Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Winter Camping and Togue Fishing

Winter Camping
While certainly a challenging pursuit, there also exists something distinctly exciting about sleeping out under the stars in the middle of the winter. When done properly and in a prepared manner, camping out in the winter can be a fun experience. Over the years, I have spent well over a hundred winter overnights, in temperatures that registered well below freezing. Mt. Ranier, Mt. Hood, Mt. St. Helens, Aconcagua and more locally, Mt. Washington and Mt. Katahdin have on more than one occasion fully tested my training and resolve. I remember one particularly long evening, sleeping in the bed of my pickup truck at the Abol bridge parking lot, when the temperature (with the wind chill) sank to 65F below zero.

All of these adventures serve as testaments to the critical importance of being fully prepared for the winter environment, well before heading a field. To say that I have been completely comfortable on every night I have spent outside in the winter season would be a lie; however I have never felt like I was ever in any danger of frostbite or hypothermia during any of these excursions. Proper training, mental attitude and gear matched to the environment are all keys to having a successful winter camping outing. First winter camping experiences should be conducted in close proximity to home or a vehicle, incase temperatures plummet and someone gets dangerously cold. Miles from civilization in the middle of the Maine wilderness is no time to find out that a sleeping bags thermal rating is inadequate and that someone is hypothermic.

I cannot stress enough the importance of having good quality gear that is suited to the environment. Most critical, a synthetic sleeping bag rated to -20F and a waterproof bivy sack to protect it from the elements. While down is lighter than synthetic, down is worthless when wet and in Maine’s fickle weather, eventually it will get wet, despite best efforts. With this exact set-up, I have thrived in every type of extreme weather and temperature I have ever faced from freezing rain to ice storms and blizzards.

Once skills develop, winter camping is a great way to explore vast areas of the state by allowing sportsmen the opportunity to set up remote camps and hunt and fish from these locations. How exciting to wake up already at your favorite ice fishing hole or snowshoe far into the backcountry to hunt coyotes and then simply camp for the night, not having to worry about returning home before nightfall.

After thoroughly practicing winter survival skills, experienced winter campers will enjoy an overnight stay at Elsemore Landing (DeLorme’s The Maine Atlas and Gazetteer (MAG), Map 35, B-3). This primitive campsite, accessible by snowmobile, allows ice fishermen direct and early morning access to Pocumcus Lake. Anglers can then choose to fish the salmon rich eastern shore of Pocumcus or head further north into Junior Bay (Map 35, A-2) and West Grand Lake (Map 35, A-3, A-4). Snowmobilers planning to travel into Junior Bay and West Grand Lake should use extreme care in crossing the body of water between Pocumcus and Spring Cove. This narrow gut called the “Throughfare” rarely freezes solid, even during the coldest winters, and many snowmobiles have plunged through the ice here over the years. Play it safe and only cross through this area by following the snowmobile trail that hugs the left hand shoreline next to the Throughfare camps.

Ice Fishing
If looking for an adventure not quite so “cool”, consider renting a lakeside retreat and fishing from the comfort of a heated cabin or ice shack. Many of the lodges that advertise in this magazine provide fine accommodations at modest pricing. If looking down east for a chance to potentially score a record book togue this hard water season, consider staying at Greenland Cove Cabins (Map 35, B-3, B-4) in Danforth, located on the shores of pristine East Grand lake. In talking with 13 year owner Weston Lord, he is predicting that 2016 will be yet another stellar year for harvesting lake trout, keeping in pace with the previous several years. Fishing regulations on the lake, limit the daily harvest to one togue over 18 inches, a practice that has allowed the lakes population of lake trout to grow to enormous proportions.

