Al Cowperthwaite is a lifelong Houlton resident whose ties to the lake run deep. His parents ran the Pavilion at Crescent Park from about 1950 to 1964. He’s been spending time regularly at the lake since 1977, when he married his wife Linda, whose family owned a seasonal camp. They built a new home of their own at the lake in 2008.
One of Al’s favorite lake activities is ice-fishing. Al’s first exposure to ice-fishing was with his grandfather at Pleasant Lake in Island Falls. “I would drive down from Houlton to meet him…he would fly up from the southern part of the state with a relative who owned a plane. The plane had skis on it and they landed right on the lake, and we went ice-fishing.”
In college, Al continued to hone his ice-fishing skills. “When I went to school in Orono, I went ice-fishing all the time. I’d finish classes and go out and fish on the local lakes.”
Al walks us through the basics of ice-fishing: you need an auger or chisel to make your holes, some traps, and some bait. You can buy bait at the store – smelts, shiners, chub – or you can use artificial lures. Then, you put the bait on a hook, lower it down the holes and wait until the flags start to pop up.
Ever since he’s spent time on Nickerson Lake, ice-fishing has been a major part of the winter.
Al doesn’t mind the cold, and he likes to get up early – before sunrise – and get his holes drilled and traps in before the sun comes up. “The fish feed best just as the sun rises. I like to be out here on the lake to watch the sun rise.” Fishing is also better just before dark and when there is a change in the atmospheric pressure, such as just before a storm. Nickerson Lake has really good fishing, even though it’s not a large lake: the state usually stocks it yearly with several hundred brook trout (that’s why there are so many people and shacks down by the boat landing). The fisheries biologist told Al that it only takes a couple days for the brook trout stocked at the boat landing to make their way to other end of the lake. The lake also has brown and lake trout, perch, bass and pickerel, and because it is a deep and spring-fed lake, some fish grow big and healthy. The state stocks the lake with two hundred brown trout every other year and they grow quickly in our lake. Lake trout were once also stocked, but for the past several years the population has been spawning/mating naturally, so now we are catching native fish. Lake trout spawn near rocky shore lines about the end of October and occasionally can be seen doing their mating ritual in shallow water where the males follow the females in a figure eight fashion for hours.
“Down in the southern part of the state, there are advisories against eating some of the fish you catch because of possible heavy metal contamination,” he says. “We don’t have much of a problem in this lake.”
Another issue with ice-fishing on other lakes is that sometimes certain areas aren’t safe. “Since it’s spring-fed, this lake doesn’t have major streams running in or out of it. That’s where you get some bad ice or open water on other lakes. For the most part, this lake freezes solid all around.”
The ice-fishing season now runs from January 1 to April 30 on our lake. Up until two years ago, depending on how much ice there was, the Fish and Wildlife Department would extend the end of the season some years from the end of March until the end April. Two years ago they decided to keep it open longer on a regular basis because there was adequate ice for ice fishing right into April. Al doesn’t think that we will have ice through all of April this year. “Last year at this time, we had 33 inches of ice. This year we have 22. It depends on the year.”
Al says even if you’re serious about the fishing, the lake is a pretty social place in the winter with all of the snow sledding, snowshoeing, and general traffic on the lake. That’s one of the pleasures of ice-fishing, he says – the social aspect. “We get together with the kids and grandkids. Hollie and Jimmy McPartland and their kids and grandkids come over to the ice shack too, and we all get to spend time together…snow sledding is more fun for the kids – they won’t appreciate the fishing until they get older. We keep an eye on the fish traps, but when it’s slow we sit around and tell stories.” When he’s not running after flags, Al likes to meet up in the “Nickerson Lake Social Shack” – an ice shack he and Jimmy built with a wood stove and oven, a fan, and even a trapdoor in the floor in case you want to fish through a hole in the ice below. But the shack is more about community and quality time than fishing. “We have the wood stove with an oven, and we can make ribs or pizza. The kids skate or ride the sleds, then come in for hot chocolate and snacks and go back out. I have a great recipe for a seafood chowder that’s fun to make on a slow fishing day. We keep an eye on the traps and have a good time.”