While his favorite cast iron skillet was heating up on the camp stove, Josh Sparks knelt on the ice to fillet the 13-inch brook trout he had just pulled from Lower Range Pond. We could have gone to his New Gloucester home to cook it, but he promised “it will never taste better than it does out here.”

Then he dropped a fat chunk of butter into the pan and pulled out a salt cellar filled with salt, pepper and a few other things – ground cumin and some garlic salt, left over from a recent Mexican night – and shook a little onto the fish.

Ice shacks went up early around Maine this season, thanks to December’s visit from the polar vortex, and have stayed put despite the recent January thaw. Driving by these frozen lakes or rivers, and spotting either these veritable villages of huts or someone like Sparks, hightailing it from hole to hole whenever one of the orange flags on his traps alerts him to a bite, the question arises, what happens to all the fish getting hauled out from those frigid chambers?

The answer is a multitude of dishes, ranging from chowders to baked whole fish stuffed with crab meat to salmon loaded with onions and cooked in foil on an open fire. There are fishermen and women for whom a fish cake, made with just about any species from Maine waters, is the perfect dinner.

In Caribou, Michelle Smith, a relative newcomer to ice fishing with five years experience, is so eager to explore new frontiers with her fish cuisine that she hardly ever repeats a dish. “To me, that’s part of the fun,” she said. “You hunt for the fish and then you see what you can do with it.” Often that involves cheese, because Smith loves cheese, and culinary rules like the ones Italians put forth (cheese and fish should never be together) don’t hold in her household.

This winter she started posting pictures of her creations on the popular website IceShanty.com, where her precise recipes and enticing shots of her suppers draw many admirers. (More typical of IceShanty.com recipes are terse instructions like these: “1 lb of W Perch fillets, 1 heaping tsp of potato flour, a dash of nutmeg, Place in food processer, Make patties and fry until brown.” Punctuation and spelling the cook’s own.)

Salmon is Smith’s favorite fish to work with, but she hasn’t caught any yet this year. Meanwhile Sparks, 38, admits he’s a little odd in that he’s not that interested in brook trout and he’d happily eat fish other fishermen aren’t excited about, like crappies (an invasive species), pickerel and yellow perch.

There are things he looks out for though: If he’s in the mood for a chowder sweetened with a little maple syrup, there’s nothing better than cusk, he said. Perch dipped in beer batter and fried is one of his favorites, which justifies that snowy day he and friends passed in early 2013, catching 100 fish in four hours while a blizzard blew around them. If there’s a fish he’s after, he’ll walk two hours to get to a good spot on a frozen lake, dragging a sled loaded with traps, an electric auger and other necessities.

SMELT SMOKED OVER APPLEWOOD

Sparks is open-minded about his catch but others are more focused.

Harpswell resident Ralph Merriman, who keeps not a shack but what his friends and family like to call “the cottage” (ceiling fans, heaters, windows) on the frozen bend of the Androscoggin River just below Topsham’s old Pejepscot Mill, is there primarily for the smelt. He’s got a secret recipe for a perfect fry (see sidebar), but ideally he ends up with 200 or so of the skinny fish that he takes home to smoke (see sidebar).

What he does with the smoked smelt involves some serious backyard alchemy, including a marinade made from his homemade peach preserves and eight hours over an applewood fire made with limbs from his orchard. The yield is a jerky like snack that his grown children like so much they’ve appointed themselves his designated catchers. “They bring me whatever they catch and ask me to smoke them,” Merriman said.

But what Sparks was making on Lower Range Pond, a simple fry in butter, is much more typical. He’s cooking it on a camp stove set on the ice for the ultimate frozen ambiance; if he were back home he might give the fish a dip in flour or cornmeal before dropping it in the pan. But the simple fry is what happens to 90 percent of the catch that gets eaten, by fishermen’s estimates. Leo Thiboutot, a Brunswick resident who has been ice fishing for nearly all of his 71 years, calls it the “classic” dish.

The variations are just about endless – Merriman’s fry secret is pancake mix – but the essential components remain the same: fish, heat, fat. “Some people use bacon grease, but for me, fish and butter just go together,” said Merriman.

