With my tent pegs finally pounded into the ice with help from the blunt end of a borrowed hatchet, I sighed and looked up. In the east, night’s deep blue was descending above frozen Horne Pond in Limington. Over in the west, Mars and Venus were shining through the sunset’s trailing glow. Below the planets, ice fishermen huddled around a fire. Soon, they’d stretch out on their shanty cots, snaring bulging trout in their dreams.
The 13th annual Horne Pond Ice Fishing Derby would officially get underway at 5:15 a.m. the next day. I looked at the sky a little longer, smoking my pipe. Leaning on my motorcycle, sipping a malted beverage, I found Canis Major at the foot of Orion. Finally, I tapped my pipe empty on my boot and crawled into my tent.
Though a foot of ice held me suspended over 30 feet of water, it felt just like winter camping on snow. I snuggled into my toasty bag and fell asleep quickly.
Not long afterward, the parade started.
I awoke with a jolt. It sounded like a snowmobile was passing within inches of my head. Then, I definitely felt the ice shake as a four-wheeler rumbled by, scraping a plastic sled behind on a rope. Headlight after headlight zoomed by my tent, in both directions, lighting the interior with every pass. I’d evidently pitched it beside the main ice thoroughfare. My watch read 2:30 a.m.
Then the augers started buzzing.
Like angry winter insects, they burrowed their noses into the ice, over and over, drawing cold water instead of blood. I found out later, over 500 fishermen showed up for the derby. They were allowed five traps apiece. If you do the math, you’ll know I didn’t get any sleep.
I gave up and rolled out of my tent at 4 a.m. As I was zipping it up, someone let off an impressive display of fireworks. Hoarse shouts of “whoo-hoo” rang out in the winter night all around me, like encircling wolves out for blood in this case, fish blood.
I perked coffee on my single burner stove. Savoring it, I watched the spectacle unfold. A cavalcade passed before me on the ice road, on foot, on skates and on gasoline-powered wheels. As I got to the bottom of the coffee pot, the sun rose, revealing a small town of shacks and tents that sprang up overnight on the uninhabited ice. Hundreds of ice fishing traps poked out of holes on the ice. The derby, and daylong party, was on.
My lack of sleep was repaid in full by a day of fun, tooling around the ice on my bike, meeting great folks. Everywhere I went, people offered me food, from hot dogs to venison to Bud Light. One time, riding my bike up the snow bank and off the ice, I got hung up on a cement block, hidden under the powder. Before I could decide what to do, two guys appeared out of thin air and pushed the bike out of trouble.
I watched a casting contest, where kids tried to get a metal washer into a target painted on the snow. Some were better than others but everybody walked away with a fishing rod and a smile. An outreach coordinator from the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife explained the ins-and-outs of ice fishing to anyone who wanted to learn something new.
I never did get over how many people crammed onto the 166-acre pond. The giant undertaking was run by volunteers coordinated by Peter Malia and his wife Beth Brown-Malia. Every penny they took in was given to the Standish Fish and Game Club and the Wounded Heroes Program of Maine.
Fishing closed at 3 p.m. and they announced the winners a half hour later. Derek Burnell took home a trophy and trove of donated fishing gear in the kids division with a 4.880 pound, 21.750 inch largemouth bass. Kasey Johnson of Durham won a trophy and $1,000 check in the adult division with a 3.810 pound, 20.750 inch brown trout.
The crowd clapped for the winners and headed for home. I did too, leaving the volunteers with the thankless task of cleaning everything up and getting ready for next year.
The day dissolved into milky clouds while I rode east, back to Portland. I was chilled by the time I got off the bike in my driveway. I took off my helmet and gloves. Looking up at the sky, I couldn’t see the stars for all the city lights. I missed them already.
This is the first installment of a yearlong project where I will report on a motorcycle camping adventure at least once per month throughout 2017.