Fire and Ice, or Fishing Through the Midwinter Crisis

Ice fishing is not my thing. It’s hard to cast a fly to a hole in the ice, and the trout don’t seem to be rising at this time of year anyway. I have never seen a mayfly or a caddis emerge from a hole in the ice. So we are left to dangle and daydream — dangle a baited hook down into the deep dark waters and possibly attract a wandering fish, while daydreaming about bright May days with insects emerging from the muck and rise-rings spreading over the calm waters of our favorite pond, known in this venue as Redacted Pond or Pond X.

That said, I do look forward to the winter movements of rainbow smelt, and to dangling that baited hook into the icebound waters of, say, the Cathance River in Bowdoinham in a smelt shack made toasty by a little woodstove. Once or twice a winter the Bro and I, and sometimes Trout Boy, will rent a shack for a tide — I never know which is more productive, low-to-high or the other way around — from Jim’s or Leighton’s and arrive to find a warm shack and a box of bait awaiting us. We’ll be carrying a cooler with smelt-shack-appropriate beverages and sandwiches from the Bowdoinham Country Store, and we might even put a pot of baked beans on the woodstove to warm up while we bait the many hooks hanging from pegs on either side of the shack and lower them into the water. Then we tell fish stories and wait for the lines to twitch.

In these strange times the wait might be long. As my saintly Swedish grandmother might have said, “Where the hell are the fish?” A couple of years ago the State imposed new rules on smelt fishing after the spawning runs declined by half. In Zone 1, which includes the Cathance, it’s illegal to fish for smelt from March 15 through June 30, protecting the fish during their spawning season. Last winter, 2015-2016, we had a shortage of both fish and ice, as we sweltered (well, comparatively) through the second-warmest winter on record (the winter of 2001-2002 was ever-so-slightly warmer). The forecasts for this winter predict a return to what passes for normal, with more snow and colder temps. Now if only the smelt come back.

In Olden Days (I’m of an age when I’m allowed to use that expression) we did a different and somewhat odd kind of fishing through the ice: gaffing tommycod in the Oyster River. When the river had frozen over, just above the tide zone, we would chop a hole in the ice, about six inches in diameter, where the water was only a foot or two deep. To an alder stick we would lash a large-ish hook, or, if we didn’t have a bona fide hook we made one from a bent coat hanger and sharpened it with a file. Then we would lie flat on the ice, peering into the water, resting the hook on the bottom of the stream. When a tommycod swam through our very restricted killing zone we swiftly yanked the gaff up, trying not to pierce a nose or an ear, and hoick the little fish up onto the ice. And they were little, only eight to ten inches, as I remember, but very tasty. Apparently the tomcod swims up from the sea in the dead of winter to spawn in slushy ice, a form of reproduction I find most unappealing.

Of course, you — and let me emphasize the pronoun — you could actually flyfish through the winter — there are waters that are open to fishing year-round, including the East Outlet of the Kennebec from where it leaves Moosehead Lake down to Beach Pool. Make sure you dress very warmly and leave an updated will.





Nick Mills

About Nick Mills

Full disclosure: I was not born in Maine, alas! I was born in Massachusetts, but the family moved to Maine when I was eleven, and I grew up in Thomaston. My dad was skipper of one of the draggers that sailed out of Rockland, in the days when it was a rough-tough working fishing port. When he came in from the sea his favorite activity was freshwater fishing with me and my brother, Peter. We learned together to flyfish for trout in the Alder Stream in Eustis. Once hooked on the sport, pun intended, I fished at every opportunity in every place I could -- in the rivers, streams and ponds of Maine; in the mountain ponds of Utah, where I was stationed for a year in the Army; in high Andean lakes in Colombia, where I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer; even in a lagoon that surrounded one of Saddam Hussein's palaces in Baghdad. I tried once to go trout fishing in northern Afghanistan, when the U.S.S.R. occupied that country; a landslide blocked my path, but that led to a more interesting adventure, which I will tell you about in a future post.