Jan. 23rd, and it was the first time this winter that it’s been cold and still enough to hear the trees crack on the northeast Avalon. It’s an eerie sound, mostly because the second that you hear it, it’s already over, almost impossible to narrow down which tree or which patch of trees made the sound.
But it’s already late January, and the forecast is for a high of six degrees above freezing for Wednesday, and a week of highs flirting their way around the plus side of the ledger.
Next week marks the start of the ice fishing season, and it’s somehow telling that the federal Fisheries Department doesn’t even call it the ice fishing season anymore: it’s the “winter trout angling season” now, and the guide says bluntly “where open water is available during the winter angling season, anglers may angle with rod and line from shore or boat.”
The thing is, there’s plenty of open water — and open ground.
If you ski or snowshoe on the Avalon, you’ve really only had a couple of days — in reality, last weekend — to get out on what little snow there is, snow that will be mostly gone by Wednesday night as the temperature angles upwards.
It’s not just this year, either. It’s been the recent cycle of years, where isolated days of cold weather are bookended with much more moderate weather, and occasional days that are much, much warmer.
You start sounding like an old fogey saying it, but it’s remarkable how much warmer it’s become. I’m not old enough for “they-used-
to-skate-on-St.-John’s-harbour” (although they did), but I’m old enough to remember when ice fishing meant you had to have an ice auger, because the ice was just too darned thick to effectively make your holes with an axe.
Not a regular
I’ve never been a real ice fishing afficionado — there’s always been a part of me that felt it was a little like cheating, because it lets you reach fish when they are at their most desperate for food, and allows you to easily reach places that are otherwise challenging fishing spots.
But I’ve always liked ice fishing trips. I’ve caught very few fish, but I’ve always enjoyed a small fire on an island in the middle of some windswept pond, hot tea and watching the woodsmoke kite its way up through scattered snow flurries.
And the best part, by far, was always getting back to the cabin, filling the woodstove and finally warming up again.
I’m not sure, though, that there’s going to be any part of this winter where I’d be truly comfortable on the ice.
There are plenty of ponds with open water now, and while a good solid freeze for a week or so might change things considerably, we seem more caught in the freeze-and-thaw cycle than anything else.
It doesn’t instil the kind of confidence you need to test walking on water.
It wasn’t that many years ago (17 or so) that the freeze was so solid and deep that it froze a waterline I had underground — a line that finally thawed that year on the 15th of June, water pressure finally spitting out and depositing 100 yards or so of cylindrical ice cubes in the yard where the line came out of the hill.
Back to fogeydom: 20 years ago, the pack ice would sometimes fill The Narrows and run white as far out to sea as you could see. It would fill Conception Bay and ground on the shore, flattening the swells and gradually falling apart in March and April with a glassine tinkling sound that, by rights, should have its own unique word.
And how much pack ice have you seen around the Avalon in the last five years?
Maybe it’s some sort of natural cycle; I doubt it.
It would not surprise me if, soon enough, the “winter angling season” in this part of the country had nothing to do with ice at all.
I heard the trees crack for the first time yesterday and it didn’t take me back to last winter. It took me back to Spreadeagle Pond maybe 15 years ago — and that’s a sobering thought.
Russell Wangersky is The Telegram’s editorial page editor. He can be reached by email at email@example.com.