My first winter in Maine was challenging. I moved here from California, where the warm weather provides opportunities for outdoor recreation all year long. Without skiing skills (or equipment, for that matter) or sufficient snow for snowshoeing (I purchased snowshoes the first week I lived here and have used them twice), I spent most of my short winter days curled up indoors.
Cozy days have their merits, but time outdoors is central to my self-care. For me, it goes beyond being active (the fine folks at the Planet Fitness on Broadway could tell you how often during the winter I glumly pound it out on one of their dozens of treadmills — I need the serotonin, y’all). Sometimes, I just need to sit outside with good friends, enjoying the scenery and sharing a laugh.
So when my second Maine winter blew in, I decided to be proactive: I recruited my colleague BDN outdoors editor John Holyoke to take me ice fishing.
In Maine, ice fishing is as much a social and cultural activity as it is a sport. Ice fishing derbies take place throughout the state of Maine all winter long, bringing people together outside during one of the loneliest, most closed-in times of year. Ice fishing also provides sustenance: anglers will grill tiny smelt as a snack right on the ice, while bigger catches are sometimes brought home to the family dinner table.
Archeologists have found evidence that traces ice fishing back over two millennia, originating with the native peoples of the United States and Canada. Sustenance played a role — finding food during the depths of winter, especially with a thick layer of snow and ice covering the ground, can prove challenging. Off-grid and subsistence homesteaders in northern regions still rely on the practice to sustain their lifestyles to this day.
Ice fishing can be as simple as creating a hole in the ice, setting up a line and sitting on a camp chair, waiting patiently for the fish to bite. Some “hard water” anglers will build more robust ice houses, fully stocked with refrigerators and satellite televisions, to keep them busy until the fish start biting. Even kids will try their luck reeling in fish for the competitions, continuing family traditions that date back generations.
But what if it is not your family tradition? What if you want to try the sport but you are intimidated by all aspects of it? That’s me when it comes to fishing, let alone ice fishing. But since ice fishing is such a central part of Maine’s winter culture, and because fishing is such a useful skill for homesteaders to have, I wanted to try my luck at ice fishing in Maine.
Learning to try
As soon as the temperature dipped below freezing, I started bugging John about taking me ice fishing. It is always a good idea to buddy up for an ice fishing trip with someone who is familiar with the area and conditions, such as the locations of river currents, the depth of local ponds and the general patterns of ice thickness. Extra points if they already have a bunch of ice fishing equipment you can use.
It took a month or so before the conditions were just right for our ice fishing excursion. After about a week of consistently cold nights, John decided we would go to Fields Pond in Orrington one sunny — but chilly — Friday morning.
John showed me how to buy a day pass on the Maine Department of Inland Fish and Wildlife website (honestly, I should have just bought a yearlong pass — it wasn’t that much more expensive). He said he would bring all the equipment if I brought the sandwiches.
We met at the small parking lot by the shore of Fields Pond, filled a large plastic sled with the equipment (and provisions) and trekked out onto the ice. When I was growing up in Virginia, I was told never to step out on the ice at all because you will crash through, freeze and drown (my parents were cautious, if fatalistic). Things are obviously a little bit different in Maine, but you still have to be careful. My heart skipped a beat with every snap, crackle and pop of the ice settling over the course of the day.
John and I looked for the spot where I had gone ice harvesting the week prior, where the ice was still slightly thinner than the rest of the pond but not so thin that we would break through (he assured me, noticing the fear in my eyes). We were using his old hand auger, which is a bit more labor intensive than the machine-powered ice drillers used today. Besides, his auger hadn’t been used in a few years, so it was probably a little dull.
I started worrying about my safety and upper arm strength simultaneously, but I trusted John to be a good guide even in the worst case scenario: the Virgil to my Dante, if we were to wander through the seven circles of ice fishing hell.
A trying experience
John found a spot where the inky depths of the lake were more visible (again: eek) and squared up the auger perpendicular to the ice. He put one hand on the top of the auger and the other on the side handle and started to twist, shaving the ice like you would for a snow cone.