In a typical weekend, Weston says it isn’t unusual to catch several 8-10 pound togue and lots of “smaller” fish in the 4-5 pound range. When fishing for togue, make sure to rig tip-ups with plenty of backer line, as depths on East Grand can easily exceed 100 feet. Suckers, sea run smelt and large golden shiners all work well when fishing for this aggressive trout species, just make sure to bring plenty! Also, ice anglers will typically encounter a high level of success with jigging. The classic Swedish Pimple tipped with a large sucker or other dead baitfish being a good solid choice. East Grand Lake opens to ice fishing on January 1st, so make sure to call ahead if planning a cabin stay as accommodations go fast! From my own personal experience, in staying at lake side cabin and ice fishing, no equipment is more critical than having boots that easy to slip on and off. Muck boots and similar footwear, lacking lacings, make runs from the cabin to the ice much easier. When returning from the outside, nothing is quite as nice as having a set of slippers back in the cabin, to make sure the walk back to the card table isn’t interrupted by an accidental step in wet snow and slush.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Wildlife Quiz - Gray Squirrels

The Eastern Gray Squirrel’s (Sciurus carolinensis) native range stretches from northern Canada, all the way into sections of Texas and Florida. A species well adapted to survive in a wide variety of rural as well as urban environments, the gray squirrel has rapidly spread across the country, largely displacing native red squirrel populations.

Highly prolific, gray squirrels breed twice a year, once in the spring and again in late summer. Gray squirrels construct nests comprised of dry leaves and twigs called a drey, usually constructed in the crotch of a tree. Litters range in size from 1-8 young, with only one in four managing to evade predators, avoid sickness and starvation to survive to one year of age. Of those individuals fortunate enough to survive the first year, about half perish in the follow year.

In preparation for winter, gray squirrels hoard tremendous amounts of tree buds, berries, seeds, acorns and even some types of fungi in small caches for later consumption. Scientists studying the behaviors of gray squirrels have estimated a single squirrel make thousands of caches each season. To prevent other animals from retrieving cached food, squirrels will sometimes pretend to bury a food item, if they feel they are being watched.

Those who have spent time watching the antics of the gray squirrel in woodlands and parks across the country will surely note this species amazing ability to descend a tree head-first. Gray squirrels rank as one of few mammalian species that can accomplish this amazing acrobatic feat. The squirrel does so by turning its hind paws so that the claws point backwards, allowing the squirrel to easily grip the tree bark.
Wildlife Quiz Questions:
1. What is the native range of the gray squirrel?
2. How often does the gray squirrel breed?
3. What are the nests of gray squirrels called?
4. How big are gray squirrel litters?
5. What percentage of gray squirrel young survive the first year?
6. What do gray squirrels eat?
7. How many caches do scientists estimates gray squirrels make in a season?
8. What amazing acrobatic feat can gray squirrels accomplish?

Wildlife Quiz Answers:
1. The native range of the gray squirrel stretches from northern Canada, all the way into sections of Texas and Florida.
2. Gray squirrels breed twice a year, once in the spring and again in late summer
3. The nests of gray squirrels are called drey.
4. Gray squirrel itters range in size from 1-8 young.
5. Only one in four managing to evade predators, avoid sickness and starvation to survive to one year of age.
6. Gray squirrels eat tree buds, berries, seeds, acorns and even some types of fungi.
7. Scientists studying the behaviors of gray squirrels have estimated a single squirrel make thousands of caches each season.
8. Gray squirrels are one of the few mammals that can descend a tree head-first.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Ice Fishing Cusk and Whitefish

This is a short article I wrote for the Jan/Feb 2016 edition of the Sportsman's Alliance of Maine (SAM) Newsletter....ENJOY!

The Electric Ice Auger
After suffering a back injury, battling blizzards last December, I realized that if I wished to have any hope of continuing my passion for ice fishing, I needed to find a better way of hacking a hole through the ice. My old gas powered ice auger, had been a valuable workhorse, in my ice fishing arsenal, for over 20 years but its imposing back breaking heft and ability to shake the fillings out of my mouth had me searching for a more viable option. A year ago, I would have scoffed at the prospects of an “electric” powered ice auger but the Ion Electric Ice Auger is an amazing piece of equipment. Powerful, fast and QUIET, the 8 inch ION will drill up to 40 holes through 2 feet of ice on a single charge. At just 22 pounds, the ION is just shy of half the weight of my old gas powered ice auger and boasts special blades that create smooth breakthroughs and no jarring stops. Add the ION’s ability to reverse its blade and flush slush down the hole and it’s plainly obvious that this auger should be on every anglers most wanted list.

