An Allagash morning in mid-February is special, especially if you awaken to it in your down sleeping bag from an ice-fishing shack stuck in the middle of Eagle Lake. As the morning sun beamed across Pillsbury Island, my setter Sally snuggled in closer. I rubbed some moisture off the window beside the bunk and studied the new dawn.
My hosts for this fishing trip, Milo outdoorsmen Eric Foss and Tom Russell, dozed on. They call their shack, which is more a neat, cozy, well-designed 8-foot by 12-foot cabin on Teflon skis, the E.F. Foss Eagle Lake Base Camp. These young men, who know this country well, picked a good name for their ice camp. In these surroundings, there is an arctic-adventure aura about it all.
Outside this morning, the sun, for all its brightness, has not even budged the thermometer: it’s 25 below. Wind-blown snow has covered much of our extra gear. The snow crunches underfoot like walking on Rice Krispies. As far as the eye can see, there are unbroken fields of snow against a backdrop of dark, jagged fir trees. Above, an occasional airliner can be seen and heard, its hot exhaust leaving white contrails in an otherwise seamless sky.
Before the fishing can begin, there are basics to be tended to at Foss Base Camp.
Coffee must be made. Then bacon, eggs and toast. Layers of clothing put on. Ice chipped from tote-sleds and bait containers. Stubborn snowsled engines teased to life. And, oh yes, the ceremonial trip to the outhouse. This is a short, cold snowmobile ride up the lake to a designated “facility” at Thoreau Campground on Pillsbury Island.
Within an hour, we are fishing for whitefish at the north end of Chamberlain Lake. As we drop a jigging lure down an ice hole and work our jig poles up and down, there is time for small talk.
It seems that Russell and Foss, who are partners in a roofing business and work long days when the weather warms, have been making extended winter stays at Eagle Lake for a number of years. During March, most of their days will be spent on the ice, and they will watch ice conditions closely looking for the right time to remove their home away from home.
A couple of characters, these two are, and diehard fishermen. Russell builds and flies small planes when he’s not working on roofs, or trying to outfox fish. From the air or on the ground, this guy knows the nooks and crannies of Piscataquis County like no other. And, though an easy-going maverick who loves a practical joke, he is a serious angler who calculates his angling every step of the way.
Foss, an equally serious angler, loves woodworking almost as much as the outdoors. His craftsmanship is evident to anyone who steps inside the E.F. Foss Base Camp. His ice shack is meticulously built for efficiency of space, warmth and lightness. Amenities include a gas range, four bunks, CB radio, electric lights, outside spotlight, drying racks, propane heat, thermopane windows and white paneling. A man with a dry wit, Foss’s pride in his ice shack is apparent as he sweeps and polishes after every meal.
By mid-morning, the whitefish begin hitting our jigging lures. The action is brisk. By noon, we have fish for supper and a few to take home. Three of the whitefish are in the 3-pound class.
That afternoon, fishing at Eagle Lake, a 22-inch brook trout takes my large redfin shiner and runs the line out to the stops. Foss puts a 16-inch brookie on the ice, and we cut the leaders on some short togue that slip back under the ice.
In between chasing tipups, we share our venison burgers with a visiting game warden and talk fishing techniques. Russell, who has over the years been tightlipped about ice-fishing tricks of the trade, finally loosens up. “Fishing,” he says, “is like the courting ritual. It’s all in how you present yourself.” Some tips from his notebook (fishing, not courting): 1) Use a good, cold weather leader that has minimal “memory.” 2) Leader length should be twice as long as the largest fish you expect to catch. 3) Sinker should be far enough up the leader so that the fish will not feel it against it’s side when swimming away with your live bait. 4) Fishing depth? “Fish where the food is; find the feed and you find the fish.”
Russell won’t fish with smelts. He prefers redfin shiners because they stay lively, but don’t swim in circles like smelts and twist up your leader material.
When I left Russell and Foss on the fourth day for the long trip home, both were planning to stick around and ride out the next big storm. They hoped to squeeze in a little more fishing before returning to civilization for hot showers and a replenishment of supplies.
I wish them warm nights and safe sledding. Their companionship, generous nature and downhome outdoor savvy reminded me once again of why special places in Maine are always most memorable when shared with good people.
V. Paul Reynolds is editor of the Northwoods Sporting Journal. He is also a Maine Guide, co-host of a weekly radio program “Maine Outdoors” heard Sundays at 7 p.m. on The Voice of Maine News-Talk Network (WVOM-FM 103.9, WCME-FM 96.7) and former information officer for the Maine Dept. of Fish and Wildlife. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.