My body aches but my spirit is elated. It has been one of the strangest winters I can remember – as far as ice fishing goes.
Last month was downright ugly. The fraternity of hardwater fishermen was painfully reminded that our choices should always be taken with a measure of caution and reason. When the warm spell in February hit, we knew it was possibly the end of a very short season.
We saw the ice form honeycomb patterns and water rushed down the holes we’d drilled just a few days before. Cracks began to widen, and our hopes teetered on the crevasse of open water between the tectonic plates.
Some were brave. Some were foolish. But either way, I have never felt that any fish was worth testing out my new flotation suit. Many sportsmen prayed that the full schedule of state-wide ice fishing derbies still held the possibility of winning a sizable pot of cash.
Everything changed on the weekend of Feb. 9-11. The first news to break was hearing that 62-year-old Wayne Alexander of Grand Isle fell through the ice off Grand Isle State Park. They recovered his body, then just two days later John Fleury, 71 years old from Williamstown and his brother, Wayne Fleury, 88 years old, from East Montpelier drove a two-seater utility task vehicle with a cab onto the ice at Keeler’s Bay in South Hero and broke through. Both bodies were recovered. John was pulled from the water, rushed to the hospital and was pronounced dead. Wayne had to be pulled from the inside of the utility task vehicle in 20 feet of water by a friend of mine who is the rescue and recovery diver for our region.
The same day that this all happened, we were in St. Albans scouting for ice. When we waltzed into the Bay Store to buy bait, completely unaware of the events that had just occurred across the bay, we noticed that there was a local man who was ranting about all the fishing derbies being cancelled immediately. We asked the woman behind the counter who had been instructed not to sell any more derby tickets, and she explained the decision to cancel all derbies state-wide. That piece of news caused us to get in our vehicles and head back home to put away the equipment.
We’ve all heard the cliché “if you don’t like the weather in Vermont, wait a minute.” Our beloved state’s reputation for weather is that of extremes. Ask anyone from the lower 48 what they know about Vermont and they will paint a verbal image of gorgeous foliage and winter that lasts the rest of the year. I left my shanty, buckets, rods and sleds in the garage just in case. I lamented the passing of the season, and my heart was heavy — not just for the lack of ice, but also for the families of those lost the previous month.
And then, Vermont did what it is famous for, dramatic deep freezes. I began to hear chatter at the Charlotte General Store at Baptist Corners of an impending “polar vortex.” I started calling around and watching the online forums closely, and sure enough, there was talk of ice 12 feet thick and solid with no cracks up north. I called my new fishing buddy, Trevor Coles, and we made tentative plans to head up to Lake Carmi in Franklin after speaking with a very knowledgeable semi-professional ice fisherman (yes, that really is a thing). He had spent the day on the ice with some great success. He sent me the Navionics GPS coordinates of where he had had a good bit of luck the day before and confirmed that the ice was indeed safe.
Trevor and I arrived around 7:30 a.m., and there was only one other party on the lake. Another showed up as we were testing the ice. We walked about 100 yards off the access when I suddenly heard a roaring sound. I looked up. To the west a wall of white was headed toward us.
We put our heads down and walked into the blizzard conditions pulling the shanty loaded with all our equipment. Within five minutes, it had blown through, and the sky turned a beautiful blue. Using our GPS systems, we navigated west of a weed bed then another 200 yards west into ice that we tested to be 16 inches thick over water depth of 18 feet. We drilled two five-inch holes in front of the cushioned seats of the shanty.
Just as we got the shanty up, another “whiteout” hit us. We secured all the insulated cloth panels and lit the propane heater. We sat down to “get to work” feeding spikes (maggots for the gentrified masses) to large “slabber” yellow perch on the bottom. We watched them chase our bait off the silty bottom on the Vexilar fish finder. We started laughing and every time the small ice rods bent dramatically down toward the hole we would shout to each other, “This one’s a pig!”
The day was non-stop fun with more than a dozen major snow squalls and winds blowing 20-30 mph. By the time we agreed that we had had enough and felt good about the ones we put back, it was 4 p.m. — eight hours after we had started. If there is a moral to this story it might be: “Never give up hope, but measure your desire with a healthy dose of caution.”
(Bradley Carleton is executive director of Sacred Hunter, a privately owned limited liability corporation that seeks to educate the public on the spiritual connection of man to nature through hunting, fishing and foraging.)