Last Ice: How to Stay Safe and When to Call it Quits

Last Ice: How to Stay Safe and When to Call it Quits

The ice at the lake edge is dark, slushy, and covered in standing water, as if the lake dug a moat around itself. Farther out, where I want to set my tip-ups for pre-spawn northerns, the ice integrity looks uniform and solid. I don’t see any obvious pressure ridges or widening holes that mark danger. On this late March morning the air remains chilly. I’m glad I’ve remembered the 2×4 wooden plank, about 7 feet long, which will act as a bridge of sorts from land to safe ice. I haul it from the truck bed and lay it so one end meets solid ice, the other end resting on solid ground.

To minimize the risk of taking an unintentional swim, I’m traveling on foot. Lighter is better this time of year. Since I’m fishing alone, and given the unpredictable ice, I’ve brought along my ice pick and a throw-rope, just as I’d done early in the season. I fill my plastic jet-sled with auger, tip-ups, and bait bucket, push it across the wooden plank, then step out on the solid ice and walk steadily toward the fishing grounds.

Beware the Edges of March
March means longer days, warming temperatures, and big northern pike staging in shallow, weedy bays. Northern pike’s March transition from deep to shallow water correlates with the deterioration of lake ice, so that even experienced anglers like me must exercise caution. Too much zeal and I might take a life-threatening dip.

As the March sun warms exposed shorelines and rocks, lake edges are often the first zones to thaw. This phenomenon makes it particularly difficult for anglers using snowmobiles and ATVs. In other words, March is a great time to fish on foot. It’s good exercise, makes me more dexterous and alert. I have the luxury of taking my time to scan the ice for signs of danger: large dark spots, stream entrances, pressure cracks, old holes that didn’t freeze over. All too often, overly enthusiastic late-season anglers break through around shorelines or stream mouths, ruining their days, not to mention their expensive equipment. As I walk farther out toward my pike spot, jet sled whooshing on the ice behind me, I’m reminded of an angler who drove his truck through a nearby lake so many times locals started guessing the day each winter that he might drive through the ice again.

Old Holes
Ice shanties have been removed from the lake, save for a tiny, vacant wooden one. The surface feels solid, though bits of ice crunch and crackle under my steps, and the ice will soften as the day warms. I pass rectangular shanty indentations, like fossil evidence of the bay’s makeshift winter village. I pass a string of augured holes skimmed over slightly but widened in the freeze-thaw pattern of March. Some of the holes are large enough to swallow my size-13 boots. Just a few warm, sunny days or days of hard rain, and such holes widen to man- or ATV-eating size. Streams flush snowmelt into lakes or out over the ice, the moving water eating away at weakened hardwater. Luckily, it looks mostly safe out here today. I continue cautiously, nearing the spot where I’ll drill holes for tip-ups.

Season in a Day
The sun is higher now and I’m overheated from the walk. As I drill my first hole, I notice soft, white ice spraying from the auger. Ten or so inches down, the blade finds a foot or less of solid ice. With warming weather, it won’t be long before ice-out. I set five tip-ups with large, live suckers and drop the baits a foot above the weedy bottom. This late in the year, female pike, heavy with eggs, roam this shallow bay, and I’m hoping a hungry one notices my bait.

I clear out the jet-sled of traps and sit down for a while, resting as the sun heats the black plastic. I take off my down jacket and use it as a backrest. I think of another spring ice fishing trip—filming for the documentary “Hardwater”—late March near the Maine-New Brunswick border. By late afternoon the temperature eclipsed 60 degrees. We fished in short-sleeves, sipping not-so-cold beer atop 3 feet of ice. We had good fishing that day, lake trout up to 10 pounds, with the nicest ice fishing weather imaginable. I’m reminded of how one day of late-season ice fishing can encapsulate multiple seasons: the frigid dawn, comfortable morning, and warm afternoon.

The combination of warm sun and the comfort of safe ice makes me sleepy. I doze for a while and when I awake, startled, a coyote slinks across the lake not far from my traps, 100 yards away. It doesn’t seem alarmed by my presence; it just keeps trotting across the lake, head down, its puffy tail bouncing behind it. I’m not sure if it’s a sign of good luck or bad, but I watch the coyote until it’s out of sight, long enough to realize it’s not part of some strange ice fishing dream.

A few minutes later the farthest trap in my line pops; its orange flag stands perfectly still in the windless air. I stumble out of the jet-sled and run to it. The spool turns steadily. I wait a few seconds and then lift the trap, fearful the pike might wrap around stumps for which this bay is notorious.

I set the hook sharply and the back-and-forth begins. The fish feels heavy, but its runs are short and unimpressive. When it gets near the hole, I realize the pike has dashed into thick weeds. I pull vegetation off my leader to reveal a stunned fish of 8 or 9 pounds. I grab it and lift it to the ice. It’s bleeding from the gills so I decide to harvest it. I’m not a fan of killing fish—even invasive species, like this one—but medium-sized pike are plentiful and tasty.

I pull my shallowest set, dig another hole out beyond the lucky one, and re-set the tip-up. Not 20 minutes later its flag springs. When I return to the hole, the line seems to melt from the spool. I waste no time lifting the trap and striking hard when the line comes tight. This time, the pike runs hard, and I can tell it’s a good one. A few minutes later, I lift a 15-pounder from the lake, snip the leader rather than ripping out the swallowed hook, revive the fish, and send it back into the bay.

I fish for another hour but nothing doing, so I decide to pull my traps and call it a season. On my commute, I think of how I’ll cook the pike: flour breading on the delicate fillets, dropped in a hot skillet with olive oil, a few minutes per side, squeeze of lemon juice once cooked.

Near shore, I notice my 2×4 plank is floating; the sun has melted even more of the shoreline ice, which will make my exit interesting. I explore the surrounding area for a safe crossing and find none. My boots are submerged in standing water but somehow stay dry. I finagle the wooden plank but it keeps floating away. I use the jet-sled to push it down which doesn’t work very well. Finally, I manage to align the plank and pin it down under my boot. The water is near the top of my boot line and then I feel it rushing in. Slowly, foot by foot, I make it back to shore, the sled a black raft behind me. I drag the plank back to the truck, return for the sled and leave the lake to thaw in its own slow time. I remove my soaked boots, crank the floor heat in the truck, and drive off. At home I’ll dry and stow my traps and auger. I’ll put the boots near the fire and think instead about waders. I’ll fry the pike for dinner and think ahead to open water season just around the corner.

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