OTISFIELD—David Billings steps outside of the shanty his grandson built and immediately points his finger to the orange flag that’s tipped up from the hole in the ice just 15 feet beyond. He quickly walks over to the edge of the ice, bends down and looks at the line.
“I think he stole my bait,” Billings muses aloud as he grabs the thin nylon line with his bare hands and slowly pulls the line, bait and hopefully a fish, to the surface.
The fish—if there is one—is 40 feet below. As he continues to pull the line to the surface, Billings says Thompson Lake is 200 feet deep in the middle of the 12-mile long body of water, which runs through Oxford, Otisfield, Casco and Poland. It’s early afternoon on Sunday and the Otisfield resident is out ice fishing with his grandson, carpenter-in-training Logan Day, and his longtime friend and fishing partner, John Miles, of Oxford, just over the Oxford town line in Otisfield.
Billings says he’s using dead smelt, a tiny grayish silver fish, for bait.
“They work the best,” he says, matter of factly.
The trio occupies one of a number of shanties scattered across the frozen body of water, where Billings estimates the ice is at least 10 inches thick. They’re participating in a favorite winter outdoor activity for many in Oxford Hills, with each shanty home to different rituals or methods. He points to the closest shanty and says that his ice neighbor is out on the lake fishing every day. Inside their own, a piece of cardboard tacked to the wall log records all of the fish caught, the type, the length and by whom.
There is no fish on the end of his line, nor is bait missing from the hook. It was a false alarm, but at least Billings doesn’t have to re-bait.
The day hasn’t been a total wash. Billings walks over to the side of the shanty and shows off the brown and yellow speckled togue, or lake trout, he caught earlier. It’s laying outside on the ice, no cooler needed. The trout measures 21.5 inches. As his semi-frozen body lies along side a wooden ruler, some of its numbers are covered by the fish’s body.
“He’s big for this lake. There’s a lot of them here,” he says, adding there’s big salmon swimming underneath the ice below. “The thing about here, you can see the fish under the ice before you can see it in the hole. That is totally awesome.”
Billings says his grandson, 15-year-old Logan, of South Paris, is the one who loves to get onto the ice early to fish. But Sunday wasn’t an early day for the trio, as they hit the frozen lake around 9 a.m.
“He likes to sleep in,” Miles teases Logan.
“The first day, I had my limit before he showed up,” Logan says about Miles, which was New Year’s Day.
Billings confirms his grandson’s story, saying they had to put the tip ups in the ice by lantern since it was still dark out at 5:30 a.m. A tip up consists of fishing line, a hook and bait, which is part of a spool system, with a flag that “tips” up when something’s on the end of the line.
On Thompson Lake, one can have two tip ups, but salmon is completely off limits, but three lake trout are allowed per day per person. Cusk is unlimited on Thompson Lake. They know their regulations in and out, which is important as the rules and possible fines vary as much as each body of water and the fish that live in them.
So far the fishing season has been great this year, Billings says. Logan caught a 24-inch salmon last week, but wouldn’t say where. The trio travels all over Oxford Hills and beyond to fish, including Norway Lake, Crystal Lake in Harrison, Keoka Lake in Waterford, Bryant Pond and even spend a week fishing Moosehead Lake.
Even though the area around the fishing holes has equipment scattered around it, the most important thing for ice fishermen is the shanty. The one on Thompson Lake was crafted by Logan with the skills he’s learned from his studies in his building trades program. A lunch of grilled cheese and Canadian bacon sandwiches is just finished, with Logan cooking them on Mr. Heater, a small propane heater that not only serves as a stove but a room warmer. A tiny card table and three chairs, along with a Cribbage board and cards, sits in the center of the room, just beyond the three holes in the ice, which allows for fishing inside as well as outside the shanty.
“Best thing about the house, you go unlock he door, turn the heat on,” Billings says.
The building, which was just erected on Friday, Jan. 16, has been secured with rope and nails in the ice.
“Even with all that wind, it’s still here,” he says.
Sunday’s rain and fog, which looked like a thick, white blanket covering most of the lake, didn’t deter the trio from getting in some quality fishing time. And there’s other benefits of being out on the ice. On Saturday, Jan. 17, kids were out on the lake, using nature as their own personal ice skating rink. And also that day, Billings saw a great big bald eagle soar overhead.
Even with nature and all the activities that bring them out on the ice, there’s one that definitely calls the trio home. They plan to call it quits around 2 p.m. because the New England Patriots are playing, which was a good choice since the Pats are headed to the Super Bowl.