One Man's Ice Shack is Another Man's Castle
by Judy Robinson

A few years back a famous comedian asked a capacity crowd packed in the University of Maine's Alfond Arena what all the hoopla was about concerning "ice fishing." "Just what is ice fishing? Does one fish for ice?" "And what about the ice shack, is "it made of ice?" asked Bill Cosby.

When the roar of the crowd died down, Cosby went on to describe, as only he can, his rendition of a man "ice fishing," complete with a stool which Cosby sat down on in front of an imaginary hole in the ice. The humor in the delivery of his performance brought the house down with laughter.

But the truth is, if you're not from these parts, such terms as "ice fishing" and "ice shack" can be confusing. So for those who just might not get it, let's clear up a few misconceptions by describing a variety of those home-away-from-home structures called "ice shacks."

Ice shacks come in all shapes and sizes, from small portable pup tents barely big enough for one man, to elaborate mobile cabins on skis, complete with all the conveniences of home. Other ice shacks are large enough to accommodate a small party. Perhaps Cosby's mind would be even more confused upon hearing about an "ice shack party." Should it be compared to a "tail gate party?" The truth is, for many avid ice fishermen, their ice shacks represent a status symbol, with each man trying to outdo the other with design and content.

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One very unique fishing hut on Pleasant Lake in Island Falls is round rather than the conventional rectangular or square shape. Resembling a huge tin can, some fishermen say the round hut is the only one like it in the area.

One man's ice shack took all summer to build. While others were enjoying the warm summer weather, this man sweated in 80-degree temperatures preparing for the ice fishing season. Day and night he worked, until his 8 X 12 plywood hut was finished, complete with three small windows from which he hung homemade curtains, fashioned by his wife.

Inside this hut is a fold-up table, covered with a table cloth, a rug on the floor and enough groceries in the cupboard to feed two people for at least a week. Above this small apartment-on-ice hangs a hand-painted wooden sign that describes it perfectly - "The Ice Castle." "You can fish for hours sometimes and never get a bite, so you might as well be comfortable," was this shack owner's theory.

Also inside this man's winter home-away-from-home there's a sink (for washing the fish), a small ice box (for the beer and soda), several gas lanterns for light, a small kerosene heater, and a supply of groceries including coffee, tea, crackers, soup, and of course, canned beans. The table is on hinges, which folds up when not in use. A long bench along the back wall doubles as a bed at night and a seat to fish from during the day.

A common commodity inside this and other ice shacks is a deck of cards and a cribbage board to pass the time away while waiting for the fish to bite.

The most important thing inside an ice shack is the holes, cut in the ice through which the fisherman hopes to catch fish. Most shacks have at least two holes inside, with other holes usually cut outside the shack as well. The less elaborate ice shack may only contain one hole and a stool or bench to sit on. In this case, the shack's most important function is to provide the fisherman with a refuge from the weather, which can be quite frigid in mid-January on the frozen lakes of northern Maine.

When plans are drawn up to build an ice shack, careful thought must go into the design. The structure must be as light as possible, yet rugged enough not to blow away. One must keep in mind that the shack must be hauled to the fishing site of choice either on a pickup truck, or a flatbed trailer, and maneuvered onto the ice, usually by snowmobile.

So while the shack must be large enough to contain all the conveniences of home, it must be compact enough to allow the fisherman to get it to his favorite fishing site with the least amount of effort. A typical day in the life of a couple of ice fishermen might go like this:

Ron and Bob rose shortly before 7 a.m. Bacon, eggs, toast and coffee had been packed in a cooler the night before so no time was waste at home eating breakfast. The snowmobiles were already loaded onto the trailer, hooked to Ton's four-wheel drive and ready to go. The pair doned their cold weather gear, snowmobile boots, down jackets, helmets and warm gloves, and headed for the fishing site.

Within an hour, they arrived at the edge of Millinocket Lake, a favorite fishing lake approximately eight miles north of Millinocket. From the shore at least a dozen ice shacks are visible, scattered randomly across the lake. The pair parked the truck, jumped out and unloaded the snowsleds.

A short ride across the lake along a marked trail brought them to their shack, which had been set up earlier that week. The first item of importance was to unload the food and beer and start the fire inside the shack. After they finished cutting the holes in the ice and setting the traps, they would need a place to get warm and thaw out their cold fingers.

Once the fire is started and the groceries put away, the men busied themselves with cutting holes outside the shack to fish from, and setting the lines. Of course, the holes inside the shack are used, too. These usually have been cut previously and only need the thin layer of ice that may have built up from their last visit removed.

Once the holes are all cut and the lines set, the men settled inside the warm hut to wait for the fish to bite, enjoying a few games of cribbage, music on the portable radio, and an occasional beer. At lunch time, they broke out the hot dogs, which they toasted over a small fire built on the ice. "Now this is the life!" remarked Ron, biting into his juicy hot dog, covered with ketchup, mustard and relish. "What more could we ask for?" asked Bob.

Just then a flag went up on a trap just outside the shack. Eating was forgotten momentarily as the men hurried to the hole to retrieve a fat salmon.

This scenes plays out until dark, when the two ice anglers will pack up and head home. On some occasions, they may decide to stay overnight, thus assuring them an even earlier start to the next day's fishing. To these fishermen, and even some fisherwomen, any many more like them who enjoy the sport, it's what they look forward to each January 1st.

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