Outdoors: Things to keep in mind for an enjoyable ice fishing experience – Worcester Telegram

outdoors:-things-to-keep-in-mind-for-an-enjoyable-ice-fishing-experience-–-worcester-telegram

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Open freshwater fishing took the spotlight this month when Danny Jones hauled in an enormous 9-pound brown trout from a secret Cape Cod kettle pond. The big-jawed trophy-of-a-lifetime is presumed to be one of the surplus brood fish stocked there a couple years ago.The Cape’s deep, clear and cold kettle ponds are truly special, having been formed by enormous blocks of ice left behind by fragmented, retreating glaciers 18,000 years ago. They have no inflows or outflows and receive all their water now from sand-and-gravel-filtered groundwater or precipitation, making them some of the most pristine water bodies anywhere in the country. Every winter, these ecological gems provide us a setting for truly great trout fishing.Local ice fishing, on the other hand, has been erratic with hard water forming – and frustratingly melting. Frustratingly, early January averaged several degrees above normal. At least we’re ending the month with some safe, hard water.A short ride north up into New Hampshire – or to higher elevations west of Worcester, especially in the Berkshires – earlier provided some good tilt and jigging action for perch, pickerel and bass.Ice fishermen, like skiers, are hoping we continue to have a normal cold winter. Safe ice needs to be at least 4-inches thick. One problem with this minimal standard is that a body of water doesn’t freeze uniformly. Varying depths and wind exposures can keep some surfaces long open or deceptively unsafe. Four inches of ice in one spot doesn’t guarantee that there will be four safe inches everywhere else.Wherever water flows or is augmented by underlying, invisible springs, there are always added risks for potentially dangerous variability. Safe ice fishing requires constant checking of ice thickness as one advances.Just as smart deer hunters religiously use safety harnesses for tree climbing, ice fishermen should wear life jackets and carry readily accessible ice picks and a rope in case of falling through. It’s often impossible to pull oneself out of the freezing water and up on the ice without picks.A readily accessible rope to throw to rescuers can prove a life saver. Fishing with others also increases safety. If you ever fall in and succeed in pulling yourself back on the ice, don’t stand up right away. You can find yourself right back in the water. Instead, roll far away from the hole towards thicker ice first.MassWildlife recommends we follow normal guidelines on clear blue ice whenever possible. Inch for inch, old ice is less safe and can be literally only half as strong as new, blue ice. For those venturing out on snowmobiles or ATVs, at least 5-inches of good ice are needed. Up north, where thick ice is more reliable, we might see cars or pickup trucks on a pond with 8-12 inches. A medium-sized truck should never go on ice unless it’s at least 12-inches thick.For the traveling fisherman, a 5-hour ride north can provide a unique adventure at the smelt camps, which are being set up on the frozen tributaries of Maine’s Kennebec River. The tiniest of all our New England game fish has two qualities going for it: abundance and delicious flavor.Camp anglers typically have a lot of fun, action – and bring home buckets of sea-run spawning smelt by fishing inside comfortable, well-positioned, propane-heated shacks available for rent. You basically sit and jig baited Sabiki rigs just below the ice. It’s fashionably a long-underwear time to let down your line with good friends whose company you can enjoy in close quarters. Partners decked in headlamps can help illuminate the dark, tiny shacks that shield you from the wind. “Shack” realistically connotes more luxury than the made-with-anything structures really possess. But they do the job, and I never hear anyone complain about the décor.These delightful 5-inch, cucumber-scented fish are easily prepared for cooking just by decapitating and eviscerating with a small pair of scissors that can snip their bellies open. Five seconds per fish is about all it takes to fillet one. Deep-frying afterwards – even on the ice – with a panko coating creates a crispy delight – soft bones and all being edible. If you can’t get up to the smelt camps, pick up some fresh smelt at local markets like AP Fish on Grafton Street in Worcester.Fishing hotspotsAnglers traveling to five hours west to fish New York’s Salmon River have been rewarded with exceptional action. too, as steelhead have been stacking up in upstream pools. Five or even 10-fish days have been reported. Manageable flows have enabled anglers to fish many of the best pools. Flyfishers are finding small patterns to be most effective as heavily pressured fish soon learn to reject the more commonly-offered larger ones.Meanwhile, fly fishermen staying closer to home continue to catch and release trout daily on the Swift River below the Quabbin dam in