A lake covered with glare ice is beautiful, but it can be deadly to deer that discover they can't stand up on the slippery surface. Credit: Courtesy of Jim Fahey

Jim Fahey worked for the Maine Warden Service as a seasonal dispatcher, deputy and full-time game warden from 1990 to 2019. He patrolled districts in Aroostook and Penobscot counties.

Only four game wardens were assigned to the Portage Lake district between 1965 and 2020:

John F. Robertson (1965-77), James A. “Jimmy” Dumond (1977-96), James J. Fahey (1996-2006) and David R. Milligan (2006-20). We all knew each other and had opportunities to work with each other, although our years of active service didn’t necessarily overlap. Even after their retirements, John and Jimmy remained active in their “districts”. They were extremely proud to have worked as Maine game wardens and were always devoted and dedicated to the Portage Lake district.

This story begins in mid-November, sometime around 2002. I had the Portage Lake district and Dave had the Ashland district. We had worked next to each other for about six years and were good friends and working partners, when time allowed.

Dave and I had been out since daylight working early morning deer hunting activity. We were called to respond to Portage Lake because two deer were splayed out on the glare ice. We had already had some cold weather and the ice on the lake had “caught.” I grew up in Bangor but lived and worked in Aroostook County for 12 years. I can tell you that the winter comes about a month earlier and stays about a month longer there compared to southern Penobscot County.

We arrived and found a small crowd of on-lookers had gathered. Everyone was eager to save the deer. However, the ice had just formed and likely was only 2 inches thick, at best. Additionally, the deer were more than 300 yards from our shore, more or less in line with the channel at the mouth of Fish River. Messing around with small boats or canoes on top of the ice wasn’t prudent, and breaking through the ice was a possibility It proved to be too far to effectively put the deer down with a high powered rifle. We dispersed the crowd and told them we’d keep an eye on the deer and go to plan B.

Plan B was as follows. I went to the Portage Lake Volunteer Fire Department, of which I was a member, and borrowed a 500-foot spool of floating rope, designed for ice rescues. Then I recruited Alan Robertson, John’s youngest son, to assist me. Alan was the strongest man in town. With chisels in hand, we carefully checked the ice and worked around the backside of the lake until we were about 150 yards from the deer.

I tied the rope around my waist and set out with my catch pole to capture the deer. Alan’s instructions were simple: If I broke through, he was to reel me in and take me to the old Hutchinson camp, of which he was the caretaker, build a fire and warm me up.

I reached the first deer, which was the smaller of the two, caught it with the catch pole and dragged it back to shore. I released the deer on the frozen, gravelly shoreline. It stood, then took a step and splayed out, even on dry ground. Its ligaments and hip sockets were already compromised from having slipped and struggled on the glare ice. I dispatched that deer and went out for the second one.

I dragged it back and it too couldn’t stand on the beach. I put that deer down, as well. Alan and I field-dressed the deer in order to salvage the meat. As we did so, we noticed an extreme amount of bruising and hemorrhaging in the pelvic area. The deer had battered themselves terribly while trying to regain their feet on the ice. I learned a very valuable lesson that day regarding risk and reward when it comes to “rescuing” deer that have struggled too long on the ice.

A few years later, Jimmy called me on Christmas morning. He lived on Portage Lake and could see a deer down on the ice. We had sufficient ice but had lost our snow cover due to a recent thaw. I lived about a mile from Jimmy and we decided to meet on the lake with our snowmobiles.

The deer had gone down off Oak Point. It wasn’t far from shore but couldn’t regain its feet. Jimmy had a plan. We took a wide nylon strap with loops sewed on the ends and slowly approached the deer. It was a big buck. We could see on his head where he had recently shed his antlers. We each held an end of the strap, carefully positioned the strap behind and along the side of the deer.

We crept toward shore, towing the deer in the makeshift sling. The deer cooperated for several yards then started to thrash and struggle to regain its feet. Jimmy may have uttered a few expletives in French then gave me a direct order.

“Grab him by the ears and we’ll drag him in!”

We did just that. Each of us had hold of one of that deer’s ears and we dragged him the rest of the way to shore. We hit the frozen gravel and released the deer. It stood up and although a little wobbly, took off into the woods. Apparently it hadn’t been down on the ice long enough to cause extensive damage.

As far as we know, it lived, as we never saw any sign of it dying and being scavenged.

As the saying goes, you win some and you lose some.

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Jim Fahey worked for the Maine Warden Service as a seasonal dispatcher, deputy and full-time game warden from 1990 to 2019. He patrolled districts in Aroostook and Penobscot counties.