Cusk Fishing
Now suitably equipped, why not try out your new ice auger on the hard waters, chasing the elusive and often underappreciated cusk. Although perhaps a less glamorous fish to pursue than the prized salmon and trout, these freshwater members of the codfish family are one of the finest freshwater fish to consume. Bearing an eel like resemblance and broad head with an enormous mouth, cusk have a strange appearance that has unfortunately caused many an ice fishermen to leave this odd looking fish on the ice for the scavengers. Those individuals, who specifically fish for cusk, will profess that they having a delicious firm white meat and delicate flavor. Cusk are even sometimes described as the poor man’s lobster. Primarily nocturnal bottom-feeders, cusk are rarely caught during the day by ice fishermen, further adding to their misunderstood nature. By the end of February, however, cusk begin leaving their deep-water hideaways to spawn leaving them decidedly more vulnerable to anglers. At this time, cusk can readily be taken during the early morning or late afternoon, near dawn and dusk.

Cusk can be jigged quite easily using lake trout lures (Silver Leadfish or Swedish Pimples) or phosphorescent light emitting jigs, sweetened with chunks of sucker, minnow or shiner. Since cusk locate food by smell, for increased success crush the bait slightly to allow the oils to better disperse in the water. After dropping your jig on bottom, slowly lift the lure and bait up to 6 to 10 inches and let it drop to bottom again. Cusk will normally grab the bait as it sits motionless on bottom, just before the upward stroke. Maine fisheries biologists report that Maine cusk average 18 inches and 24 ounces in their eight year of growth, 20 inches and 32 ounces in their tenth year, and 24 inches and 62 ounces in their thirteenth year. The largest angler-caught cusk recorded in Maine was 18 pounds 8 ounces.

Well-known cusk fishing lakes include: East Grand, West Grand, Pocumpus and East Musquash. Outside of Down East, healthy cusk populations exist in Sebago, Chesuncook, Pemadumcook, Brassua, Spencer and Musquacook.

Lake Whitefish
Another savory fish that frequently takes a backseat to the trout and salmon is the whitefish. Lake whitefish normally grow 14-20 inches long and weigh 1-3 pounds. One look at the silvery white sides and bellies of these fish and it is easy to see from where their name “white” fish is derived. Many anglers catch whitefish by accident while targeting other species like lake trout. While these two species share the same deep, oxygen-rich waters, whitefish congregate in large schools and aren’t “slope-oriented”, tending to instead prefer “flats”. For anglers, this means that by carefully drilling holes in the right locations and using the correct lures and presentations whitefish can be specifically and successfully targeted. Whitefish prefer depths in the 40 to 60-foot range. While whitefish are bottom dwellers, feeding primarily on larvae found in the lakes muddy substrate, they will frequently strike lures jigged well above where they are schooling. It therefore pays to begin your jigging well above where fish are congregating on the bottom and work the jig in slowly.

Proper jigging technique for whitefish is critical, start by pointing the rod tip toward the hole, then slowly lift, pause, let the lure fall under controlled slack, pause, gently shake the lure, pause again, then repeat the entire sequence. Popular jig include the diminutive half ounce C60 Williams Whitefish Spoon and the #6 Swedish Pimple. Both lures can me made more attractive by adding a small piece of florescent glow tape that can be periodically recharged by anglers with a small flashlight. Whitefish have keen senses of smell and taste, so jigs should always be tipped with a small piece of shiner. Maine ice anglers will frequently have an old wrench or other heavy instrument on a long piece of fishing line that is typically used to stir up the mud on the lake bottom. This simple trick simulates a school of whitefish feeding and will sometimes whip a group of whities into a feeding frenzy. Those interested in trying their luck fishing for “whities” would be well served to follow the lead of these long time angling experts.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Trail Riders vs. Utility Users - Snowmobiles

Modern day snowmobiles are highly specialized machines designed to meet the precise demands of today’s sporting public. Present day sleds come in a wide variety of categories such as trail riding, touring, utility and even “performance”, a classification built to satisfy event the most extreme riders. Each of these classes of sled come fully equipped with a laundry list of advanced features that would not even have been deemed feasible even a decade ago. This specialization of features has helped ensure that the snowmobile chosen for purchase will likely be exactly what is needed, for the task at hand, and not simply something close enough.

