Thanks to several weeks of bitter cold, snow and wind the majority of lakes and ponds in central Maine are frozen solid and safe enough for ice-fishing. I am not going to recommend that anyone attempt to drive, ride or snowmobile on any such waters given that sooner or later someone, somewhere, is going to take a chance and take a nosedive to the bottom. It happens every year and it will happen this year despite the pleas of law enforcement, rescue teams and the media. If someone is going to risk their life on thin ice, please, don’t let it be you!
With that said, now’s the time to do some serious ice-fishing. We are fortunate that we live in a part of the state where we can target every species that exists in Maine. Lake trout and cusk inhabit the bottom of most coldwater lakes in this region. There are also brook trout and salmon cruising various levels of the water column. In shallow, warm-water lakes and ponds anglers will find white perch, yellow perch, bluegills, bass and pickerel. Some waters even contain huge northern pike and muskies. Let’s just say that if you want to go fishing this winter there’s a suitable pond containing fish near you. All you have to do is decide where you want to go and which species you want to challenge.
North Country fishermen generally seek trout and salmon because these species are most abundant in coldwater fisheries. These days the size and bag limits on winter salmonids are quite restricted. In some cases you can only use two tip-ups and the bag limit is one fish. That one fish may well be a 5-pound brook trout, but the odds are against the angler on these super-strict waters. Even so, many anglers enjoy the adventure and the challenge of catching that one-fish-per-day limit. Truth be told, many days will go by without even a wind flag to show for it, so be prepared to wait long hours between strikes.
Winter lake trout and cusk fishermen focus their efforts on the very bottom of cold-water lakes where these fish grow old and fat because they are usually out of reach of summer anglers. Come winter, however, and it’s possible to cut a hole in the ice and drop a cut bait or fat sucker to the bottom in 100-plus feet of water and keep it there until a hungry togue or cusk decides to pounce on it.
Both of these species are surprisingly light biters, meaning they can steal a bait right off the hook without tripping the flag. For this reason it’s imperative that fishermen check their baits frequently and replace any bait that is torn up or missing. There’s a fish down there showing some interest in your offering – now all you have to do is trick him into biting again. It may take several attempts to finally make a catch but most winter-caught lake trout and cusk are large fish and are certainly worth the effort.
In some waters pike and/or muskies are available in good numbers. These fish grow into the 20-pound class with some larger specimens showing up every winter. These big predators are usually found in relatively shallow water (less than 20 feet deep) and are fond of large, lively minnows fished just above the weeds and bottom structure. I would not say that one can expect to catch huge numbers of pike or muskies on a weekend trip but the odds of catching a large specimen are quite high. These eating machines devour anything that moves and lots of it, so they tend to grow big very quickly. It has been documented that pike and muskies have eaten ducklings, snapping turtles, snakes and even muskrats, so bait selection should include anything big and active. A foot-long live sucker or shiner will do the trick, and some anglers have good luck jigging large, flashy lures at various depths. Be on the alert at all times because these big fish don’t nibble – they strike with a vengeance and if you are caught napping you may end up with nothing more than a broken line and a lost lure or bait for your trouble.
After many decades of winter fishing I find more fun, action and results when I go after the so-called panfish species (bass, pickerel, perch, bluegills, etc.). These small, aggressive species are found throughout the state of Maine in great numbers and there is no size or bag limit on most of them (bass and pickerel are the exceptions). On a good day with plenty of bait and cooperative fish you’re likely to catch a 5-gallon bucketful of panfish in a morning or afternoon’s fishing. I try to add a bit of challenge to my perch or bluegill fishing by keeping only the largest specimens I catch. Most fish that are less than 6 inches in length don’t produce a lot of meat for the fryer and I toss the smallest ones back unless there’s an eagle or osprey nearby that needs feeding.
Panfish will eagerly go after such common, inexpensive baits as garden worms, maggots, mousies and the like, and they will happily devour cut baits or the eyes, fins or tails of previously caught fish.
If bait fishing sounds too messy for you try a short “thrumming” rod with small, flashy lures that can be jigged under the ice in shallow water. Most anglers set up three or four traditional tip-ups with live or cut bait and then reserve their fifth legally-allowed hole for jigging purposes (where legal, of course). This gives the angler something to do while waiting for the flags to fly. Either way there is bound to be some action. Sometimes I’ll catch all my fish on the baited tip-ups but sometimes I’ll have better luck using the jigging rod. By the end of the day I’ll have enough tasty fillets on hand for a Saturday night fish fry.
To find out more about Maine’s winter fishing opportunities, regulations and locations log onto www.mefishwildlife.com. Maine’s ice-fishing season lasts through the end of March so get out there and make the most of it!