When I took my first turn, I struggled to get the push-pull motion quite right. Plus, it was tiring for my weak noodle arms. Eventually (and satisfyingly), we broke through the ice and water gushed out. We ladled the ice shards out with a skimmer scoop so we had a clear view of the water.
Then, John showed me how to load up bait onto the trap, called a tip-up. When the line is pulled, a bright flag springs up. John’s traps were bright orange, easy enough to spot across the icy expanse. He scooped a shiner out of his bucket of live bait and showed me where to push the hook through. I grimaced, speared the little fish and lowered it into the water.
We set up a few traps along the pond. For some, we used worms instead of shiners (though I didn’t find the hooking process any less gruesome). Then, we picked a sunny spot on the lake and set up camping chairs where we would sit with our jig poles. I thought they looked like children’s fishing poles at first, but realized the smaller size likely affords more control, which is great for a clumsy beginner like me.
After waiting for about an hour with no luck, we broke into our sandwiches to fuel the rest of the day’s adventure. (For the record, I made Maine Italians generously topped with banana peppers. John said I’m on sandwich duty from this point forward.) As I chowed down, I wondered if it would be challenging to actually sustain yourself for an entire winter on ice fishing. Then again, I’ve read about more experienced anglers wrangling over a thousand fish at a single ice derby, so perhaps it is a matter of location and skill.
Hour two: still no fish. Our co-worker Aislinn Sarnacki was filming an ice skating adventure for her column at Fields Pond that day, so I was sure to bring her a sandwich (no onions for Aislinn) and along with my ice skates. The ice was so clear and smooth, it was like a Zamboni had secretly run over the pond before we arrived.
Eventually, I returned to my pole, and after about three hours on the ice, I finally felt a tug on my line. I tried to stay calm, but the panic cracked through my voice as I called John over to make sure I was reeling the line in correctly. John saw the way I was struggling and knew immediately that we had a leviathan on our hands. He grabbed the line just as it snapped and pulled out a toothy, 2-foot long pickerel.
I will never forget the thrill when that gorgeous giant fish popped out of the hole in the ice. Pumped with adrenaline, I forgot for a moment that I had my ice skates on and started gliding around the pond with the fish still on the line.
John stopped my skating, explaining that it was time to work fast and make some decisions out of respect for our catch. When we removed the hook, the fish was badly beaten up — the hook had shredded its gills, and it was bleeding profusely — so we decided we would kill it mercifully and eat it for dinner instead of releasing it back to the wild to die slowly (though the bald eagle we saw circling around probably would have liked that).
That night, my boyfriend deboned, fileted and grilled up the pickerel on our cast-iron skillet with a splash of lemon juice. It was the freshest, most delicious fish I had ever tasted (though, of course, I am probably biased). We had so much to spare, we invited our friends over to enjoy the catch of the day with us.
I know not every beginner has as much luck as me their first time ice fishing in Maine, but even if I hadn’t caught the Kraken, I would have gotten exactly what I wanted out of the day: a gorgeous day outside with friends, cracking jokes, enjoying sandwiches and learning something new with the beautiful bounty of nature as our backdrop.
My tried-and-true takeaways
I can now say from experience that there is no meal quite so satisfying as one you caught with your own two hands (on a rod, that is). If I were an off-grid homesteader trying to survive on ice fishing alone, though, I would probably struggle with the uncertainty of the day’s catch. With a little practice, though, I may warm up to the wild, sustainable source of protein.
Regardless, ice fishing is a fun, social way to enjoy a winter day in Maine. The equipment may be expensive at the outset, but it is durable, and you can likely recruit friends with tools to spare if you have something to exchange for the day’s adventure (I suggest sandwiches).
Knowing proper ice safety protocol is essential, though, and there is a short window for being able to go ice fishing even in the chilliest northern reaches. Be sure to check the rules and regulations for the area you plan to fish before you go, and inquire as to the thickness of the ice as well (going with someone who knows the area well can help with this, too).
Ice fishing is a test of patience, so make sure you have warm layers, good company, tasty snacks and perhaps an activity to do on the side, like ice skating. Don’t worry, though: that feeling of catching a fish will be worth the wait.