In late January, ice shacks begin to pop up on the frozen waters of Moosehead Lake in northern Maine, like a cluster of toadstools. Some are bright red, others are cobalt blue, and others are simple unbleached canvas. These miniature houses are designed to keep away the chill while their owners, sipping bottles of Allen’s Coffee Flavored Brandy (a traditional winter drink here in Maine), wait for the fish to bite.
The pastime seems as localized as the drinks from which the fishermen sip. But for out-of-towners who don’t fear the bite of cold weather, The Birches Resort in Rockwood offers the opportunity to rent your very own ice shack so that you, too, can try your hand at catching fresh fish in the dead of winter. You might come away with some landlocked salmon, brook trout, or togue. You might just meet some new friends along the way.
“Ice fishing is a really social thing,” said John Willard, owner of The Birches Resort. “A lot of people bring hot dogs and hamburgers, or they’ll make soup in the ice shacks and make a whole day out of it.”
I observed that it’s a little like tailgating, and Willard agreed: “It’s exactly like tailgating, except you’re in a little shack with a heater, so you’re not as cold, which makes it better.”
While Willard estimates that 60 to 70 percent of his winter customers are from Maine, he said that quite a few people come to Moosehead Lake in the winter from Boston, New Hampshire, and even the southern states.
“Moosehead is relatively undeveloped, not like Winnipesaukee or Sebago,” he said. “It’s wild and pristine, and it’s 40 miles long, so you have this beautiful stretch of untouched wilderness.”
He said that you can walk from island to island if you like, or just stay put and wait for the red flag to raise on your traps.
While there are several ways to ice fish, most choose to set out traps. Willard recommends purchasing five traps on your way to the lake and stopping in at the Moosehead Slade Bait Shop on Rockwood Road.
“Get your license [there] and pick their brain a bit,” he said. “They’ll tell you a good spot to set up.”
Willard also works with Kevin Tracewski, a “semi-retired” University of Maine professor who loves ice fishing and teaching rookies how to partake. If you book an ice shack, be sure to ask if Tracewski is available ahead of time, since his knowledge is both entertaining and valuable.
If you’re staying at The Birches, you can rent a cabin for $65 per day. You will need to buy bait and traps and bring cold weather-appropriate clothing. Willard suggests stocking your pockets with hand warmers. If you don’t have an ice auger — a circular drill to bore holes in the lake’s surface — Willard will rent his out for $20 and show you where to drill holes.
The Birches Resort, 281 The Birches Road, Rockwood, Maine; birches.com