Winter hasn’t officially arrived, but Mainers who enjoy hard water fishing are already there.
There is only a limited amount of ice on many of the state’s lakes and ponds, and still on a number of bodies of water, but some avid anglers have been setting traps and catching fish in recent weeks.
Austin Childers of Dexter was one of the first anglers to post an ice fishing trip on social media this season on Nov. 22.
“First ice. It took the itch out of me before work,” he said on Facebook after landing seven flags and landing five roosters on a pond in Dover-Foxcroft.
Childers said there was 1 1/2 to 2 inches of ice that day.
In follow-up posts, which included reports of catching a good number of fish, he reported 3 1/2 to 4 1/2 inches of ice on his fishing spots.
Safety is paramount when ice fishing. Ice conditions can vary greatly at any time of the year, depending on the location of the waters and weather conditions. This is especially true when ponds and lakes first begin to freeze over.
Anglers’ best bet is to check with the Maine Ranger Service, or someone who lives on or near the lake or pond you plan to visit, for the latest ice conditions there.
In January, we put together this video with director Rick Ouellette to help point out some of the important steps in determining if ice is safe.
The Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife provides guidelines for new, clear (blue) ice on lakes and ponds. White ice or “snow ice” is only about half as strong as new, clear ice.
The state suggests that anglers and others stay out of ice that is less than 4 inches thick. Once there is 5 to 7 inches of ice, a snowmobile or ATV can often be supported. Eight to 12 inches accommodates most small cars and trucks, while more than a foot of ice can probably hold a medium-sized truck.
Jeff Witham of Gray is a lifelong fisherman who really enjoys getting out on the ice. This is what prompted him to visit a favorite water in the south of Paris on December 13.
He was fishing in 2 to 3 inches of ice, which he admits kept him on his toes. The attached short video gives a look at what Witham was dealing with, including the sound of ice breaking under his feet at the end of the clip.
“I almost fell over four or five times,” said Witham, who was prepared for the worst. He recently bought a flotation suit from Sebago Bait in Windham.
“So if I fall, I float,” Witham said. “Parts of me say I’m crazy for doing this. I guess it’s a love of fishing.”
Celebrate this fact with finger tattoos that say ‘fish on top’.
Unfortunately, Witham has experienced the shock of going through the ice. It happened three years ago in April when there was about 2 feet of ice. He inadvertently walked into a large fishing hole that had been covered in mud but was not properly marked with a branch to alert people to his presence.
“You have to stay calm and stretch both arms out to your side and put them on the ice, then slowly start kicking and sliding down the ice,” Witham said.
He was lucky that it was a warm day and that his girlfriend brought him dry clothes so he could continue fishing.
Ice picks, which are attached by a cable and can be wrapped around the neck, can be used to grab the surrounding ice after falling, are another recommended item for anglers to have on hand, just in case .
Witham’s early season efforts have already paid off. He iced a beautiful male brook trout that weighed 3 1/2 pounds and measured 19 3/4 inches long and 13 inches in girth.
“That’s why I put it on the wall,” Witham said. “I don’t care if he was taken from a nursery.”
It was the only fish he saw during his eight hours on the ice. The first time he hit his bait, it was too big to fit through the original hole. Fortunately, he returned a short time later after Witham had widened the hole.
On the same visit, Witham saw, through the clear ice, a sunken rowboat resting at the bottom of the pond. He shows it in this video.
Isaac Shaw of Winslow has already fished Fahi Pond in Embden twice.
“I’ve always loved fishing, but I think ice fishing makes it easier to access certain parts of the lake,” Shaw said. “Also, early in the season like this is really good for catching brook trout.”
Shaw hasn’t experienced any ice thickness issues this season as he was fishing up to 4 1/2 inches of clear ice on his outing earlier this week. There were two other groups of people fishing that day, he said.
Anglers should check Maine fishing laws before heading out on the ice. There are some waters that are subject to seasonal codes or special laws depending on whether fished before December 31st or after January 1st.
And if there’s any doubt about ice thickness or safety, stay ashore and wait another day.