The winter people
Ice fishing in Maine is under fire from property owners, environmentalists, and literary snobs. Why can't hard-wateranglers get any respect?
BELGRADE LAKES, MAINE --Last year, State Representative Matt Dunlap of Old Town, Maine made what turned out to be the most controversial decision of his political career: He tried to shorten ice-fishing season by a month and limit anglers to two holes per man.
"I found myself in the middle of a category five [expletive]-storm," says a surprised Dunlap, who sponsored the bill after several constituents expressed concern that ice fishing was hurting fish populations. "I never had a reaction to a piece of legislation like this . . .. People were suggesting that I oughtta be taken ice fishing and shoved down a hole."
After an intense lobbying effort by the Maine Ice Angler's Association, Dunlap withdrew the bill almost in relief. "It was quite an educational process," he laughs now. "We looked at [ice fishing] as kind of an anachronism . . . like bobcat hunting . . .. We just didn't realize how popular a sport it really was."
Ice fishing has always had something of a roughneck reputation, as the province of hard drinkers and grumpy old men. To those who prefer to fish on liquid water, ice fisherman are cheaters who catch their quarry with multiple baits instead of one line. Ice fisherman carp back that theirs is the purer sport. "Let's face it," says Tim Jackson, founder of the Monmouth-based fish-trap manufacturer Jack Traps and a leader in the fight against the draft legislation. "When you got a $20,000 bass boat with a $20,000 truck you can do anything about as fast as you want. The ice fisherman is kind of old-school."
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Indeed, ice in Maine divides not just air from water but class from class. When the state freezes over, Maine is returned to Mainers one pond at a time. The waterfront cottages empty out and the laborers who built them are able to travel unhindered over the snow-covered lawns. "No Trespassing" signs are no match for the colonial-era Great Ponds Act which makes the liquid part of any Maine lake over 10 acres public property.
"A lot of [shoreowners] think the lake's theirs," says Jackson. "And it isn't. It's ours." When water becomes walkable, Mainers who can't afford a boat can reach prime fishing grounds they could never get to in summer. They mark their property lines with holes augered in the ice and red-flagged fish traps that flutter in the subzero wind. They establish residency in shanties cobbled together from construction scrap and household bric-a-brac.
"Hard-water angling," as its practitioners affectionately call their sport, has no patrician advocates like Hemingway or Sir Isaac Walton, author of "The Compleat Angler." Its legends are folksy and often silly. Early literary references include a Russian fairy tale in which a peasant named Yemelya catches a magic pike through the ice. The pike convinces Yemelya to throw it back, and rewards him with a one-way ride to Moscow on a flying oven.
While ice fishing was not unknown to Europeans, it often seemed to New World settlers like a strange and savage custom. In his 1815 account "Fishing in Lake Simcoe," one George Mead wrote of skating on the Ontario lake and coming upon a giant, twitching animal hide. "I had almost determined to home for my gun," writes Mead, "when I saw the hide which caused all my speculation thrown suddenly aside to make way for the head and shoulders of an Indian . . .. He sat over a square hole cut in the ice, with a short spear ready to transfix any fish which might be attracted to his bait."
Modern sources like Larry Stark and Magnus Berglund's 1992 book "Hook, Line and Shelter" tell of curmudgeons who build private Xanadu shanties and use as many tactics to evade their wives and game wardens as they do to catch fish. The 1993 film "Grumpy Old Men" projected that same image to millions of American moviegoers.
When ice fishing is featured in more highbrow cultural product, it is often with a sinister slant. At the end of Philip Roth's 2000 novel "The Human Stain," narrator Nathan Zuckerman finds the villain, a deranged Vietnam vet, ice fishing on a remote Connecticut pond. The fisherman hints that he has just murdered a college professor and mutters darkly about mysterious others. "I hadn't to ask who `they' were," writes Roth. "I was they, we all were they, everyone but the man hunkered down on this lake jiggling the shortish fishing rod in his hand and talking into a hole in the ice."
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But the 200-odd anglers who fanned out across Long Pond an hour north of Augusta one frigid morning in late January were a far cry from Roth's paranoid ice man. The occasion was Long Pond's first-ever Pike Derby, instituted following the state's decision to open the pond to ice anglers despite the protests of shore-property owners. Most of the fishermen were dads and kids. Nearly all of the dads had learned ice fishing from their own dads and they expressed a nostalgic gratitude to a sport that allows a family to fly kites, throw footballs, and catch fish for less than $30 a day.
The Pike Derby's organizers, Donald and Carla Lynch of nearby St. Albans, are well-versed in fisheries issues; they also have online networking skills to rival a Howard Dean operative. As affiliate members of the Wisconsin-based ice anglers' website IceShanty.com, they summoned the flash-frozen mob to Long Pond entirely via the Internet. Standing on 20 inches of ice in -10 degree temperatures the morning of the derby, Don cheerfully chatted with contestants about the odds of a state-record fish being pulled out. Then his beeper went off.
