A snowmobiler passes an ice shack on Lake Pennesseewassee in Norway, Maine, on Friday, Feb. 16, 2018. Credit: Andree Kehn / Sun Journal via AP

Contained within the job description for the position of game warden were the following words. “Must be able to work independently with limited supervision.” Additionally, “Must be able to work in adverse weather conditions and traverse rough terrain.” Checking on cusk fishing activity in the middle of the night on western Aroostook County lakes and ponds certainly required the ability to do both.

During the years I worked in “The County” (1994-2006), ice fishing was not allowed from 30 minutes after sunset to 30 minutes before sunrise, except by special rule on certain waters for smelts and/or cusk. On waters that were open to cusk fishing at night, there was a requirement that the lines be checked at least once an hour. I am sure the intent of the law was to help protect cold water game fish that might be caught incidentally by speeding up their release and to otherwise prevent people from using “set lines” that were left unsupervised or unattended.

Generally, the anglers were staying in a camp or ice shack. I don’t recall anyone that fished at night that didn’t have shelter of some kind. The night temperatures were just too cold.

Oftentimes, the fishermen dropped the lines they fished with in the afternoon to the bottom to target cusk. They often complied with the law for a few hours then, rather than pick up and call it a night, they’d just stop checking their lines and go to bed and not check them again until daylight. Others may not have dropped their lines down at all but kept their baits fishing below the ice where smelts and therefore landlocked salmon would usually cruise.

I would pay attention to which camps had daytime fishing activity and those that were likely spending the night. Those camps were good starting points for a night fishing patrol. I usually would leave home around 10 p.m. or so and travel by snowmobile to the waters in my district I wanted to work. Many nights it was below zero and it was imperative to have appropriate cold weather gear and a reliable snowmobile. It was always prudent to be mindful of the sled’s headlight and engine noise when nearing the fishing grounds, depending on the situation. Some of the areas were so remote that the sight or sound of a snowmobile would be unusual and might arouse suspicion.

Once I verified there was fishing activity, I would conduct surveillance. It didn’t take long to determine if the camp lights were on or off or if anyone was checking or working the lines. Nonetheless, I would wait the required hour and then some before taking any action. Usually by midnight or so I would make my approach to the camp. Knocking on the door and waking up the camp occupants, more often than not, resulted in a less than enthusiastic welcome. However, most fishermen understood the errors of their ways and were accountable. Some, perhaps still feeling the effects of camp frivolity earlier in the evening, became quite irritated and agitated. Overall, cool heads would mostly prevail and I was able to do my job with a minimum of conflict.

I always tried to remember that no one appreciates being apprehended and having to pay a fine. I also tried to adhere to some of the age old bits of advice that were offered to me when I began my career. Truisms like “treat people the way you would want to be treated or the way you would want your family treated.” Also, “when you give respect, you tend to get it back.” My lieutenant, Greg Maher, who worked out of the Ashland Headquarters, flat out told me the first day I met with him to simply, “treat people right.” I did my best to keep this in mind in my dealings with the sporting public.

I also always kept in mind those key phrases from the job description of the Maine game warden. Working cusk fishing activity alone at night in the wintertime in Aroostook County has a way of doing that.

Jim Fahey, Outdoors contributor

Jim Fahey worked for the Maine Warden Service as a seasonal dispatcher, deputy and full-time game warden from 1990 to 2019. He patrolled districts in Aroostook and Penobscot counties.