Thanks to a long spell of bitter cold bolstered by relentless winds it’s safe to say that most small ponds, coves and bays are safe for ice-fishing. I’d still check with local authorities before venturing onto any of the larger lakes, and I certainly would not want to be the first one to drive onto a major lake in a vehicle. It has been cold enough long enough to suggest that there is plenty of safe ice on smaller, protected waters but ice forms at its own pace; we can’t force it, demand it or legislate it. . Check first; and then verify and proceed with caution.
Assuming there is enough safe ice to justify a journey across the pond, it makes sense to consider what kind of ice-fishing you’d like to do. The options are endless, from inshore pickerel, crappie, bluegill and perch fishing to deep-water lake trout and cusk angling. In between are trout, salmon, bass, with smelts wowing the coastal crowd.
Before we get too involved, a word about “crappies.” These tasty fish are called “croppies” in the South where they are the most popular springtime fishing target. In our neck of the woods they are most often called calico bass. There are black and white crappies in Maine, most about the size of a giant bluegill but some rival the biggest white perch in size and catchability. Crappies are found in shallow water and usually gang up in monstrous schools where a practiced angler can fill his boat with them.
Crappies, bluegills, perch and other so-called panfish are easy to catch, delicious on the table and there is no size or bag limit, so if fast and continuous action sounds appealing, head for the shallowest pond you can find. Most of these fish will be found in water less than 15 feet deep, which means close to shore and often in or near weeds, generally within walking distance of the nearest road or landing. Cut several holes in the ice, rig your tip-ups with worms, small minnows or chunks of cut bait and drop your lines till your bait is dangling just above the weeds. Vary your presentation (you are allowed to use five tip-ups) so that there is a bait available to fish swimming anywhere from just under the ice to just off the bottom. When the fish start biting and the flags start flying, adjust the majority of your tip-ups to the appropriate depth and then start filling your bucket with fish.
Because all of the panfish species as well as pickerel and bass taste pretty much the same, don’t be upset if your carefully set crappie rig produces only plate-sized white perch, bass or pickerel. Most small ponds in our area are full of various panfish species. Catch what’s biting and be happy with it.
Sooner or later you’ll cross paths with someone who’s been ice-fishing “up north.” Their cooler full of fat trout and salmon will have you hankering for bigger, better things, and now you enter the realm of the “serious” ice-fisherman. Be prepared to see your cost-per-pound for fresh-caught fish skyrocket exponentially. Now, instead of walking to your fishing hotspot you’ll need to drive a long distance carrying a four-wheeler or snowmobile and a trailer full of (expensive) gear ranging from high-end tip-ups ($50 each and up!), power augers (with extensions), depth finders, top-end shiners and a live-well or aerated bucket, a windproof shelter or shack complete with heater, cook stove and comfortable seating.
All of this and you have yet to set your first tip-up! Salmon are generally caught just under the ice but they prefer large, lively shiners or smelts, which must be kept alive and checked often to ensure that they are “working” for you.
Brook trout, browns and rainbows are most often caught in the middle of the water column (under the ice but off the bottom, somewhere in that nebulous mid-range that can be anywhere from 10 to 50 feet or more under the ice). These species also prefer live bait but they may also be caught on (expensive) jigging lures that give the angler something to do while waiting for his flags to start flying.
Lake trout (togue in our region) and cusk are most often caught on or near the bottom, often in very deep water. Cusk are probably the ugliest fish in Maine but they are also the best chowder ingredient known to man – even better than haddock, some say. Cusk over 10 pounds are taken in Maine every year but expect most of your catch to be under 5 pounds.
If you plan to specialize in lake trout fishing you may want to head for Sebago Lake or some other water that is known to be full of them. In central and northern Maine lake trout tend to be solitary fish, difficult to catch and not particularly abundant compared to other species.
Togue are most often caught with live, dead or cut baits fished directly on the bottom or just above it. This is where those 20-pound specimens spend most of their time. The bad news is that you can drop your togue lines before dawn and not get the first bite till near sunset. Winter togue are slow-moving bottom-dwellers that move only often enough to feed, and the biggest fish may only feed once or twice per week. Divers have observed gigantic lake trout suspended in the water just inches from the bottom and, three days later, the fish were still exactly where they left them! In fact, many a togue is caught as an angler begins picking up his gear for the day only to find a well-hooked togue at the end of the line. Lake trout move so slowly that they can inhale a 10-inch sucker and not even trip the flag! For this reason it’s important to treat every togue set-up as a “live” one – set the hook each time you check your bait because there may well already be a fish on the line.
Ice-fishing can be fast or slow depending on a wide variety of conditions but remember: you can’t catch anything if you don’t go!