Driving north on Route 201 in Caratunk, Game Warden Rick Clowry slows his truck at a break in the trees to his left and peers across the splotchy patterns of ice on Wyman Lake.
Gray ice might be OK, black ice is scary, and white snow is a question mark.
“The ice doesn’t look very good up here,” said Clowry, shaking his head as if warding off the thought of the tragedies ice like that can cause.
Farther south on the lake, where Clowry already had chatted with several fishermen, the ice was anywhere from 4 inches to a foot thick, sometimes differing across that range in the space of 150 feet. Wyman Lake, which is essentially a wide spot in the Kennebec River as it snakes through Somerset County, is held back by a dam at the southern end. Near the Caratunk boat launch, where the Kennebec flows in, good ice is far less certain.
“I doubt there will be anyone here, but we’ll check it anyway,” Clowry said as he pulled his green GMC warden truck into the boat launch.
At first the place looks deserted. There are no vehicles in the parking lot, but then Clowry notices a man out in the middle of the lake. Along with spots of black are jagged pressure ridges where sheets of ice shattered at the weak spots and then crumpled together.
“Oh my God,” said Clowry, who’s in his 16th year as a warden. He spins the steering wheel to the right to conceal the truck behind a snowbank and stops where he has a view of the fisherman. He puts a pair of binoculars, which are faded and chipped from heavy use, to his eyes. For the second time in a minute, there’s that knowing shake of his head.
“Unbelievable,” he said. “He’s got his life jacket on.”
Lowry himself once broke through ice with running water beneath it. One leg went through before he caught himself and retreated to safety, but not before he felt the current below. He knows that even with a life jacket, a person can be pulled under the ice.
“If you have to wear a life jacket to ice fish, maybe it’s not worth it,” he said, pulling out of the parking lot. He doesn’t approach the fisherman. Clowry isn’t eager to walk on that ice and besides, he said, taking stupid chances isn’t illegal.
At the Moscow launch are about a dozen fishermen, each with a string of traps and the usual gear: a bait bucket, an ice augur, a basket of traps, folding chairs, a cooler and a sled in which to haul it all. Clowry parks the truck broadside to the fishermen because demonstrating the presence of authority is no small part of his mission.
He checks licenses and chats cordially. The conversation usually covers the thickness of the ice, fishing regulations and the weather. Inevitably, Clowry asks the question he’s most interested in: “Have you caught anything today?”
Brandon Knox of Benton shows Clowry two splake he’d caught earlier — the rewards of more than a dozen flags in a two-hour span. Clowry crouches near them with a tape measure. One tops 15 inches; the other is just over 14. Under Maine law, the daily limit on splake is one fish between 12 and 14 inches and another more than 14 inches. With two fish over 14 inches, Knox is in violation.
“I guess I did too quick a measurement,” said Knox. “I was a little excited.”
Clowry writes Knox a ticket — carrying a penalty of $100 plus court fees — and confiscates the smaller fish, which he’ll keep as evidence.
Another fisherman in Knox’s group doesn’t have a valid license, which is also a $100 ticket. There is no tension between warden and fishermen, even as tickets are handed out. The guy without a license asks Clowry where the closest place to buy one is.
“I don’t mind wardens being around,” said Knox. “They’re just doing their jobs.”
On the west side of the lake there are lots of fishermen, and Clowry hides his truck behind another tall snowbank at another boat launch. Lean and nimble at almost 50 years old, he scrambles through the snow up a steep hill to the left. At the top, he overlooks two fishermen about 30 feet below him. They are oblivious to his presence, and Clowry can hear their every word. He crouches amid pine boughs for 10 minutes, watching the men through binoculars.
Surveillance like this is a critical part of his job. In order to ticket someone for fishing without a license, for instance, he needs to observe them fishing. Through binoculars he has seen virtually every manner of violation, ranging from the legal to the moral. Some fishermen bring a bunch of kids with them so they can put out more traps and catch more fish — but they don’t let the kids pull any in. Others conceal illegal fish in coolers and under the snow. Some — more than most people would believe, said Clowry — smoke marijuana or do other drugs.
But not these guys. They’re just watching idle traps on the first day of fishing season, shooting the bull and enjoying the sun of a mild January day.
Driving away, Clowry said ensuring that experiences like that are available for future generations is what the warden service is all about. After all, one of those future fishermen will be Clowry’s 2-year-old grandson.
“He’s still pretty young,” said Clowry, “but Grampy’s already getting him all outfitted.”
Maine fishing laws:
To buy a fishing license online: