How to Sink Ice Fishing Traps
By Randy Randall
Back when I was twelve or thirteen, my friends and I were pretty stuck on ourselves. We all thought of ourselves as accomplished Maine woodsmen, hunters and fishermen. We were all loyal fans of Ed Smith and his One Eyed Poacher stories. We also all imagined ourselves as likely heroes in the pages of "Jeff White, Young Woodsman" penned by Lew Deitz, and like Patrick McManus, we were frequent patrons of the local military surplus store. While many of our classmates were into sports or even beginning to look at girls, my friends were more interested in the latest streamer fly patterns and the ballistics tables for the 30-06.
With February school vacation only a few weeks away we somehow convinced my Mother and Dad to let us camp by ourselves at the old family cabin. My folks were always pretty good that way, giving us more then enough freedom to be on our own and solve our own problems. Maybe they just never felt there was much that could happen to us when we were banging around in the Maine woods. They were wrong about that, as you will see.
With the prospect of almost a whole week living on our own at the cabin, we began making preparations and stock piling gear way in advance. For us kids this winter camping trip would assume the stature of a "major expedition." There would be four of us; my best buddy Wilbur, and our other best friends Jimmy and his younger brother David. We ransacked our motherís kitchens appropriating any and all foodstuffs we deemed essential to our survival. We had an unnatural fear of going hungry so took great pains to make sure we had plenty. When we met at school we would commiserate over our respective equipment lists and check off who had the Army bayonet and who would bring the live bait and the Coleman fuel, the B&M beans and the SPAM. .
When the great departure Saturday came, we had to beg a ride off my Grandfather to drive us all to the end of the camp road that led down to the lake. It took a half hour maybe for us to unload all our supplies, enough for a trip to the Yukon it seemed, and then to tie everything securely to the toboggans with about a mile of clothesline. The hike over the unplowed camp road was about two miles. Wilbur and I had swiped our Dadís snowshoes and Jim and Dave both had skis. Finally Gramps drove away leaving us intrepid young woodsmen to ourselves all eagerly looking forward to four days batching at the old camp. As we snowshoed along we speculated about how awesome it would be if we were to became snowbound at the cabin by a monster snowstorm that would leave us stranded and unable to get home in time for the start of school. We wished!
When we arrived at the back door to the cabin we used our snowshoes to shovel away the snow bank as we had seen demonstrated in Field & Stream. Once inside we stowed our gear and stoked a fire in the black cast iron cook stove. We also had an unnatural fear of being in the dark so while there was still plenty of daylight we fueled up the Coleman lantern and reminded ourselves how to replace the mantles and practiced lighting the lamp. Then it was out onto the ice to spend the afternoon chiseling holes and setting traps.
In those days our traps were all homemade from wood slats or barrel staves. The way these tipups worked you chiseled a small hole in the ice beside the fishing hole and stuck the butt of the trap into that small hole so the trap leaned out over the water. You tied a slip knot in the fishing line and looped that over the wire trigger. When the fish hit, the line would pull downward releasing the "flag" which would fly up.
However, my Dad had a brand new set of underwater traps which he kept stored there at the camp. In the day these ice fishing traps were state of the art and Dad was inordinately proud of them. They had cost him a pretty penny at the local sporting goods store. Still there was no one else around and we figured Dad wouldnít mind if we borrowed his new traps. Really heíd never know we had used them. So it was we set out Dadís five black underwater style ice fishing traps along with all our "leaners."
I forget how the fishing was. Probably not that good, but of course we wouldnít have cared. After all we were on our own and we were dangerous. We were cutting and splitting firewood and we were cooking for ourselves on the old cook stove. We thought were very grown up and perked coffee that was some old rugged. We all poured ourselves steaming cups of Joe and took long swigs as though we had been coffee drinkers from the time we were in kindergarten. Supper was no doubt a combination of weenies and beans and lots of peanut butter and bread. Whatever it was you may be sure it involved a lot of hot grease and plenty of stirring. There may even have been an illicit pipe and tobacco or some stolen cigarettes that had made their way into our pack baskets. But Iím not sure about that.
We all slept like logs. After all when youíre free from the tyranny of school and parents and pesky sisters and really on your own for the very first time in your life, itís a great feeling. There was no one to complain or tattle if you stayed up until midnight. Given that it was getting dark around four P.M. though, I suspect we were all rolled up in our blankets by eight. We never heard the winter rain that pounded on the roof all through the night.
It was common practice to leave the old leaner type traps in the ice overnight as they would have been frozen solidly into the ice, but for some strange reason we also left Dadís new traps in the holes. We knew it was illegal to fish at night so we were careful to wind up the lines and stick the point of the hook into the reel and toss away the dead shiners. But then inexplicably we set Dadís traps back across the holes, and thatís how we left things for the night.
Imagine our total surprise when we looked out onto the lake in the early morning and saw Dadís new ice fishing traps were all missing!
We couldnít believe our eyes. We dressed quickly and rushed out onto the ice only to find the whole lake covered with rain water. There was one to two inches of rain water flooding all the ice. Most of us were wearing just leather work boots but we sloshed along through the icy water to check out the ice fishing holes. When we got near we could see and hear the rain water swirling around and around the enlarged hole in the ice like water flushing down a toilet bowl. As the rain water was seeking its own level it rushed down through the ice fishing holes and eroded the sides making the holes two and three times larger then what we had cut the day before.
By now the sun was up and by shielding eyes we could peer down into the depths and there lying on the bottom of the shallow water pond we spied Dadís traps. We could see every one of them, laying on the bottom right directly beneath the hole they had fallen through. All five of Dadís brand new ice fishing traps were underwater and out of reach. All of sudden it didnít seem like such a good idea to have borrowed Dadís traps. It also didnít seem to have been too smart to have left them in their holes overnight.
By now we were all wet and freezing. Our leather boots had soaked though and weíd all got wet kneeling on the ice searching for the missing traps. Back inside the cabin we all steamed dry in front of the wood stove and looked sheepishly at each other. We wondered out loud how the heck we were going to retrieve Dadís new traps. .
We had two more days before Gramps was to meet us out at the end of the camp road. There was no one else around to help us. And we all knew Dad was going to hit the ceiling when we told him about what weíd done to his new traps. What to do?
Now we had a real opportunity to put into practice all those outdoor skills and woods ways we had read and studied so much about. The good thing was, being kids we werenít inhibited by what other people may think and we put our imaginations into overdrive. We decided the first problem was the rain water. How were we going to continue ice fishing with all that water on top of the ice? We thought maybe we could use stilts, so we set about making ourselves elevated shoes. We used scrap two by fours and sawed them into ten inch lengths. We nailed two pieces together one on top of the other and when we did we sandwiched three short pieces of clothesline between the two halves. This enabled us to tie the wooden shoes onto our boots and thereby keep our leather boots up out of the water. These "stilts" were clumsy of course, but they worked and we were able to get around the surface of the ice by sort of skating and stomping along. And our boots stayed mostly dry.
With the water problem sort of solved we moved on to the traps. We needed some way to reach them. Thank goodness the pond was only six and eight feet deep where we had set Dadís traps. Also it was a good thing we could see them lying down there in the mud. We needed a long pole so we hiked up into the woods and cut down a long skinny white birch. We knocked off the branches and soon had a straight springy pole about twelve feet long. Back at the camp we scrounged a wire coat hanger and bent it into the shape of a crowís foot. We used duct tape to secure the wire "scoop" to the end of the birch. We tied on our wooden water shoes and headed for the pond.
Well you can probably surmise that our invention was successful. Fear can sometimes be a great motivator. One by one we lowered the pole down into the wide ice fishing holes and grappled for Dadís new ice traps. We slipped the wire fingers under the trap and then gently pulled the pole up to the surface and quickly snatched the trap off onto solid ice before it had a chance to fall back into the hole. And thatís what we did. We recovered every one of Dadís traps, and put them all back on the shelf in the cabin right where we had found them.
I suspect we never shared this escapade with our parents until years later when we were in college or there abouts. Iím sure at the time we didnít want Mom and Dad to have even a hint that we couldnít handle ourselves in the Maine woods.
Thereís and old saying that says "experience starts when you begin", so we gained lots of experience on that winter camping trip. I look back now and am ever so grateful to our parents for letting us camp and fish and get along on our own. Whether we succeeded or failed was not so important, but rather that we were on our own and solving our own problems. Over time we gained a lot of self confidence hanging out in the Maine woods and for some reason known only to God we didnít all get killed.
Randy Randall and his family have owned and operated Marstonís Marina for over 50 years. Find them on the Saco River, two miles downriver from the village of Saco, or on the web at www.marstonsmarina.com
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