Saturday, January 31, 2009

Ice Fishing

Last evening I participated in an opportunity many would have forgone for several legitimate reasons. It was cold, the drive was far, and the activity was, well, not very active, and, oh yeah, it was late at night. Only 3 signed up besides me, we were an intimate group.
I was invited to tag along with the "outdoor experience" group here at the college for the unique outing to the "Baker Smelting Farm", which is what looks like a summer camping and recreation area on the Kennebec River up near Augusta, Maine. For the frozen months it turns into the "smelt farm" which consists of 38 ice huts all lined up in two rows very close together for the purpose of extracting spawning smelt from the depths of the river. The most experienced of our group knew the pertinent question to ask at check in: "How they bitin tonight?". The answer was all we needed to know: "They are pulling lots out and setting their hooks at about ten feet".

Our hut had a small wood stove, 3 bare light bulbs, 2 benches and two troughs cut through the ice so two or four fisherman could fish back-to-back. A bar over each ice hole holds 10 suspended fishing lines and hooks that are baited with "blood worms". When the line starts to do a little zig-zagging dance, you quickly pull the line up as fast as you can to reveal a tiny, thin, silvery 6 to 12 inch fish. They swim together in schools, so when they hit, it is hard to pull them up fast enough. Conversely, when they are not hitting, there is time to do other activities like take pictures, read the graffiti on the hut walls, stoke the fire, change positions, check the lines for bait, and lay out insults to your fellow fishermen (along the lines of "this is so easy, how come you suck at it"). I can easily see why this activity is also known as "ice drinking", although the real "ice drinking" is more prevalent in the privately owned, sparsely scattered huts on lakes where there is just one hole and the object is to catch much larger fish. We could hear lots of whooping and hollering from the other huts, by which one could tell if another run was coming.
By 10:30 and about 100 fish in the bucket we were running low on bait and I could see my opportunity to inquire how much longer we might keep at this "activity" which, for me, had run it's experiential course. I inquired "so when the bait is gone, do we go home?" I got no answer, so I cut the remaining blood worms into larger pieces. Patiently I waited for the bait to disappear and when it did, to my surprise, Ben reached into the fish bucket and grabbed a smelt and tore its lips off and rebaited his hook which, by-the-way, immediately caught another fish. As I am aware young people often stay up late, sometimes all night, I began to realize we might be dipping lines until breakfast, unless swift, subversive action was not taken. Announcing I had to work today and that I was going back to the van to take a nap, I began slowly putting on layer after layer of overkill clothing, carefully listening to the conversation for hints of quitting. I heard none and exited the hut for the trudge up past 50 or 75 cars in the parking lot to the van. This is where it was cold, surely in the lower teens, and I thought I had more than enough clothing. I didn't start the van for warmth because 1. I am tough, 2. Waste of gas, 3. They will be along any minute. Other fishermen were leaving in what looked like a mass exodus closing of the place and the proprietor and children walked past the van to their mobile home for the night. It's over, I thought as car after car shone its lights into my back seat perch wondering if they might stop to check that I was not a frozen body in a parked car.
My fishmates showed up after about an hour ready now for the hour, plus drive back to campus. Apparently most of the insults had been flung because it was relatively quiet on the ride home. Once fish were divvied up we parted ways reassuring each other how fun this was, I drove home, cleaned my fish (some of which contained copious gobs of roe and others had white sperm sacks), and promptly jumped under the electric blanket at about 1:30 AM for a quick nap before work today.
IF YOU GO: $10 per person shack rental, $2 live bloodworms in seaweed. Take snacks, a light heart, and your best insult come-backs.

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