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Spring came early to Maine this year, so early in fact that the open water fishing season was opened a week early. Many streams and pond edges have been open for quite some time, and anglers were quick to petition Maine Governor John Baldacci to allow an early opener this season. It’s a rare year when spring water levels are normal with no threat of snow runoff, so opening the season early may have been a good idea. Certainly someone somewhere in Maine had fun catching a few fish last week. Truth be known, the week before any opening day was considered to be a poacher’s holiday (getting out – illegally, of course – before anyone else does) but the joke’s on them this time around!
I had not heard of any unusually bountiful catches in our area despite the early opening, but at least anglers had a chance to ply waters that they might not have even thought about fishing for a month or more.
This week, of course, the law is off anglers under the general rule, so any stream, river, lake or pond is a potential hotspot.
I’d be inclined to fish moving water first, but only for personal reasons. There have been several Aprils in the past where there was fishable open water on opening day, and I would get out there in my trusty old Grumman aluminum canoe to fish right along the edge of the receding ice for trout or salmon. (Any experienced aluminum canoeist knows where I’m going with this!)
For one thing, though a lake or pond may look like it’s open, that icy edge is actually thick with crushed ice, a slurry of slush that can be a foot or more thick. You can’t fish through it, but it’s the place to be if you want to fish the true edge of the open water.
Ah, but there’s a catch you may not think about the first time you fish the spring slush in an aluminum canoe. Aluminum does a great job of reflecting heat, but friends, when it some to conducting cold, aluminum is unsurpassed! The first time I fished the slush I was paddling from the kneeling position, and after about an hour my lower body was pretty much frozen solid – or acted that way! I wasn’t really aware of the cold creeping through the canoe and into my bones and muscles till I tried to wiggle my toes – and couldn’t feel them! When I tried to sit back on the stern seat, I almost flipped into the water because I had no feeling or control of my legs!
That trip ended then and there, and for the next two days I endured the ache and misery of bone-deep cold.
Of course, on subsequent trips I have used cushions, winter boots, warmer clothes and gloves, but the aluminum canoe still conducts and radiates cold right through the thwarts and gunwales. I know that the old-model White canoes (heavy and thick fiber glass), the Kevlar designs and even the old SportsPal foam-lined canoes do a much better job of insulating against the cold: something to remember if you plan on doing any edge-of-the-ice fishing this spring.
Having plied the cold April waters of our inland lakes for many years, I can assure you that the most important thing you can bring with you is patience. I have tried worms, shiners, lures, streamers and even jigging lures for ice-out trout and salmon, and all of these will produce fish at some point – all you have to do is be there when they decide to strike! They say that fishing at midday is the best time to go because that is when the water temperatures will be at their warmest for this time of year, but I have checked temperatures 20 or 30 yards from the slush line and the best I could find was 38 degrees – not much over freezing and a long way from the 55-degree point that’s considered near prime for peak salmonid activity.
This doesn’t mean you can’t catch a fish at this time of year, it just means you must work for each trout or salmon you put in the net. Make yourself comfortable under cold conditions, stick it out as long as you can and use every bait or lure in your arsenal.
I have discovered that my most productive May and June offerings seem to be ignored at this time of year. I have the best luck with the rattiest of dark-colored nymphs, brown-hued streamers and small, slow-moving lures that imitate creepy insects and crustaceans that exist in bottom debris and rubble along the shoreline.
The key is to fish slow, high and low in the water column, and try every inch of water you can reach, no matter how deep or shallow. Fish will be found cruising the open water at all depths, and while they will eat they are sluggish and prone to ignore anything that doesn’t pass right by in front of their nose. I have sight cast to many fish that ignored my offerings that came right by their tails or even over their dorsal fins, but when I took the time to place my fly or lure directly in the trout’s path, he’d at least make a half-hearted pass at it. So, just because you aren’t catching anything this early doesn’t mean the fish aren’t there. Cover more water more efficiently and then you will begin to see results.
Spring river fishing can be just as frustrating, especially when you can see pods of fish lying directly on the bottom in fast, deep pools. Most standard baits and lures will pass by far overhead in the swift current. It may require some extra weight (a lot of weight, in some cases) to reach these secluded fish, but if you can manage to roll a bait or fly past them at their level (often 6 inches or less off the bottom) they will make some small effort to take it.
If all of this sounds like too much work, by all means stay home and do yard work. As for me, I’ll take frozen knees any time!
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