For the purpose of this article, discussed will be the strengths and benefits of trail and utility sleds, since these two categories encompass the two most widely purchased snowmobiles by consumers. Trail Riding It is certainly no secret that trail riding as a sport is enjoying continued yearly growth among snowmobile enthusiasts. Proof of this is a recent statistic released by the International Snowmobile Association estimating that 230,000 miles of snowmobile trails exist in the United States and Canada, with the state of Wisconsin leading the pack with over 25,000 miles of snowmobile trails. According to the Maine snowmobile association, Maine's snowmobile Interconnected Trail System (ITS) includes over 3,500 miles of trail. An additional 10,000 miles of trail, not covered by the ITS map, is maintained by local landowners and snowmobile clubs. This brings the total snowmobile trail system in Maine to over 14,000 miles of trail! Given the amount of access, to our most beautiful and pristine areas of Maine, that these trails provide snowmobile riders, it’s easy to understand why so many people have a passion for trail riding. Currently 265 clubs exist in Maine, affiliated with the Maine Snowmobile Association, with members riding an average of 920 miles per year. Trail riding sleds strike a nice balance between speed of performance and comfort of touring snowmobiles. While not providing the same level of comfort afforded by touring sleds and lacking the raw power of performance sleds, trail snowmobiles still have plenty to offer. Trail sleds are typically lighter, more maneuverable and speedier than touring machines and have beefier suspensions allowing them to tackle rough trails.

In the market for a trail riding sled, it’s hard to beat the Yamaha Vector X-TX, Ski-Doo’s Enduro 1200, the easy on the pocketbook Polaris 550 Indy or the 2016 snowmobile of the year, the Arctic Cat ZR 8000. Anyone of these choices would provide years of trail riding comfort and reliable service. Utility Use Trappers, ice fishermen, loggers and even ski patrol operations rely heavily on utility sleds to simply get the job done. Utility snowmobiles are the workhorses’ of the sledding world, where having no fail equipment isn’t critical, it’s mandatory.

A good utility sled can tow heavy loads, carry gear and even offer basic weekend trail riding fun after the work week is done. Utility snowmobiles feature extra wide tracks and broad skis designed to plow easily through deep snow and support the additional weight these sleds carry. Tow hitches and low gearing ratios assist these behemoths in hauling logs, heavily laden sleds and even ice shack where lesser sleds would struggle. Built to take plenty of abuse, these snowmobiles aren’t typically high on performance but instead rugged and reliable. In the market for a utility sled, I suggest taking a good look that the Yamaha VK Professional (author favorite), the Arctic Cat’s Bearcat Z1 XT, the Polaris 500 Widetrak LX or Ski-Doo Expedition. These snow machines have the required nuts . . . and bolts, to satisfy any utility sled rider and guarantee that by days end the job gets done.

Final Considerations
Given all the choices of snow machines in today’s market, it really pays for the consumer to do a little research. If an opportunity presents itself, to be able to try out a particular sled before purchasing, be sure to do so. Sometimes a sled that seems to be a good fit for an individual at the dealership is a completely appears to be a completely different animal after just a few hours of operation. Snowmobile clubs are a great way to meet individuals who share your passions and many may own or at least possess valuable information on the sled you wish to purchase. In addition, some dealerships offer customers free events where sleds are available for test rides. With a small investment of time, customers ensure that the sled purchased will provide them, for years to come, with a piece of equipment matched to the intended riding conditions and required use.
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