A winter’s tale that warms the heart

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Author’s note: This article is a chapter from my forthcoming new book “Backtrack.” My conscience compels me to confess that I am not the ice fisherman I once was. This note is being written from Islamorada in the Florida Keys. It’s 82 degrees with a balmy breeze from the southeast.

New Englanders have come to expect cold weather in January, but the recent period of sub-zero temperatures and relentless high winds have given new meaning to the words “cold spell.” A rash of school cancellations in both Maine and Massachusetts, accompanied by alarmist weather forecasters who seem to take perverse delight in scaring older folks, makes some of us question whether New Englanders still deserve their national reputation for being stalwart, rugged individualists.

The New England Temperature Conversion Chart reminds us of our responsibility to live up to our legacy. Here’s what the chart says about 10 degrees below zero: “Californians fly away to Mexico. All the people in Miami die. Even Toyotas won’t start. Girl Scouts in Rhode Island are selling cookies door to door. Men in Massachusetts put the earflaps down on their hats. Mainers let the dog sleep indoors and put down their house windows before heading out to ice fish.”

We never used to close schools during a cold snap. And youngsters of all ages used to walk to school, not ride a bus. Weather forecasters never told us it was “dangerous” to go outside on a bright, sunny winter’s day.

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It seems to me that Maine outdoorsmen aren’t being as bold with the cold as they once were either. I have noticed that during November cold snaps, fewer and fewer deer hunters are standing vigils in the cedar swamps. Heater hunters are increasing in numbers. Sea duck hunters are a dying breed. And more and more ice fishermen are hunkering down at home in January and promising themselves a day on the ice in early March.

Maine weather can be fickle with an endless capacity to delight and disappoint. It has taught me this: if I wait for the perfect weather window to hunt, fish or camp, my outdoor experiences will be few and far between. So most of the time I plan a trip and follow through come hell or high water. As a result, I have a pocketful of memories — some bad — but most of them good.

This past weekend as the deep freeze began to loosen its vise-like grip on Maine, my son, my grandson and his school buddy, my dog and I snow sledded into our northern Maine camp for a few days of ice fishing. First day on the ice a fierce wind wailed down the lake out of the north. As we drilled ice holes and set our tip-ups, a wall of wind-driven snow moved down the frozen lake surface like a cloud of sea fog. Above the white layer, a bright sun and a cloudless, cobalt- blue sky served as a breathtaking backdrop to Maine’s tallest mountain. Katahdin, bathed in pinks and purples, draws my attention almost as much as a sprung tip-up flag fluttering in the stiff wind.

For me there is a seductive grandeur to it all despite numb fingers and stinging cheeks. It is, well, invigorating and it stirs your sense of adventure and heightens your awareness of His power to move the universe as He sees fit.

We ice fishermen are merely visitors here, outdoor voyeurs along for the ride.

The fish seem impervious to the wild weather scene topside. Our shiners are a major attraction wiggling beneath the ice. The pickerel, splake and salmon bite like there is no tomorrow. That is ice fishing, I have learned. Some days its is like watching paint dry; other days, like this one, it is non-stop action as tip-up after tip-up pops into view above the snowy windows. The kids and the dog love it. It becomes a contest to be the first to see the flag, and the first to put a legal fish on the ice.

My Grandson’s friend, Nick, who is new to ice fishing, learns fast for a 13-year-old. He is attentive to the flags and aggressive about his quarry in a quiet way. He bagged his first deer in November. A natural outdoorsman. He is hooked. The heritage will be safe with Nick. Ice fishing is one way to bring young people along. Dressed right and fed well, they don’t seem to sweat the cold.

As the wind builds at midday, the heated ice shack and its amenities become increasingly attractive. Among these are vension burgers, hot chili and a game or two of cribbage.

By day’s end, we are tired. The wind and the cold wears you down, even when there is lots of action. We pull our traps, collect our day’s catch, warm our hands in the ice shack, and then head down the lake for camp. Young Nick has outfished us all bringing home first fish, most fish and biggest fish.

“If you don’t want the pickerel, I’ll take them,” I say to Nick. Protective of his catch, Nick says “maybe.” He says that he needs to check with his dad by cell phone to get his OK to part with the pickerel.

Back at camp, the fires are stoked with dry beech. Outside it is 20-below zero with a too-familiar north wind that is supposed to subside during the night. Inside there is a warming wood fire and scallop stew and biscuits on the table.

There will be more time on the ice tomorrow, and a forecast of light wind and moderating temperatures is music to our ears. Nick talks to his Dad on the cell phone. We vote to turn in early.

“You can have my pickerel,” Nick says, climbing into his sleeping bag.

The author 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, WQVM-FM 101.3) and former information officer for the Maine Dept. of Fish and Wildlife. His e-mail address is paul@sportingjournal.com and his new book is “A Maine Deer Hunter’s Logbook.”

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