Matt Dickerson: Fresh fish through the ice
The first fish caught me by surprise. It was a landlocked salmon, and a fairly large one by the standards of that small Maine lake: about 18 inches long, with a visible kype identifying it as a male. Perhaps a frustrated male that hadn’t been able to spawn. Although brook trout and possibly landlocked salmon were once native to the lake, any native stock had long since been extirpated. The lake had seen a series of stockings of non-native fish including bass, brown trout and pickerel dating back decades. This was rectified by a “reclaiming” of the lake when I was a child — a poisoning of all fish followed by a reintroduction of species native at least to Maine if not to the local water.
Now the lake, like many New England waters, is dependent on regular stocking as a “put-and-take” fishery. Brook trout, landlocked salmon and a sterile genetic cross between brook trout and lake trout known as splake are annually put into the water to meet the fishing demand of those (like me) who want to take them back out.
Of course reclaiming doesn’t really work. It is much easier to destroy an ecosystem than to heal it — one of those environmental lessons our world is slow to learn. Although the non-native bass and brown trout are gone from the lake, the invasive pickerel somehow also found their way back in along with cusk. And it’s not clear whether the salmon could have spawned no matter how powerfully its instincts drove it. The two inlet streams that brook trout historically spawned up are now a gauntlet of obstacles for any amorous fish: one features a metal road culvert right at the mouth of the lake, followed almost immediately by a second deeper and longer culvert under the railroad track. The other has a channelized section of stream and then a long road culvert followed by a slog through back yards in the center of the village.
None of which I was actually thinking about as I pulled the fish out onto the ice. I was admiring its size and deep brown coloring that could have passed it for brown trout — and indeed for a few seconds left me wondering whether invasive browns had also returned. The fish took the bait before I’d even finished setting up all my tip-ups on the ice, a few minutes before official sunrise as I stood alone on the ice enjoying a peach and salmon-colored sky in between sticking my hand into the icy water to grab the next shiner minnow I was using as bait.
I’d been fishing that lake on Maine’s opening morning of ice fishing season (the first day of the new year) for almost four decades. For some reason back when I was a teenager who had gone to kindergarten in that town, our generous neighbor Milton had enticed my father and me into the sport by drilling holes for us, sharing his bait, and lending us several tip-ups. That pattern continued for a few years until I realized I enjoyed it enough to start buying my own collection of tip-ups. When Milton eventually quit fishing himself, he continued to let us use his power auger. And when he passed away, and his son-in-law claimed the auger, I bought a hand auger so I could continue my January tradition.
My father no longer ice fishes with me, though he enjoys the fresh trout I bring in to him. But now my daughter-in-law Courtney does. And sometimes I can even bribe my sons into helping me drill the holes. Two hours after pulling in the salmon, Courtney was on the ice with me helping. A few more flags went up, and we lost a couple fish who successfully robbed our bait, before we succeeded in pulling in our second, third and eventually our fourth fish: two splake and a brook trout. Splake, since they are sterile, can devote all their energy to growth rather than to reproduction. The brook trout was only a foot long, but the two splake were almost as big as the salmon.
Some of the fun is actually pulling in the fish. Much of the adventure is waiting for the flags to pop up. And since our family cottage sits right on the shore of the lake, we do a fair bit of the waiting inside in the warmth, reading, playing cards and drinking hot drinks. It’s a very soft way to ice fish. When the flags pop up, we slip on our boots and race out onto the ice with adrenaline flowing. The third part of the fun, especially for my biologist daughter-in-law, is dissecting the fish and seeing what they have been eating. She observes all sorts of differences between one fish and another that I would have missed. The fourth part of the enjoyment is the part that everybody shares in: a big dinner of freshly caught pan-fried trout.
On the second day, we dealt mostly with robbers triggering the flags and getting away with the bait. But crime never pays in the long run. The thief who is successful stealing once can’t resist the urge to keep at it, and eventually they get caught. After I pulled in an 18.5-inch splake on the first flag of the day, it was all robbers and false alarms until the middle of the afternoon when we pulled in another smaller salmon followed by a splake that had five of our minnows in its gullet. The robber had been nabbed. Just at dusk, another flag went up and we pulled in one of the invasive pickerel. Happy to remove it from the water, I was going to leave it on the ice to feed the bald eagle that had been patrolling the lake looking for just such leftovers. However Courtney (despite the warnings about pickerel bones) wanted to bring it home and try to make chowder. So we cleaned that one too.
Now all the tip-ups are put away for another year, and I’m sitting around twiddling my thumbs waiting for 2021. Except we do still have one more salmon to eat.
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