Although I don’t ice fish any more (hard to find safe ice in the Florida Keys), I was once a diehard ice fisherman and I have seen it all: the good, the bad and the ugly. The good days on the ice were almost always in mid-March when the afternoon sun warmed things up, the fish were active and the fishing holes remained free of ice.
Although the worst day on the ice was better than the best day at the office, there were some days that were unremarkable: bitter cold with a north wind; ice fishing holes and tip-ups that refreeze minutes after being chipped out, ungloved fingers numbed while rebaiting hooks.
Looking back, I can recall just one truly ugly ice fishing trip.
It was at Seboeis Lake in late February. There was a February thaw at work and, after a good fishing day, we were headed down the lake at dusk on our way back to camp.
Slush fields! Hidden beneath a surface crust of snow on the ice were pockets of water. Our snowmobiles, complete with hauled tote sleds, broke through the crust. We gunned the machines trying to break free and get back up on the surface crust. No joy! Soon the snowmobiles and the slush-covered tote sleds were mired and not moving.
Ever happen to you? In time, we managed, with a team effort, to liberate our sleds and our exhausted water-soaked bodies from that slush field hell.
Later that evening, back at camp, with a warming fire and a steaming bowl of scallop stew, we were reminded that the best part of ice fishing is what comes after: the toddy, the food and the warm camp.
I think that Al Cowperthwaite, director of “North Maine Woods” and an active Aroostook outdoorsman, would share my sentiments. In fact, he and his ice fishing compadres have taken the side benefits of ice fishing to a whole new level with an on-the-ice culinary lash-up he calls Chamberlain Chowder. Here, in Al’s words, is how he prepares and assembles this belly-warming, soul-satisfying concoction:
Sometime mid-morning we put a large kettle on the fire and begin the process of creating a batch of “Chamberlain Chowder.” The basic ingredient is anything that comes through the ice in the morning hours. Cusk make a great ingredient, or brook trout or togue or whitefish.
The first thing that goes into the pot is a pound of bacon, which has been cut into spoon-sized chunks. Once the bacon is about done, throw in two large chopped onions, then about 2 quarts of water and a pound of potatoes, diced. Add a half pound of real butter, 2 tablespoons of salt and 1 teaspoon of pepper, 2 sliced garlic cloves.
While this simmers until the potatoes are soft, we fillet the fresh-caught fish and set them aside until the potatoes are ready, then add the fish, scallops, shrimp, lobster and, if the fresh fish happen to be scarce, we substitute by adding some haddock. Then cook until the fish is done but not so long that all the fish fall apart.
Just before the mixture starts to boil, add a half cup of cooking sherry and a half gallon of half and half. We bring the temperature back to just before boiling and serve with some oyster crackers. Feeds about 10-12 fellows, and if there are any leftovers they never go to waste.
The author is editor of the Northwoods Sporting Journal. He is also a Maine Guide and co-host of a weekly radio program, “Maine Outdoors.” His email address is [email protected] He has two books, “A Maine Deer Hunter’s Logbook” and his latest, “Backtrack.”