A Trip with the Stars

On Friday, the travel restrictions to Maine were eased. By Sunday, our car was jam-packed full of fishing gear, and we were crossing the Piscataqua bridge into an outdoors person’s paradise. Our destination was Sebago Lake, where on Monday, I’d be heading out on the ice with some of Maine’s finest guides and the On The Water crew.

When we passed the boat launch at Jordan Bay, one of two weigh stations for the annual Rotary Club fishing derby, there were dozens of recreationists on the lake; however, when we passed the main lake on our way into camp, it was still completely open water. I prayed that the area near our cabin would at least be somewhere in the middle.

After two-and-a-half hours of driving, we arrived, and so did my grandparents shortly after my mom and I. We unpacked the car, and I was soon headed over to our neighbor, Tom Roth’s, house.

Tom is a guide on the lake, and a great one at that. He is the friendliest, kindest, and most enthusiastic guide I have ever had the pleasure of joining on a fishing trip. During the summer, he keeps his highly advanced boat, the “Black Ghost”, on Sebago and regularly takes clients out trolling for lake trout (or “togue”, as Mainers call them) and salmon. His experience in the outdoors is obvious through the stories he tells and the fish he consistently helps those with him catch. I would not be going on this trip were it not for Tom, and am extremely grateful for his generous invitation.

On top of asking me to come on Monday, Tom lent me his brand-new 10″ electric ice auger, along with an ice scoop and an assortment of dead suckers and shiners. I don’t know about you, but I’m not sure I’d jump on the chance to let a teenage boy use my brand-new, sharp, and expensive tool. I took it before he could change his mind, but not before briefly talking with him about the next day’s trip. Through his plaster-covered mouth (he was working on re-tiling his bathroom), he explained that he’d pick me up at 4:30 the next morning, and that he hoped to have everything set up on the ice before the film crew’s arrival at 6:00. That meant a 4:00 wake-up call for me, and most likely for those staying with me in the cabin as well.

When I returned to our camp, I was surprised to find that all three of my fellow vacationers were willing to support my early awakening. Monday was already promising to be a great day!

After loading my sled, I headed out on the hard water, carefully checking the ice thickness every few steps to ensure my safety. My first obstacle was a large pressure ridge that, as far as I could tell, stretched from end-to-end across the eight-mile-wide lake. You could think of the pressure ridge like volcanoes formed by tectonic plates. One plate of ice collides with another and forces it to rise. Water, like lava, gradually seeps out of the crack and weakens the surrounding ice, often forming large puddles despite the freezing temperatures. These areas are dangerous, but at first, I didn’t think anything of it. I simply found a spot where a snowmobile had crossed earlier, tried my best not to get soaked by the puddle, and made sure my gear didn’t spill after jouncing over the lip of the ridge.

A pressure ridge that continues as far as the eye can see.

I made my way to an inside-turn depth change in about 70 feet of water and began setting up my traps. After they were set, I popped one final hole and began jigging.

Four hours and zero bites later, I packed up my things and began the trek back to home-base. By now, my phone had died, and the sun was beginning to set behind the tall white pines. I made my way back to where I had crossed the large crack earlier, but noticed the standing water on top of the ice was significantly wider and deeper. I began to worry slightly, but forged on, determined to get some food in my aching belly. I let go of the sled and put on my ice picks, preparing for the worst. Methodically, I eased my foot across the crack and onto the other side into a shallow puddle. The ice held, so I began to shift my weight and step with the other.

Suddenly, without warning, the ice gave way, and my boot slid into the icy-cold water. I jumped back to where I had stood previously, and now with a foot soaked up to the ankle, considered my options. With no means of communicating with my family, I’d either have to find another place to cross, or hope that somebody noticed me.

The green-tinted puddles were now much deeper than before.

I paced back and forth across the cove, looking for another point to venture over the ridge. In one direction, the puddles became deeper and the crack larger. In the other, rocks warmed the surrounding ice, thinning and weakening it.

Twenty minutes had passed when I noticed my mom and grandfather on the dock. They told me to stay put, and I soon heard the garage door opening. My grandfather came walking out with half-a-dozen thin but long wooden boards, likely just enough to support my weight. There’s no way he wants me to stand on those I thought.

I thought wrong. Chuckling, he told me to get in my sled and toss the rope to him so that he could pull me across. I told him he was insane. Instead, we decided to compromise. He laid the boards across the hole my foot had gone through, and we began shuttling gear across. First thing was first: I handed him Tom’s auger, explaining that, while Tom was incredibly understanding, he may be a little mad if I lost his brand-new tool after just a few hours of use. Piece by piece, I handed my grandfather all my gear, going, for the most part, in order from most expensive to least expensive. Eventually, I was left with an empty sled, which was easily towed across when I tentatively stepped across the rickety planks to the opposite ice shelf. Not wanting to stick around for much longer, I quickly loaded my gear up again and raced to the comfort of the heated cabin.

I was early to bed that night, but not before admiring the stunning night sky, ablaze with hundreds of twinkling stars.

The sound of the blaring alarm the following morning was the last noise I wanted to hear. Notwithstanding, I was swiftly out of bed and into the countless layers I would be wearing that morning to stave off the cold. Breakfast consisted of dry oatmeal (there wasn’t enough time to cook it) and as much water as I could force into my mouth before I just about drowned.

Tom’s truck came rumbling in promptly at 4:30, and before long, we were off to the races. On the way to the boat launch, we discussed the 1,619-foot radio tower visible from anywhere on the expansive lake. At one point the tallest man-made structure in the US, the tower truly is a feat of human ingenuity.

