Ice Fishing: Moosehead Lake, Maine
A fierce southwest wind is blowing off the slopes of Big Moose Mountain, across the frozen white expanse of Moosehead Lake, and into Maine’s Hundred-Mile Wilderness. The cold blast rattles the door of a little green ice fishing shack in the middle of the lake, just off the southern tip of Deer Island.
It’s amazing what a few sheets of plywood and a little wood-fired camp stove can do to stave off the elements. The small shelter sits exposed and alone on three feet of snow-covered ice atop 35 to 40 feet of frigid water — but we’re toasty-warm and very happy to be here. In this wintry locale, an ice fishing hut is a shack of luxury, and a fishing guide who knows what he’s doing is an absolute necessity for novices such as myself, my wife, Carolyn, and our 16-year-old daughter, Tess.
Chris Fenn, our Northwoods Outfitters guide, is busy cutting up an onion and a green pepper for the chili he’ll cook in a stovetop pot. Coffee’s already perking, and there’s hot water for cocoa. After the seven-mile, half-hour snowmobile trip, bucking and rocking across the frozen lake from Greenville, a hot meal is much anticipated.
Ostensibly, we’re here to catch fish. Brook trout, lake trout (known locally as togue), and landlocked salmon swim unseen beneath our feet. But just being here in this harsh, beautiful landscape is the real thrill for tenderfeet like us.
Chris has predrilled a half-dozen holes and marked them with cedar bows so that he can find them again. He fires up the power auger and drills yet another hole. The big bit corkscrews noisily into the silvery ice. When it breaks through, pale-green lake water spurts up like uncorked Champagne.
Chris, his bare hands red with cold, places a tip-up trap baited with a live smelt (for salmon) or a shiner (for trout) in each hole. The traps are spring-loaded so that when a fish strikes, an orange flag flashes up. Throughout the day, Carolyn and Tess, neither of whom has driven a snowmobile before, have a high old time zooming around to check the traps. I’m just as happy jigging with a hand line through a hole directly beneath the shack. Just staring at that opening in the ice, feeling fish toy with the bait, I find deeply relaxing.
While the girls are out checking the tip-ups, I haul a small lake trout through the trap door in the shack floor. They land two trout and a nice fat salmon. Chris would gladly fry up our catch for us, but we set all four fish free to be caught another day. It’s really the chili that’s whetted our appetites.
“Food always tastes better when it’s cooked out here,” says Chris as he hands around the bowls.
Hot and spicy, served with thick slices of warm bread, Chris Fenn’s fish-house chili is just what we need to fortify body and soul for the long, cold trip back across the ice to the suburban lives we’ve happily left behind for a winter’s day.