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Maine sportsmen are facing a real dilemma this week and it’s all about making choices. Should we finish up the last of the winter’s chores, do our last minute shopping or . . . go ice-fishing? For most of us, the answer is clear enough – now to find a place with enough safe ice (at least 3 inches). And where did we put that bucketful of traps and skimmers?
This month, the only game in town for most of us is fishing for pickerel, perch or sunfish. The “real” ice-fisherman’s targets (trout and salmon) won’t be legal for another month, but that’s ok. This is a good time to dust off last year’s gear and see what works, what doesn’t and what needs to be replaced. It’s not a crime to lose a pickerel or perch to faulty or rusty gear, but it’s not so funny when, later in the season, a big salmon or togue throws the hook.
While ice-fishing gear has certainly joined the high-tech generation (I’ve seen them with built-in reels, lights and such), you can catch all the pickerel and perch you want without all that sophistication (and expense). From the pickerel’s perspective, all you need is a hook, a line and a lively shiner.
While it’s common to sit out all day on a trout lake and never see a flag, that’s not normally the case with pickerel. These toothy eating machines rarely pass up a meal, and if you want dependable action (winter or summer) the weedy shallows are the place to be. If you happen to be the first one on the ice, don’t be surprised if you don’t get time to put all five tip-ups out. When pickerel are abundant and in a feeding mode you won’t be able to keep a bait on the line, and that’s no exaggeration. I have often fished the likes of Branns Mill Pond in Dover-Foxcroft (right off the dam) and have caught fish after fish on the first tip-up and never had to cut a second hole. I’m not sure what makes the pickerel congregate in that area (scads of baitfish, no doubt) but when they are feeling cooperative you won’t get a chance to sip your cocoa, I can assure you of that!
Fishing for other species in winter can be quite a challenge, but pickerel are simple. Drop them a line and they will answer! If you do manage to get all five tip-up down, just be sure to set a couple of baits just off the bottom, one or two halfway to the top and the remainder just under the ice. Pickerel cruise around at various depths and speeds, so get set up and be ready because sooner or later they will find you.
You can jig for pickerel using small, shiny lures, maybe tipped with a piece of cut bait. In fact, most anglers will set up four tip-ups with shiners and reserve one hole for jigging. They’ll sit on their buckets while keeping an eye on the four shiner lines, and spend the day jigging at various depths till they find fish. Sometimes the jig hole produces more fish, and sometimes the shiners will do the job. Oddly, it’s often a particular hole that seems to be the “lucky” one on a given trip, even though it may be no more than 20 feet from the next hole.
It may not be rocket science but there’s certainly an element of mystery to the sport of winter fishing. Sooner or later during the day you’ll start to wonder what goes on down there, where the fish are and what makes them decide so show up and take a swipe at your lure or bait. I often picture schools of pickerel huddling near shore, or zooming around at tip speed near my tip-ups. I sometimes imagine that all the fish are down at the other end of the lake – it all depends on how good the fishing is on a certain day.
The beauty of pickerel fishing is that you don’t have to plan on spending all day on the ice or wearing every stitch of clothing you own. In most cases, good fishing may be enjoyed within steps of the road, so you can park your vehicle, keep it running and just monitor the action from the warmth and safety of the front seat. There are days when you won’t be able to sit long – the flags will fly and you’ll be busy hauling in fish and re-baiting your hooks, but once in a while it’s nice to know the heater is humming nearby.
Once you get set up and things settle down, the general strategy is to wait for a flag and keep the holes clear of ice. On a slow day, you’ll go out and skim the holes every 30 minutes or so, more if it’s a cold day and ice forms quickly. It’s important to keep the holes clear if you are fishing with above-the-ice equipment because if your line freezes into the ice you won’t know if a fish is biting and also it creates an anchor that allows the fish to grab your bait and swim off with it. Most modern tip-ups feature underwater reels that are not affected by ice, but the mechanism that trips the flag may need to be cleared from time to time.
You may fish for pickerel with tip-ups, specialized short rods and reels designed for ice-fishing or even with a hand line. Catching them is half the fun, but eating pickerel is a pleasure, too. Simply scale each fish, fillet them, make a series of cuts in the meaty side 1/4-inch apart and down to the skin, and then bread and fry the pieces just as you would any other fish. Cooked this way, those pesky Y-shaped bones are melted in the cooking and there’s nothing on your plate but sweet, white meat that will have you planning your next trip before the dishes are done!
Contact the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife at for more information on where, when and how to fish for pickerel in Maine – and do it legally!
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