Upon arrival at the launch, we unloaded the two-seated snowmobile from Tom’s new trailer and got our gear packed into the dogsled attached to the back. Tom got the snow machine down to the ice, and I hopped on the back. Reluctant to mention it was just my third time riding one of the vehicles, I held on tight while he ran us out to the spot.

Noticing it was already 5:45, Tom hurriedly unhinged the dogsled from the snowmobile and left to pick up the rest of the crew. Already at the spot were Sebago guides Jon Peterson, Dan Hillier, and Glen Gisel. We immediately sparked up a conversation about local fishing and my goal of one day becoming a college professor of fisheries biology. They were a great group of guys that obviously knew their stuff. In between setting up for the big event, it was great to get to know them, especially seeing as meeting them had been a dream of mine since I began fishing the lake when I was little.

Our little ice fishing “village”.

I soon found myself drilling a hole and dropping a jig down the hole. The rod I was using, the butt section and baitcasting reel from Tom’s 1944 Shakespeare Service, was truly an antique, and really special to just get the chance to hold. Dropping my lure through 160 feet of water took a while, but eventually it hit bottom and I began the process of searching for my first bite of the day.

Within 20 minutes of my first drop, I could once again hear the snowmobiles pulling up to the spot, this time with precious cargo. Cameramen Andrew Burke and Adam Eldridge of On The Water, a Northeast magazine and TV producer, were already in the process of filming when they got to our miniature ice village, and I tried my best to act as natural as possible. Maybe I did too good a job, because I was shortly walking away from the cameras with the auger in tow, looking for another spot to try.

The name of the game when jigging through the ice is staying mobile. Unlike open water fishing, when you’re on hard water, the area your lure can be fished is only a straight line directly beneath you. Even a five-foot difference can make a difference sometimes, especially with depth-oriented species like togue. While Jon and Dan helped Chris Megan and Jimmy Fee from OTW get started, they too moved around frequently to find the first sign of activity.

Before long, everybody was marking fish on their graphs, yet we weren’t getting any hits. It wasn’t until Glen tipped his jig with a bit of natural bait that we began to see fish hit the ice.

Glen’s first fish was a welcome sight, both for the anglers and the film crew. It was beautifully marked togue, not too big, but also not a runt. All of us took the natural bait hint, and hoped to also feel a tug on the end of our lines.

Glen’s second fish was really the tip-off that he was in the honey hole. Despite the fact that I was fishing at most twenty feet from him, my fish finder displayed at most half as many fish as his was reading. The guys from OTW also came to get in on the action, and drilled holes right next to Glen. By the time he caught his third trout, we knew it must be the fisherman and not the fish.

Tom was the next one to experience some luck. Being the only one without a flasher (I was using his), he had a serious handicap, yet he managed to pull up the largest, and by far the darkest, fish of the day. While he gave his spiel to the camera, I stood next to him, looking stupidly at the camera. Yes, I probably could have had a little more personality, but honestly, I was pretty star-struck. This was a welcome interruption, but I headed back to my hole to continue the grind.

Tom’s large dark togue.

Finally, after hours of waiting, I felt a big bite on my line. I had turned my flasher off earlier because of competing signals with others in the area, so it was a surprise when I felt the fish. I clumsily set the hook, but because the rod was so stiff, there wasn’t nearly as much give as I was used to. The rod went flying out of my hands and onto the ice next to me, and I scrambled to recover it before the fish got away. We all wished the cameras had been rolling for that moment!

Luckily, when I did retrieve the rod, the weight was still at the end of the line. Reeling up 160 feet of line is never easy, but it was made even more difficult with a fish on the other end. It didn’t feel big, but we thought the size could have been dulled by the heavy rod. I continued cranking until we saw colors beneath the ice, at which point Adam stuck a GoPro through the hole to film the catch.

Unfortunately, I was right about the small size of the fish. Nevertheless, it felt great to get a togue on the ice, and my first one ever through the ice at that. The pale yellow belly and brook trout-like vermiculations made my day. I was beyond grateful for the chance to go out that day, and pleased with the gift of perfect fishing weather.

A beautiful Sebago Lake lake trout.

I was less happy about the necessity to kill the fish. If you ask 100 Sebago anglers their thoughts on killing lake trout or releasing them, you’d probably get a 50/50 split in beliefs. I can see both ways, but always struggle to end a living creature’s life. If you haven’t read my previous post about invasive smallmouth bass, it goes over a similar theme, although I definitely feel it’s futile to kill bass in Sebago. At least these fish would be used for a good purpose; Glen had a friend who would be smoking them, a local delicacy.

The rest of the morning was fairly uneventful with a couple sporadic catches here-and-there. Before we could enjoy one of Jon’s famous meals, Tom and I headed back to get to work and school, respectively. We bid good luck to the rest of the crew, who would be out there the next day as well.

On the way back to the parking lot, I couldn’t believe my good fortune. In only two short days, my family had managed to pull together a trip I would remember for years. They were willing to support my ridiculously early wake-up call, even though they were supposed to be on vacation. They even cared enough to pick me up in time for my third-period class, which, thanks to having a remote schedule that day, I was able to participate in despite being in Maine.

A huge thank you to all who made this possible, including Tom and the other Sebago guides, the On The Water crew, and especially my mom and grandparents. Last Sunday, when I should have been writing a blog post, I was enjoying myself on this trip, which is why a new post never got published last week. I planned on posting one late, but schoolwork piled up, and I never did get around to it. Consider this extra-long piece my effort to fulfill your fishing blog reading desires.

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