Sam Schipani and John Holyoke ice fishing on Fields Pond in Orrington, Maine. Credit: Courtesy of Alexander Cole

Back in the olden days (as my stepchildren might call those times when I was their age, and cell phones hadn’t even been invented), I was not an ice fisherman.

I had relatives who had “ice houses,” and who spent weekends sleeping on northern lakes, returning late each Sunday night, often with a monstrous (to me) lake trout that they’d deliver, wrapped in a green Hefty garbage bag, to my dad.

That was about all I knew about ice fishing back then: Some people did it. They didn’t (apparently) freeze to death. And they thought it was great fun.

Other than that, ice fishing was a mystery.

Eventually, I was introduced to the sport while spending some time on Long Lake in St. Agatha under the tutelage of a longtime ice angler who was eager to show me everything he’d ever learned.

And for a number of years I was hooked (pardon the overused pun).

One of the things that I learned right off the bat: There is much more to ice fishing than sitting on a frozen lake, freezing your butt off. That’s not to say that I didn’t spend some unproductive days doing exactly that, of course. But I learned that even on those cold, windy days when the fish refuse to participate, ice fishing can be a great time.

There are a few keys to having fun while ice fishing, I have learned.

First, if you go out onto your favorite lake with low expectations, you’re almost guaranteed to exceed them.

Sounds odd, I know. But figure: If you go out planning to catch a state record togue, you’ll always fail to meet your goal, because that record only gets broken every 62 years. If, however, you head out expecting to catch nothing, then everything you pull up through the hole is a bonus.

Does that mean you’re a pessimist? I suppose so. Or, perhaps you’re just being a hopeful realist who’d be satisfied with next-to-nothing. As long as there’s food.

Which brings us to the second key to a satisfying day on the lake: Plan to bring enough food to feed your fishing party. Then double it. That way, no matter how few flags are flying on your fishing traps, you have plenty of good grub to cheer you up. And having all kinds of extra food is a good way to make new friends. Offer a passing snowmobiler a hot dog or a bowl of chili, and you might end up with a friend for life. And that’s even better than catching a fish. (Unless it’s a state record togue, of course.)

And that brings us to the final key to a great day on the ice: Take some good friends with you, and you’ll never have time to worry about the slow fishing. You’ll be too busy telling stories, and tending traps, and laughing, and eating, for anything to get in the way of your good time.

I’ll admit, I’ve spent a few miserable days on the ice over the years. But when I think back on those frustrating outings, all of them have at least one thing in common. I may have headed to the lake with unrealistic expectations. I may not have taken enough food. Or, most likely, I headed out alone and found that I really missed the company of a few good friends.

Those failures, I figure, were my fault, and entirely avoidable.

A final disclaimer: It may seem that I’m sending mixed messages. Yes, last week I advised you to stay off the ice unless you were sure you knew where it was safe . I stand by that advice, and will double down on it this week: It’s going to rain in much of Maine this weekend, and the ice won’t get much safer. Be careful. Be safe. Heck, wait a week or two before you go out. (The fish will still be there.)

And then, finally, we can start having some real fun on the ice.

See you out there. (Just not now.)

John Holyoke can be reached at or 207-990-8214. Follow him on Twitter: @JohnHolyoke. His first book, “Evergreens,” a collection of his favorite BDN columns and features, is published by Islandport Press and is available wherever books are sold.

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John Holyoke

John Holyoke has been enjoying himself in Maine's great outdoors since he was a kid. He spent 28 years working for the BDN, including 19 years as the paper's outdoors columnist or outdoors editor. While...