The classic, as delivered on a paper plate minutes later by Sparks, was as fine as he promised, all crispy skin and tasty flesh that vanished in a few satisfying bites. But we wanted to know what happens to the rest of the fish that come out of Maine’s inland waters in winter. The pair of eagles watching from tall pines on the shore of a nearby island were testament to one answer; the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife encourages ice fishermen to toss any unwanted fish – and there are many species unloved for anything but sport. First and foremost is pike, liked for its size but loathed for its tendency to gobble everything in its path, including the natives. It often goes on to the ice for raptors and birds to enjoy. An eagle flew down while Sparks was bent over the pan and helped itself to the carcass of the brook trout he had filleted. The other eagle made do with a frozen yellow perch left behind by an earlier ice fishing expedition.

There are also plenty of humans in need of a good meal. To wit, the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry’s Hunters for the Hungry Program announced last week that it is expanding the 18-year-old program from deer, moose and bear meat to include donations from the Crystal Lake (Jan. 25) and Sebago Lake ice fishing derbies (Feb. 15-16). That fish will be used by the Portland-based hunger relief agency Wayside Food Programs.

“We had heard that there is some waste going on,” said John Bott, spokesperson for the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry. “It means more people are getting fed.”

Wayside will be at each event with a truck, ready to put donations on ice, and Salt & Sea, a Portland fish dealer, will process it into fillets to distribute to food pantries, soup kitchens and shelters. Wayside works with more than 40 agencies throughout Cumberland County. Bott said it’s hard for the food banks to get fresh fish, so if all goes well this year, more derbies might be asked to participate in the future, Bott said. “We think it is exciting,” he said.

FISH TALES FLOW FREELY

Derbies are popular (anyone in the Sebago contest who can beat the 1958 state record by catching a togue (lake trout) bigger than 31 pounds 8 ounces wins $100,000) but for plenty of Mainers, ice fishing isn’t purely a competition. Even if they don’t want the fish, there are creative things to do with them.

Both Sparks and Toby Pennels, the chairman of the Sebago Lake derby, said they’d heard of fishermen who barter their catch for other food, like giving a load of lake fish to a lobsterman who will use it as bait in exchange for some fresh lobster.

“I don’t think that happens very often,” says John MacDonald, a spokesperson for the Maine Warden Service. He pointed out you’d have to catch a lot of fish to make it worthwhile for the lobsterman to trade, but there’s nothing illegal about it unless you went over your limit for the catch.

Another rumor, of fishermen trading less desirable fish like yellow perch to restaurants in exchange for food, gets into what MacDonald calls a complicated area. It’s fine if the restaurant owners are just eating the fish, but serving it would be illegal. Which explains why the rumor of a big catch of yellow perch netting ice fishermen a winter’s worth of Chinese takeout is so hard to nail down.

Other things that are hard: getting a recipe out of a fisherman. If you sit down with Leo Thiboutot and his younger brother Luke – and everyone should be so lucky – you’ll hear a lot of fish tales, like the time Leo caught a trout wearing a six-pack holder as a dorsal fin bracelet, or about the time Luke swears a bass sucked a hook into an orifice that wasn’t its mouth, but measurements and baking times they’re less specific about.

“I like to take a salmon, cut it open, stuff it with onion,” Luke began. Wait. Would that be chopped, minced, sliced? Luke shrugs. “They are not fussy,” Leo interjected.

But that lack of precision is because, like most of these fishermen, cooking their catch is an intuitive thing. “It’s a preference,” Leo said. “No right or wrong.”

For the brothers Thiboutot, who like to joke that they are the French Robinsons (of “Duck Dynasty”), most of those preferences have to do with how their mother made things. “Everything we do in the kitchen is our mother,” Leo said. At least once a year, they try to duplicate a magical dish she made whenever they and their father came home with a good catch. They believe it may have come out of an issue of Field & Stream, and could have Native American origins, but aren’t sure how to spell the dish. “Maybe Poisson a la Chaun-Chaun?” Leo speculated. When he says it, it sounds like Shush-Shawna.

Whatever it was, it caused all five Thiboutot children to rush to the dinner table, forks at the ready. “Basically it was a clam fry,” Luke said. Flour, eggs, salt and “baking powder to make the crust rise.” The type of fish doesn’t matter. “Whatever animal it was, it seemed like she knew what to do to make it taste good,” Leo said.

Staff Writer May Pols can be contacted at 791-6456 or at:

mpols@pressherald.com