Sunday, February 28, 2010

Ice Finale

Last week’s storms wreaked havoc on much of Connecticut's fishable ice, save a few bodies of water in the northwest hills. The deteriorating conditions, coupled with several lakes closing on the last day of February, meant that Saturday’s ice trip would be my last of the season. My uncle and I decided to join a few anglers on a notoriously stingy walleye lake, but one that we believe is no doubt home to multiple state records.

The edges of the lake were shot, but a plank was used to get on the main body of ice. The remaining ice was enough to fish comfortably on, but it was getting funky fast. There were small open holes everywhere, which never refroze from past fishing trips. We had to watch our footing all night, as these holes were now covered by snow. We each set our five tip-ups baited with large shiners right off bottom in 23 to 14 feet of water. Each tip-up was also set with a light that would blink red if our baits were taken.

Our partners that night had one flurry of action, with four flags going up in a matter of five minutes. One of the flags produced a 19-inch walleye, which was the angler’s first from this lake and taken home for breakfast.

The rest of the night was rather quiet save for the occasional snow squall moving through. I jigged up a lone rock bass and patiently waited for blinking red lights that never came.  My uncle and I had one last ice feast, packed up the shelter and pulled our traps for the final time of the season.

Yes, some anglers will be walking on ice next weekend in Connecticut.  Everything from planks, ladders, waders, and kayaks will be used to get on for one last flag.  As for me, I will take this week to store away all my ice gear for the next nine months. The hardwater season went quick like it always does, but that is sometimes a good thing. The toll of ice fishing can be draining on the mind, body, wallet, and partner. I love to ice fish, but part of the reason I love it so much is because you can only do it for a few months each year.  None the less, I had a great season and enjoyed every minute of it. 

Wednesday, February 24, 2010


Lake trout are revered as one of the premier freshwater game-fish of North America. For many anglers, there isn't a better time of year to target them than in the thick of winter. Unlike many sweetwater species, lakers, or togue, as they are sometimes referred to, are more active in the colder months, which makes them excellent quarry for ice fishermen. Although a lake trout fishery does not exist here in Connecticut, they thrive in several deep, cold lakes of New England, one of which we traveled to last weekend.

The annual lake trout derby on Maine's Sebago Lake is something that I look forward to each winter. This tournament can take on a real circus atmosphere, yet I pencil it in every year and the trip's crew continues to grow. I'm not a big fan of fishing tournaments, but I make an exception for the Sebago derby. The big water experience is something I can't get on my home waters and there is a chance to stick a trophy fish with every drop of your jig. The $65,000 in prizes doesn’t hurt either.

Good friends, who have long since moved to Maine from Connecticut, have hosted me since my first derby years ago. It wasn't long before I introduced my uncle to the scene on Maine's second largest lake. To round out the crew this year, two more die-hard fishing buddies signed-on. We headed north Friday morning in a truck spilling out with gear, only to binge at four more shops along the way, including the staple stop at New Hampshire's duty-free liquor warehouse.

For weeks leading up to the tournament, I monitored Sebago's ice conditions and weather forecasts via internet forums and telephone calls. The sad reality was that most of the lake was ice free, including each location I had ice fished in past derbies. Sebago's monstrous Big Bay had skimmed over a few times this winter, but each time wind and even rain ruined her chances of locking up for good. Where there was ice, it was quickly becoming questionable and thousands of anglers on ATV's, snow-mobiles, and on foot would soon be risking their lives for fish. This same ice scenario played out a few years ago and tournament officials decided to play it safe and open the derby statewide.  However, this year, for reasons I cannot explain, the powers at be decided to go on with the Sebago tournament as planned, even with her sketchy ice conditions and miles-long pressure ridges.

Upon arriving to the shores of Sebago Friday afternoon, we used fading daylight to scout potential fishing locations for the following two days, or so we thought. As luck would have it, we talked to the right gentleman in a parking lot overlooking Sebago's Lower Bay, which was already dotted with dozens of ice shacks, and would undoubtedly be a zoo in the morning. This Good Samaritan put our group of four out-of-towners on two remote access points; spots we would never have stumbled upon on our own. Each area was clearly posted "private", but with most of the lake unfishable, we decided to take our chances to get away from the masses.

We headed back to the weekend headquarters in Steep Falls, where we tweaked gear, ate like kings, and swapped stories around the woodstove, while sipping choice beverages. Morning came fast and we let the sun rise before setting out, mostly for safety purposes, as no one wanted to cross the pressure cracks for the first time at dark-thirty. With help from a bathymetric map, we found suitable depth changes diagonally off a fishy-looking point. The Nils power auger made short work of the ice and before long over one hundred 8-inch holes were punched in the vicinity. We set up traps with dead baits right on bottom, in depths ranging from 50 to 90 feet of water.

