In my earliest fishing photo, I’m two years old, stuffed in a baby blue snowsuit, shoveling Cheez-Its in my mouth on the floor of my dad’s ice shanty.
Some 30 winters later, I’m thinking of that same photo—of my genuine look of comfort and coziness—as I drill holes through Clearwater Lake, in western Maine, at six in the morning. It’s early February. My nose and cheeks burn in the frigid air. My frosty eyelashes stick briefly with each blink. Every now and then a sneaky north breeze penetrates my numerous layers of clothing: long-underwear, lined jeans, flannel shirt, fleece, hoodie, down jacket, wool hat. The weather is anything but comfortable. I’m hopeful I can withstand the extreme conditions long enough to ice a few fish.
My buddy Josh has joined me despite the chilly forecast; he’s a farmer and woodsman unafraid of the cold. We’re on foot, without the convenience of snowmobiles, so we’ve planned and packed accordingly: we’ve brought my pop-up shelter which will extend our fishing time by providing a windproof warming station. We’ve brought breakfast and hot chocolate, and a cook-stove with propane canisters.
Josh drills holes near shore, close to rock piles and beneath overhanging pines where we’ll set tip-ups for brook trout. Smoke rises from his auger and hangs above him as if he’s followed by his own weather system. Out where I am—exposed to the elements atop the lake’s 70-foot basin—we’ll tip hooks with fresh-killed smelt and drop them to bottom, hoping to tempt large lake trout.
Toe warmers throw heat against my woolen socks as I walk farther out on the basin, auger resting on my shoulder. Such warmers have saved me on many winter mornings. Lasting a solid six hours or more, the warmers stick to the underside of my socks via adhesive. As I’m drilling my next hole, I think back on my early years ice fishing, before modern toe warmers: how my feet were the first part of my anatomy to succumb; how my father took me into our shack, removed my boots, and rubbed his hands over my chilled toes. I think too of my advice these days to ice fishing clients—wear one pair of thick woolen socks in your pack boots—and still, many show up wearing two pairs. They inevitably complain when the socks bunch, slip, or cut off circulation—even on days much warmer than this one.
We finish drilling our allotted 10 holes and then Josh helps me set tip-ups. We start in the basin, working our way toward shore. Sounding the bottom with a clip-on weight then grabbing slippery, silver-purple smelt from the bait bucket, there’s no way to keep my hands dry. Within seconds my wet fingers ache and start to lose dexterity—it’s incredible how quickly this happens when temps dip below zero. To save our fingers, we alternate setting traps. I dry my hands quickly, shoving them in my Gore-Tex mittens, where active handwarmers fend off frostbite. It’s slow going, but we’re set up by the time the sun crests the nearby hills.
As we walk back to set up the shelter, the wind picks up and I realize my mistake. Despite my cold fingers, the rest of me is overheated from trudging through the snow, hauling sleds full of tip-ups and bait, from augering and skimming holes. Sweat lines my long-underwear, and the north wind is a cruel reminder that I’ve forgotten to bring extra dry layers. Even on the coldest days, an extra set of long-underwear is an essential addition to the ice angler’s pack, especially when traveling on foot. Sweat-soaked clothing will cool your body temperature, especially in wind like this. As we pass one of our first sets, I notice the wind carrying small, granular flecks of snow into the hole. Already the tip-up’s cross beams are coated with a thin layer of white.
Give Me Shelter
With the two of us working, we clear snow from the ice in a 10-by-10-foot square; this way, we can bolt our pop-up shelter directly in the ice. Josh and I work together, pulling black bands on the shelter’s exterior. The folded shelter, which weighs less than 30 pounds, pops open easily. The large diameter poles shift into place, the now-convex cross beams pulling fabric tight and providing shape and durability against the elements.