"A fish!" he said shutting off the flashing light on his new electronic fish-trap. He sprinted across the ice, grabbed the line, and pulled in the first pike of the derby. The green-and-yellow fish flopped twice and then froze into a baseball bat with fins. "He's not big," said Lynch, "but it's a start."
IceShanty.com's 8,500 registered users are not the first to try to spread the gospel of ice. But the books produced from within the community are markedly different from those written by outside observers in two ways. The first is that they are largely out of print. The second is their unabashed mission to convince the reader that ice fishing is worth doing at all.
In the introduction to "Ice Fishing for Everybody" (1948), one of the earliest books devoted entirely to the sport, Byron W. Dalrymple laments the widespread "dread and distaste of the discomforts which low temperatures bring" and urges potential sportsmen to "cast off prejudice and listen with an open mind." In "Ice Fishing: A Complete Guide" (1992), Jim Compossela paints a romantic vision of a night in a frozen hut: "Bring your lover," he muses, "and dine on duchesse potatoes and Cajun-style perch cooked on the ice."
Every generation's hard-water bard announces that technology has at long last defeated cold. Dalrymple writes, "A very great many kinds of jackets, Arctic overall suits, sheeplined boots, leather garments, etc., are slowly becoming available which previous to the war were never even heard of." Jerry Chiapetta's 1965 book "ABCs of Modern Ice Fishing" claims, "There are one-piece subzero suits which are relatively inexpensive, lightweight, comfortable, and even colorful and stylish." And in the 1998 video "Ice Fishing Secrets II," Doug Stange tells us, "There's no reason to be cold out there any more."
All of these books and videos convey an unavoidable truth: Ice fishermen deeply and truly love ice, even after they've fallen through. Paul Jacques, Maine's deputy commissioner of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife still ice fishes ardently even though he fell through one night. "It just takes your breath away. But the key is you don't panic. You panic and you're probably gonna die. Once I hit the bottom I kinda looked up and I could see a spot that was lighter . . . I just pushed up and when I come up out of that hole I just put my hands on the ice and got myself up there and rolled until I hit the trees."
Harold F. Blaisdell, in the ice fishing entry to the 1980 edition of McLain's Fishing Encyclopedia, gets closest to the feeling: "Perhaps the greatest single source of fascination is the drastic change in the relationship between man and water brought about by the dramatic appearance of the ice itself. The waters which now lie hidden beneath the frozen surface immediately become a dark, sealed-off mystery and thus pose a tantalizing and compelling challenge to the fisherman."
Or, as one Long Pond Pike Derby contestant put it, "You never know what's gonna come up through that hole."
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All the wistful poesy, however, has yet to dispel the charge that hounds ice fishing most -- that of unsportsmanlike conduct. Frozen lakes, open-water purists argue, corrals fish into oxygen pockets where they are easily taken in large numbers. Primitive methods, generally a piece of bait stuck on a hook and hung from a spool that springs a flag once a fish hits, finish the job. Fish deep-hooked on bait, yanked out of holes, and exposed to the freezing air, critics say, go into shock and cannot be released unharmed.
This is probably the sharpest bone of contention between hard-water and open-water anglers. In a recent letter sent to Maine's Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, Bob Mallard, of Kennebec Outfitters in Madison, Maine, decried the decision to open Long Pond to ice fishing. "That we continue to cater to a highly consumptive two-month-a-year activity (ice fishing), at the expense of a less consumptive eight-month-a-year activity (open-water fishing) shows that politics, and not economics or conservation drive these decisions," Mallard wrote.
Ice fishermen are, however, working to change their reputation as unsporting killers, with some help from new technology. Beginning in the 1990s, according to Dave Ohldug at Pure Fishing, the largest fishing tackle manufacturer in North America, a group of Midwestern ice fishing experts began working with the company to develop ice-fishing tackle that gave the fish a fighting chance.
And increasingly the ice fisherman is encouraged to move beyond the old ice shanty. With a snowmobile, sonar-based fish finder, power auger, collapsible shelter, specialized jigging rods, and vertical ice jigs (the list goes on and on), the modern ice angler can roam like a sophisticated open-water angler, ever further into the cold, white horizon.
A catch-and-release ethic is even emerging among hard-water anglers. In "Ice Fishing Secrets II," Doug Stange pulls pike after pike from the ice. "Beauty!" he exclaims with Minnesotan bonhomie, before returning each pike to its hole like the Russian peasant Yemelya.
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On Long Pond, however, none of the pike go back down the hole. This is part of a compromise that ice anglers have worked out with the open-water folks.
Once Long Pond was known for a beautiful strain of indigenous landlocked salmon. It was closed to ice fishermen 30 years ago to protect the treasured silver fish. About 15 years ago, an unknown saboteur introduced the barracuda-like northern pike, which enjoys dining on salmon as much as humans do. Soon the salmon were almost eliminated.
The derby fishermen see their hobby as part of the social contract. They will fish out the pike through the ice so that come summer the open-water people with their expensive boats and refined gear can cast their flies for salmon.
Paul Greenberg is the author of the recent novel "Leaving Katya."