Our group soon got to jigging.  All the tried-and-true laker jigs that we had heard or read about made an appearance, from tube jigs stuffed with sucker meat to Airplane jigs tipped with fish fillets.We did manage to mark some targets and even got a few to chase, but they lacked any real commitment and the fish seemed to be glued to the bottom.

The one and only flag of the entire day tripped mid-morning in about 70 feet of water. It was one of Derrick’s traps and he had to make a 150-yard dash from a solo jigging mission. There was a healthy amount of line taken out and when he finally caught up, it was taught and off to the side – a great sign. A solid hook set was made and it was game on. After a few minutes and some nice runs, flashes began to show through the hole. Aaron readied the gaff and gently pulled the trout from water. Derrick’s first lake trout was on the ice and our group was on the board. The fish weighed in at 6.4 lbs. and held first place for much of the day.

All the while we jigged, cooked and relaxed, the ice was melting from underneath us. For Maine, in February, it was a beach day. The predicted winds for Saturday were thankfully off the mark and the mercury reached the mid-forties. I don’t think anyone anticipated how quickly the “safe” ice would deteriorate. The pressure ridges grew wider and wetter with each pass from the ATVs and snow machines. The ice began to turn noticeably soft too and the Nils took less and less time to drill through it. We heard air boats humming around the lake, but little did we know that they were being used by Maine game wardens to ferry off anglers trapped on sketchy ice. I had the utmost confidence that the crew I had invited brought the tools, knowledge and experience to get home safely, but that cannot be said for everyone that walked on the lake that day. 

After a tough day of fishing, and a long walk back to the truck, we were greeted in the lot by two game wardens who notified us that second day of the tournament would be canceled due to the now horrible ice conditions. We were told that seven vehicles, eight ATVs, two snow-mobiles, and 18 anglers went in the drink that day, thankfully none of which were hurt seriously.

Photo credit: Aaron Swanson

We were happy to be on terra firma, but extremely bummed that our chances for another lake trout ended right there in that dirt lot. There were parts of Sebago that could still support anglers, and even snow machines, but it just wasn’t worth the risk. We headed back to home base and recapped the day over a Thanksgiving-style meal. Another night full of laughs and stories commenced and we plotted a backup plan for the morning. A classic lake with a brown trout and alewife combination was chosen, as the other quality lake trout destinations were too far of a drive.  We came to Maine to fish for lake trout and the gear and mentality we brought showed that.  Although a very good time, the next day's fishing was anticlimactic.  We took our time and we took our skunk standing safely on 16 inches of ice.  Each trip is a learning experience and one can never stop learning.  Enjoy the video; tight lines.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010


The camaraderie of smelting is unmatched. There is something about good friends gathered around holes in the ice, catching Rainbow smelt and shooting the breeze. The more the merrier for this type of fishing, as the chum and jigs just attract more smelt.

Many northern New England tidal rivers have winter populations of anadromous Rainbow smelt.  However, Connecticut has a handful of lakes with their smaller, land-locked brethren.  These slender, carnivorous fish are tasty to both humans and game-fish.  The end goal of a smelting trip is to catch enough to bait your tip-ups for trout and to take enough home for a solid meal.  Some days you can catch your limit in a few hours, other days you can punch 100 holes and only find a dozen.

Although I release most of what I catch while fishing, smelt don't go back.  These are too good to pass up and don't even need to be cleaned.  My uncle taught me his way of preparing the smelt that is simple, yet delicious.  Heat a small skillet medium-high with peanut or vegetable oil.  Dip the smelt in whisked egg yolk, then into flour or bread crumbs.  Next fry the smelt in the oil until they take on a light, crispy brown.  Afterwards, dry the smelt on paper towels, lightly coat with sea salt and enjoy.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Woven Nymphs

A fly fishing technique known as European nymphing, or Euro nymphing, is quickly catching on in American angling circles. There are many variations, but the basic concept of Euro nymphing is the use of weighted flies instead of adding lead split to your tippet. Tying flies with tungsten bead heads or lead underbodies will help get your flies into the strike zone quicker, as well as allow the angler better contact with his or her rig during the drift. Below is an example of a simple pattern, woven with green embroidery floss, that is easy on the wallet and extremely effective on trout. 

Monday, February 1, 2010

Wolf Moon

Moon phases play a major role in Native American culture. Each month's full moon was given at least one name by the natives; sometimes several. One of January's full moon names is the Wolf Moon, which derives from when hungry wolf packs would howl outside indian villages on winter nights. 

It was under a bright Wolf Moon that I last walked on the ice. Our headlamps were more or less useless during setup in the predawn hours. The temperature dropped to zero degrees, yet we still worked up a sweat. After base camp was settled, the sun rose over the tree line and tip-up flags started popping. Maybe the full moon turned on the trout bite? It was a great day on the ice either way.