield. Tony the professional tire changer made short work of the tire exchange and we were all homeward bound. We’ll talk about the things that happened Schoodic weekend all year long. I’m already looking forward to the next one.