June 23, 2018
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Ice shack blues: How to ruin a fishing trip without even trying

Robert F Bukaty | BDN
Robert F Bukaty | BDN
By John Holyoke, BDN Staff

Close the ice shack door and belly up to the wood stove. Sit yourself down on that bait bucket. I’ve got a few ice-fishing tales to tell.

Where to begin? Well, I suppose I could tell you about Roger the Concussed. Nah. That can wait. How about the time I made the fish take my bait? Not quite yet.

No, let’s start this string of stories with this buddy of mine. Many of you may have met him. A few of you may even have fished with him. He’s a great guy. Really, he is.

He’s also … ummm … unfortunate. I guess that’s the best way to describe him. And because of that, I won’t use his real name here. You can just call him F.B.: Fishing Buddy.

Several weeks back, I asked you to share a few of your ice-fishing tales to get us in the mood for the long winter ahead. Alas, we got few flags on that query. But as I got to thinking back on my times on the hard water, I realized that the trips had a pretty common theme: F.B. did something that made the day … um … memorable. Yeah. Memorable. That’s a nice way of putting it.

Here then, are a few of those tales … along with at least one reader submission.

F.B. takes a tumble

Over the 20 years that F.B. and I have been pals, I’ve learned that despite his apparent grace on dry land, he often finds it difficult to remain upright and on “all two legs” when he’s out on the ice. (To be totally truthful, he also struggles with balance when he’s got food in his hands, but that’s fodder for another story).

There was the time, for instance, when F.B. and I, along with his sons, went ice fishing down at Green Lake. Upon our arrival, we found (as usual) that we had far too much gear for two adults and two small boys to haul onto the ice.

Not that that would stop us from trying to pack-mule the auger and traps and bait and food and stove and more food out there in one trip, of course.

So we loaded up: F.B. dragging a small child’s boat sled, packed with gear. Me, hauling something similar. The boys? Well, as I recall, we didn’t give them anything to carry. It was icy, you see. And simply getting down the steep boat ramp onto the lake without tumbling would be a challenge for them, we figured.

What we didn’t figure (but probably should have) is that F.B. might also have a hard time staying upright.

To be clear: It was really slippery. After a day of rain, the packed snow on the ramp had turned to ice. This morning, as I recall, it was slightly above freezing, and that icy ramp had a thin glaze of water on top of it.

About four steps into his descent, F.B. hit a particularly slick part, his feet left him (finishing somewhere up where his ears had been a split-second earlier), and he was on his back, sliding.

Slowly, he slid through the icy slop, spinning around, uttering words that I shouldn’t repeat here. For 20 yards, he slid, twirling like a large, man-shaped propeller. For 30 yards, he cussed. The sled passed him. The bait bucket did, too.

Eventually, he slid off the ramp, ran into an icy snowbank, and stopped.

His two sons laughed like loons. I might have chuckled once or twice, too.

Come to think of it, I’m still laughing, some 15 years later.

F.B. bites a bear

Some days, you bite the bear. And some days, the bear bites you. That’s how the saying goes, anyway.

Luckily, F.B. has never been bitten by a bear (yet). And on one memorable trip onto the hard water, he proved that there’s little he won’t do in order to get another bite of the bear.

On that day, another of our buddies had come along. He had been bear hunting the previous fall, and on that day, he’d brought along some bear steaks for us to sample.

Into a pan the little pieces of steak went. In classic ice-fishing fashion, the fixings were spartan: A little salt. A little pepper. Maybe some cut onions. Then, the bear was left to sizzle.

F.B. and I had never tried bear before, and were a bit leery. We shouldn’t have been: A few minutes later, we began to feast on the little niblets, tentative at first, then enthusiastically.

One by one, the small pieces of bear meat disappeared. Finally, there was one left.

One of us (I forget who …. though I think it may have been F.B.) grabbed the final morsel, then fumbled it. I can still see that delicious nugget of steak — in slow motion — flying through the air, bouncing off the stove, and rolling across the ice shack floor.

If you’ve spent a few hours in an ice shack, you clearly recognize that the well-documented “five-second rule” requires a conversion factor in cases like this.

For years, ice fishermen had been tromping in and out of that shack. On the bottoms of their boots? Who knows. It’s best not to consider, in fact.

“Five-second rule?” No way. I’d be more apt to obey the five-millisecond rule in your average grubby ice shack.

Not F.B. After an impromptu moment of silence as the final morsel skidded to a halt, F.B. looked at the rest of us, then back at the bear steak, resting on the grimy floor.

“Ah, the heck with it,” he said. “That’s too good to waste.”

He quickly scooped up the bear, devoured it in one bite, and grinned.

And some days, you bite the bear.

Losing the auger

Rich Alley grew up in Bangor and now lives in Williamstown, Mass. He still has a summer home in Hancock.

And when we asked for ice-fishing tales to share, Alley came through with a great one. Here’s what he had to say:

It was the coldest day of January 1958. Branch Pond was deserted on a Sunday, but for my father, uncle and me. We walked (no ATV or snowmobiles then) to the center of the pond to begin ice fishing.

We chopped (no power augers then) and cleared two holes and let two shiners down to their fate. We stood nearby and tried to stay warm. Cold feet were a problem, even with rubber pacs and wool socks ( no snowmobile boots then) and misery was starting from the toes up. Wool coats and pants over honeycomb insulated tops and bottoms (no goose down ski jackets or snowmobile suits then) were of little help.

I asked my father if I could chop a hole 100 feet away, as that spot looked more productive. I took the long ice chisel and the scoop to begin my job. The last thing I heard from my father was “Put the chisel’s rawhide loop around your wrist.”

I started chopping furiously, determined to get through all that ice and plant my rig from the old packbasket. I chopped slower and slower, sweating more and more. It looked like another six inches of ice was left when … whoosh … the steel chisel slipped from my grip, plunged through the hole and likely impaled itself at the bottom.

Then I remembered the forgotten warning. I told my father what had happened. He didn’t look angry but he did look disappointed. We were left with three holes for the day.

I baited my rig and went back to rejoin my dad and uncle. They came over to see my rig, then we walked back to theirs. My uncle shouted “You’ve got a fish on!” and pointed to my trap. The little red cloth flag was up! I ran over and gently pulled the line up. Breaking through the hole was my uncle’s coffee mug. We all laughed. That was the only catch of the morning. The wind picked up, the temperature dropped faster, and we finally surrendered.

The best part of the trip then became the great heater in the old Ford Country Squire as we drove back to Bangor.

To this day I still regret harpooning the bottom of Branch Pond with my father’s trusty ice chisel … the one with the rawhide wrist strap.

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