Belchertown.Offshore, party boats out of Rhode Island and Connecticut are finding erratic cod fishing thanks to varying weather and water conditions. Baitfish are plentiful, though, so there’s good reason to expect a banner season down there for anglers willing to face the chill of winter’s Atlantic winds on their face and hands.Spotted owls need assistanceOn the conservation front, MassWildlife deserves much credit. They just acquired 2,038 acres of land in Shutesbury, Pelham, and Leverett for all of us -– forever. The land will be a sustainable working forest – but with a critical difference.Its conservation easement guarantees full protection for its endangered species and critical wildlife habitat. It will also protect water resources while providing public access for hunting, fishing, hiking, and wildlife observation. Two endangered reptiles will find protection along with forest songbirds, white-tailed deer, wild turkey, snowshoe hare, ruffed grouse, black bear, moose and bobcats.Importantly, more than ever, this nurtured forest will sequester and store vast quantities of airborne carbon to help us mitigate climate change. Everyone wins. But such is not the case elsewhere in our country. On his way out the door, President Donald Trump quietly pulled yet another fast one on our endangered wildlife.Back in 1983, I left Massachusetts to participate with researchers working in the mountain forests of northern California to save our spotted owl – one of the most endangered raptors in the world. This iconic raptor is a nocturnal counterpart to America’s bald eagle. Its entire world population of about 15,000 is less than the population of Grafton.Like our much-revered, local barred owls, they also have big, dark eyes and big round heads that lack the ear-tufts we associate with our great-horned owls. But the white spots that cover their head, back and belly make them spectacular and special.Walking nightly up and down densely forested mountains and steep canyons over the course of an entire summer – sometimes finding rattlesnakes along our paths – we listened for their deep three- or four-syllable hoots. On very special occasions, those enchanting vocalizations would lead us right to them in Sheelite Canyon, the Blodgett Forest, Willow Creek Canyon  and the El Dorado National Forest. There they were hunting wood rats, flying squirrels, mice, voles, rabbits, and bats. But they were being hunted, too. Day and night, they needed to always be careful to avoid goshawks and great horned owls.They all had favorite perches from which they hunted regularly each night, sitting and listening quietly and motionless – just like a bow hunter on a tree-stand. From there, they swoop down on their prey below. Some nights we’d find just owl pellets containing the undigestible hair and bones of their prey that they had regurgitated.The fact that they reproduce infrequently – some don’t breed for periods of five or six  years – has limited their populations. But most critically, they require a home with lots of big old trees. Very tall trees with branches at many levels help them deal with uncomfortable temperature changes. They tend to avoid flying across clear-cuts and recently-logged areas. The fact that they were still surviving brought us great excitement each time we documented their presence.I celebrated their survival with my big telephoto lens. Their treasured, full-frame photos have graced the walls of my home ever since right alongside my biggest white-tail racks.Their survival desperately depends on preserving pristine, old-growth forests, so I was shocked and disheartened to see Trump, in his last week in office, open up a vitally critical million acres in the heart of the spotted owl’s range to timbering. He had just previously opened up drilling sales on our pristine National Arctic Wildlife Refuge. The two consecutive blows against wildlife were painful and damaging. President Joe Biden’s first evening in office just hours after inauguration halted the leasing in the Arctic refuge. I’m hoping he’ll protect the spotted owl’s last hope for survival, too.Today, environmental protection, which affects our own health, safety, and mental well-being, is strategically and financially no less important than our military defense. Recent focus on deregulation for short-term profits rather than long-term investment for the security of our future generations has made us dangerously vulnerable to ever-more extreme and costly weather attacks on our homeland. We’re already seeing diminished world food and water supplies, loss of coastline, more polluted air and water, more poison in our soil and agricultural products, catastrophic declines in wildlife, and greater vulnerability to new diseases. We need leaders far better educated in environmental economics.In life and physics, you can’t get something for nothing. We’ve got to be willing to pay the price. The essential new breed of leadership will need our informed concern, full support, and unity.—Contact Mark Blazis at [email protected]
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