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Most folks are beside themselves with angst over the cold and snow that’s come to us since Thanksgiving, but one of the saving graces of being a Maine outdoorsman is that, harsh weather notwithstanding, there is always something fun to do out there.
My cohorts in the sporting world have already started calling me to brag about their catches of pickerel, pike and perch taken through the ice in various parts of the state. The requirements for a good day of ice-fishing are minimal: bait, some tip-ups and, of course, ice! If there is 3 or more inches of solid ice (across the board) you’ll be fine for a walk-on trip. Things get dicey in December if you want to go onto the ice in a vehicle of any sort, so be careful. In fact, don’t do it till next month. However, I’d be willing to bet that someone this month is going to ride a snowmobile or ATV onto the ice and either lose it or drown. Happens every year. I just hope it’s not somebody we know!
Good places to fish for species other than trout and salmon this month are legion in our area. Start with Branns Mill Pond in Dover-Foxcroft (with two ponds that are good for pickerel and perch right now), Center Pond in Sangerville or Boyd Lake in Milo. I know that all of these are full of fish and pretty much untapped in December. Everyone waits for the trout season to open and only the “gotta go now” crowd will be found on the ice much before January or February.
The odd thing is that, other than pickerel, there are no size or bag limits on “other species” in Maine, and in the waters where perch, bluegills and calico bass (or crappies) are found, there is usually an endless supply. White and yellow perch are as tasty as any fish found in Maine, and persistent anglers can fill a cooler with them in no time. Why anyone would prefer to hunch over a pair of tip-ups all day in hopes of catching one or two barely legal trout or salmon is beyond me.
If you like the idea of catching dozens of fish in a morning or afternoon sounds appealing to you, pick yourself up off the sofa and get out there!
All you need for a great day’s fishing is a valid fishing license (if you’re over 16), a bucketful of bait (2-inch shiners or worms will do fine), five tip-ups, each rigged with a 1/2-ounce weight and No. 6 hook, something to cut the ice with and something to skim the holes with. All of your necessary gear should fit into two 5-gallon buckets that may easily be transported on a sled or small toboggan.
Because warmwater species such as perch, pickerel and bluegills are abundant and prolific, you can set up to fish just about anywhere the ice is thick enough to hold you. Preferred hotspots are around islands, over weeds or off points and dropoffs where shallow water suddenly plunges into the depths. A power auger will make you more mobile: If one spot turns out to be a dud, simply pack up and head for another spot; or, if you have the time and inclination, cut a long line of holes from shallow to deep water and keep testing the holes. Sooner or later you’ll find one that’s over a school of fish – and then hang on! You’ll probably run out of bait before the flags stop flying.
In most cases, you’ll need to bait up and drop your shiner or worm close to (but not directly on) the bottom. Most fishermen drop the weighted line to the bottom and then pull it back up a foot or so to allow the bait to hover just over the bottom. In unfamiliar waters, it’s best to place baits at every depth, from just off the bottom to just under the ice. Once you begin to see a pattern of strikes at a given depth, you can adjust your lines and get them all set at the most productive depth. Once your baits are dangling in front of a busy school of feeding fish, it won’t be long before you have more action than you can handle.
On any given December day you can expect to catch any or all of the major warmwater species available in our area, which can mean a good mix of white and yellow perch, pickerel, bluegills, calicoes (especially in Sibley Pond near Canaan, for some reason!). In most cases, these fish prefer small, lively minnows or worms, so check your baits frequently to make sure they are working hard for you. Pickerel are especially fond of lively shiners and will often ignore anything that looks or acts dead. The other species may pick at dead baits but you’ll need to keep an eye on your baits or discover at the end of the day that all you’ve had down there was a bare hook!
Keep all the fish you want (except no more than 10 pickerel of any size and one bass over 10 inches) and save all but the smallest specimens because every one of these fish are good to eat as long as they are big enough to fillet. One good day on the ice should provide you with enough succulent fillets to have a mid-winter fish fry that will definitely wow the crowd. Or, toss it all into a big cooking pot and work it all into your favorite chowder recipe.
Truth be told, December ice-fishing is where the action is. There are large numbers of fish available to catch and the limits are (in most cases), well – unlimited! There is no need to fill your truck with perch or bluegills unless you’re feeding an army, but having spent many a long, hard day on a northern lake hoping to catch and keep just one legal trout or salmon, I can say that if you want to have fun ice-fishing this winter, forget the big, deep and cold lakes and gather yourself to the nearest small pond. You won’t have to travel so far, the flags will fly all day and you’ll have lots more fun than if you had stayed home and organized the basement!
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