“Let’s face the entrance downwind,” I say. We turn the shelter door southward—opposite the wind direction—so we can enter and exit in the lee of the wind. We haul our camp chairs and Coleman stove inside and set up camp. It’s amazing how quickly the space warms from our body heat alone. The fabric retains the warmth and blocks the wind, a welcome relief. I open the small Velcro-closure vent on the downwind side, which allows fresh air in without cooling the space. For anglers fishing without a shelter, setting up in the lee of an island or along a sheltered shoreline can provide a much-needed wind break.
Back outside, I screw the shelter’s sharp bolts into the ice through the four holes in the shelter’s canvas skirt. The bolts keep the light tent in place. From personal experience, it’s embarrassing to watch your shelter rolling end-over-end like a giant tumbleweed down the length of a frozen lake. The bolts prevent such embarrassment on windy days.
Food & Hydration
I scan for flags through the shelter’s windows but see none. We decide to make breakfast—pancakes and bacon, and we sip steaming hot chocolate. The shelter’s vents allow fumes to exit so we can cook safely with propane. The stove’s flames make me wish we’d brought materials for a fire. Soon the shelter is warm and breakfast is ready. We eat slowly, and it feels good to warm up from the inside out. My long underwear has all but dried.
After breakfast I make sure to finish off a 20-ounce bottle of water. It sounds counterintuitive, but it’s easy to become dehydrated out on the ice; one’s body is working hard to stay warm, and under heavy layers the body sweats when trudging through the snow. Countless times, I’ve awoken the morning after ice fishing trips to hangover-like headaches, a clear indication that I failed to hydrate adequately.
After breakfast, I take a skimmer and walk around clearing holes. The wind has slowed slightly, at least for the time being, but the holes are all filled in with granular snow. I lift each trap and scoop out the slushy mess. It might seem like a small act, but the benefits are many: by clearing ice and snow build-up, the traps are more accessible when a flag finally pops. Secondly, lifting the tip-up activates live bait—reminds it of its predicament—which often triggers increased movement that in turn attracts nearby predators. If you’re using dead bait, as we are on our deep sets, upward motion animates the bait briefly. Lastly, checking and clearing holes warms the chilled angler and keeps him or her in the game even when the fishing is slow.
By the time I finish my rounds, one of the shoreline traps has sprung. I yell to Josh, who exits the shelter and runs toward the flag. When he gets to the flag he peers into the hole and then gives me a thumbs-up.
When I arrive, I tend the trap while Josh pays out line, then pulls it in hand over hand. The line comes tight and he sets the hook sharply.
“Good fish,” he says. He lets the fish pull line. A few minutes later, a large silhouette submarines beneath the hole. “Brookie!” Josh says. He kneels near the hole, lifts his right sleeve and reaches into the icy water. Then he’s lifting upward. A fat brook trout every bit of 4 pounds flops in the snow. Judging from its banged-up fins and scarred nose, it’s a stocked fish, but we couldn’t care less. We take a few photos, dipping the trout in the water first to clear it of snow. Josh thumps the trout over the head with the butt-end of the tip-up—he’ll bring the fish home for dinner—and then we work to reset the trap with a fresh smelt.
We warm up back in the shelter. Catching a big fish has a warming effect of its own, and we’re both basking in that feeling, at least for a little while.
An hour or so later, one of the tip-ups in the basin trips. We jog out to it, the wind in our faces. The lake is barren and windswept, and a lone bald eagle glides above the far shoreline. At the hole, the spool cranks. I give it a few seconds, then lift the trap and set the hook. I can feel the distinct head-shakes of a medium-sized laker, not the giant we’re after but fun nonetheless. Soon it’s on the ice, gurgling air from its quick ascent. The hook is fixed perfectly in the corner of its mouth. I remove the hook, revive the fish, and it kicks off to the depths.
After lunch we pack up camp, collect traps, and head back toward the truck, trudging through the snow with the wind at our back. “Beats staying inside all day,” Josh says, his big brook trout flash-frozen and resting in his sled amongst snow-coated tip-ups.