Matt Dickerson: Merry fishing — patience on ice

We were out on the ice of Christopher Lake an hour before sunrise, and 30 minutes before the legal start of the new fishing season. But we needed those 30 minutes. The previous afternoon, in preparation for our early morning excursion, I had drilled 10 eight-inch diameter holes through ice a half a foot thick. But as I expected, an inch or so of new ice had formed during the night, and we needed the augers to reopen the holes.
The holes took about three minutes each, so we finished the process just in time. As the legal fishing day — and, indeed, the entire 2015 ice-fishing season in the state of Maine — began, we dropped the first hooked shiner down through a hole and set the flag on the tip-up so it would pop up if a trout took the bait.
The “we” in this excursion included myself, Matt Kimble from Middlebury, his daughters Caroline and Meredith (“Merry”), and two other high schoolers who had joined our families for a church youth retreat: Meghan Connor from Orwell and Amber Kimball from Weybridge.
For all except me, it was the first experience ice fishing. And to join the adventure they were willing not only to brave the pre-dawn cold, but also to arise at that early hour — no easy task for teenagers, especially ones who had stayed up to midnight to welcome in the new year. Merry, the youngest of the bunch, was most excited of all. She wanted to help with everything from setting the flag to hooking the shiner.
My own experience ice fishing with tip-ups began with my father about 20 years earlier on that same Maine lake, also known as Bryant Pond. The first few years, a generous neighbor lent us tip-ups, drilled our holes with his gas auger, and helped us learn effective depths to set the bait. Eventually my father and I bought a hand auger, and started acquiring our own tip-ups until our collection grew to 15 — enough for three licensed anglers to set out their limit of five each.
Now I know from varied reports that there is fantastic ice fishing in Vermont, including in and around Addison County — in Lake Dunmore and on the big water of Lake Champlain. But since all of my equipment is kept at my parents’ cabin in Maine, and shared with my father, I do all of my ice fishing on that same lake, usually only during the first few days of each new year.
Also, when it comes to ice fishing I am spoiled and lazy. Yes, I do wake more than an hour before sunrise on New Year’s Day and drill a bunch of holes in the ice with a hand auger. But the cottage sits out on a small point with water on two and a half sides. So if the fishing is slow and the temperature, or wind, or precipitation makes it uncomfortable, I simply go inside and sit on the glassed-in porch 20 feet from the pellet stove, make a pot of coffee or hot chocolate, and keep an eye on the tip-ups through the window. If a flag goes up, I slip on hat and boots, walk onto the ice, and haul in a fresh trout — which I will often cook for my very next meal.
The last two years, however, a Jan. 2 start date of the school year prevented me from my annual tradition. So I was almost as eager as my guests that morning to be out on the ice setting tip-ups.
We weren’t even halfway done setting them when the sky began to turn red. The first sunrise of 2015 was a beautiful one. The girls acknowledged it was the first time they had watched the first sunrise of a new year. That alone made the morning worthwhile. Which was a good thing, because that was about the only action we had all day. There are many years when I catch my limit of trout before lunch. Not only would this not be a limit day; we would not succeed in bringing a single fish out of the water.
Not that we didn’t have a couple chances. Two flags did go up over the course of the day. But we failed to land a fish. When I am fly-fishing and lose a fish, I can usually identify the reason, since I am watching the action unfold: I was too slow to set the hook, or I gave the fish slack and it spit the fly, or I pulled too hard and broke the line. When a fish is lost ice fishing, however, it is more difficult to know for certain what happened; all the action is invisible. It is possible to let a fish run for too long. Sometimes a savvy fish will wrap the line around something on the bottom of the lake. Sometimes fish will manage to steal the bait right off the hook.
But I suspect that by far the most common cause of lost fish is impatience. The flag goes up and I immediately try to pull the fish in, without given it a chance to really take the bait in its mouth.
I explained that to Merry after the disappointment of losing the only two fish that took our bait on that first day. So on the second day when a flag went up, and I dashed out of the house to check on it, young Merry came hot on my heels and before I could lift the trap out of the water she started instructing me on what to do: “Don’t pull it in yet. Wait for the fish to run a little bit more.”
It’s hard to ignore advice like that. So I restrained myself, and together we watched the spool of line for several long moments waiting for the fish to make another big run. Then it happened. The tip-up started rattle and the spool began to spin. Thanks to Merry’s good advice, the fish was now fully on the bait. I picked up the line and gave it a tug. The line tugged back.
And since we had Merry to thank, I handed the line to her. She fought and eventually pulled through the ice a fat, brightly colored trout. Her patience paid off, and she had caught her first ever fish through the ice. And I had avoided the ignominy of being skunked and having to write my first column of the year on how beautiful the sunrise was. 

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