A couple weeks ago, on one of those bitterly cold days with a high of single digits, I volunteered to teach a dozen Girl Scouts to ice fish.
As the date approached, the forecast looked bad. A high of 8 degrees and winds 10-15 mph. The Boy Scouts canceled their outdoor hike scheduled for the same day. I spoke with the event coordinator, and we decided our event would go on. Girl Scouts are tough.
The girls ranged in age from 7 to 11 so I decided to fish a youth-only pond. These are ponds that are heavily stocked by the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife and only open to fishing for youth under 16 years old.
I enlisted the help of my friend Jodi. She ice fishes and works with young kids so I knew she would be an asset.
I brought 16 tip-ups, an auger and pop-up ice shack with a propane heater, and met Jodi at 6:30 a.m. at Lower Hinckley Pond in South Portland. The dashboard on my 4Runner read 1 degree. As we walked down to the pond, I felt the condensation from my breath freeze on my fur neck gaiter. We had the pond to ourselves.
When the troops and their parents arrived, the girls chose where they wanted their holes. Jodi and I helped them set their traps, demonstrating how they worked. Then I explained the two biggest rules while ice fishing:
— You yell “flag,” even if it’s not your trap.
— It’s not rude to not make eye contact when speaking with people, since your head should be on a swivel, and constantly scanning for flags.
The flag on 7-year-old Claire’s trap was the first to pop up. Someone yelled, “FLAGGGGG!” and everyone ran to the trap. Claire started pulling in the line but there was no fish, or bait fish.
I put a new shiner on the hook and told Claire we’d get ’em next time. Claire, not to be outdone twice, plopped the tiny chair she’d brought 2 feet from her trap and sat, staring at it. Was it dedication or stubbornness? Either way, it was adorable.
More girls and their parents trickled in, and we set two traps for each of them (the legal limit on that pond). Soon enough, flags were flying, and girls were catching fish all by themselves.
It must have been a sight to see a dozen kids and adults running back and forth to flags. The girls caught numerous brook trout of 8 to 10 inches, one larger brook trout, and many largemouth bass. They were eager to keep and eat their trout; many of them carried their fish around the ice and named them according to size and destination: “appetizer 1,” “snack 2,” “dinner 3.”
The kids weren’t bothered by the cold. Some of them ice skated on the shoveled part of the pond, and if their parents got too cold, they left, and new kids arrived.
Claire redeemed herself when she caught a nice largemouth bass on her trap.
The girls were very interested in the auger’s ability to cut through the ice, and they were inquisitive about the fish-cleaning process. I cut open the trout and removed the guts, pointing out the heart, and dissecting the stomachs to see what the fish had eaten.
Jodi and I shared our favorite recipes with the parents. Mine is to gut and remove the head, bake, and then remove the bones in one piece.
I don’t have kids or nieces or nephews, and I didn’t learn to fish until I was in my 20s, so this experience was new to me in many ways. It was special to see the look of excitement, and sometimes disgust (when I was gutting the fish), on the girls’ faces.
But the best feeling was seeing that look of hope and optimism that anglers of all ages experience when they get a flag and wonder what might be on the other end.