T hanks to another weird-weather winter, Russell Brown and Robert Weeks on Tuesday were alone on what should have been a crowded Meredith Bay on Lake Winnipesaukee, trying to entice rainbow trout with PowerBait and whole-kernel corn.
The longtime friends said they relished the opportunity, though it could be temporary.
At this time of year — the second week of February, just four days before the 44th Great Meredith Rotary Ice Fishing Derby — Meredith Bay should be filled with bob houses and ice fisherfolk, Brown said.
But the ice on which Brown, 76, and Weeks, 72, were fishing was about 5 inches thick.
That was enough to support them and their sleds, but the two were aware that just a short distance away, the ice might be half that, thinned by the south-flowing current and warmer-than-normal weather.
Because of those conditions, “A week ago, I would not have thought I’d be here today,” said Weeks, a Meredith native who lives in Center Harbor.
On Sunday, Gilford aviator Dave Emerson declared an extremely late — and tenuous — “Ice In.” The declaration means the five ports visited by the M/S Mount Washington cruise ship in warmer months are covered with ice. “Ice Out” is declared when the ports are again accessible.
Emerson heavily qualified Sunday’s announcement:
“We cannot stress enough that (the ice) is transparent, meaning it is probably not more than an inch or two at most so it’s not safe at all to venture out. Stay off!” he wrote on the Emerson Aviation Facebook page.
Mild weather forecast for later this week, he said, could mean an earlier-than-usual “Ice Out” watch.
Emerson wrote that 2001 was the only year in memory without an “Ice In,” and this year’s declaration is the latest. Last year, it happened on Jan. 18.
Safety over success
Normally, Brown starts ice fishing on Meredith Bay when the rainbow trout season opens on Jan. 1. While fishing in 2022 in the lead-up to the derby, he had his one and only full contact with the water.
“The good thing is that it’s only four feet deep” where he went into Meredith Bay, said Brown, a Meredith resident who has been fishing on the Big Lake since 1961 and competing in the derby since its inception. After the plunge, he went home, changed his clothes and returned to his fishing spot.
In a video posted on the derby website, derby Chairman Bill Golden observed that the 2023 event “is a little bit different” from other years.
“It’s not ordinary weather or ordinary ice conditions. We have to be careful out there. It’s all about safety.”
Golden urged participants to “check the ice on your way out,” to bring safety equipment, including rope, and to always “fish with one of your buddies.”
“Good luck, have fun, enjoy the derby, but most importantly, be safe on the ice,” Goldman said.
Capt. Mike Eastman, of the New Hampshire Fish and Game Law Enforcement Division, had the same concern.
Eastman, who grew up in Gilford and spent a lot of time fishing on Lake Winnipesaukee, appealed to all ice fishermen to check ice thickness at 5-foot intervals. He strongly advised against bringing vehicles, including snowmobiles, onto the ice because they might be too heavy.
On the first day of the 2017 derby, three snowmobilers drowned when their sleds crashed through thin ice, Eastman said. Conditions that year were similar to those now, he said, with one key difference: This year the ice isn’t covered by snow, which can hide defects.
“The best advice I can give to people is to leave your vehicle on the shoreline and be ready to walk out and have your crampons on. Make sure that you have a chisel and start hitting the ice, or drill some holes with your auger, and do that every 5 feet.”
Lake Winnipesaukee is constantly moving and is never uniformly frozen, Eastman said.
Some smaller lakes and ponds are likely well-frozen, and fishing also can be done from the shores of Lake Winnipesaukee, he said. Derby rules say fish can be caught in any freshwater body in the state.
Fish and Game has positioned one of its air boats in the Lakes Region in case of problems at the derby, and the department’s dive team will be on standby.
Brown was confident that by the time the derby rolls around, the ice on Meredith Bay will be a foot thick. Weeks wasn’t so sure.
“Adjacent to that foot of ice, it might be 2 inches because of the current,” he said.