|Generally speaking, it’s finally safe to get on the ice and do some fishing. All through this remarkably warm winter anglers have been stymied by high temperatures, noticeably little snow and areas on the bigger lakes where there was dangerously thin ice or vast stretches of open water.
Having taken a plunge through thin ice a time or two I’m no longer keen on being the first one out there, but reports are that there is enough ice on the smaller ponds and lake bays to allow safe fishing for the time being. I don’t want to be the first one to start talking about spring, but March is only three days away. As warm as it’s been, things are likely to break up quickly in the next several weeks and that means winter anglers should be extremely cautious from here on.
But enough of thin ice anxiety. As is often the case, we can work ourselves into a panic if we let our imaginations rule, but once we head out there and get busy cutting holes and setting traps the cloud of dread that’s been hanging over us all winter quickly dissipates.
I was out recently checking small ponds and was amazed to see skaters, snowmobilers and ice-fishermen keeping busy in the warm mid-day sun. I thanked one string of riders for checking the ice for me, and then I headed out to catch the makings of a lunchtime fish fry.
I headed for a favorite small pond where I knew scads of pickerel, perch and bluegills would be waiting. I’m not fussy about the fish I eat as long as they can be quickly filleted and fried in peanut oil. Smaller is usually better when it comes to eating warmwater species, so I rig my traps with No. 6 hooks and 2-inch minnows to ensure more flags and more meat for the pan.
I normally set out four underwater traps just a few yards offshore but near the edge of a weed line or dropoff. I reserve my fifth hole for jigging small lures, which keeps me busy and give me the feeling that I’m doing something more ambitious than watching flags flutter in the wind.
Thanks to the abundance and aggressive nature of these so-called panfish, I can usually fire up the gas stove and get the oil sizzling in the pan about 10 minutes after I cut my last hole in the ice. Once the flags start flying I’ll be busy hauling in fish, rebaiting hooks, filleting thick slabs of meat and dredging the pieces in spiced flour or corn meal.
Happily, in Maine there is no size or bag limit on perch or bluegills, and even the smallest fish taste great as they come out of the water. I can catch enough for a winter lunch on the ice in less than an hour, and then I brew up some tea, sit back and watch the flags fly.
If I feel extremely lazy (which happens quite often when I am on the ice!) I’ll just keep my jigging hole open and enjoy the day while sitting on my bait bucket and drinking tea.
Not a few people question the sanity of ice-anglers but of course their aversion to the sport is usually based on surmise rather than experience. If you are properly dressed for the cold (or not cold, as has been the case most of this winter) it’s actually very pleasant out there. The hot sun beating down on the ice can often make it feel rather balmy. If a wind comes up a simple windbreak made of a tarp or Space Blanket can considerably reduce the chill factor. There are a variety of portable shelters available that can lessen the effects of wind and cold, but well-insulated coveralls, warm boots and gloves are more than sufficient for these warmer end-of-winter days.
Twice this winter I have been visited by hungry ravens, which spotted my little pile of fillet left-overs from afar and came in to enjoy a feast of perch and bluegill parts. These normally stand-offish birds ignored me as I sat there jigging and sipping, and by the time I was ready to head for home the entire pile had been cleaned up. I’ve had bald eagles visit my fishing spot as well, but they tend to sit stoically in a nearby treetop till I was packed up and gone. I guess they have not heard that they are a protected species and therefore have nothing to fear from a February ice-fisherman!
There are plenty of lakes and ponds in our area where the ice is now thick enough for ice-fishing. Certainly check with the local sheriff or game warden about ice thicknesses on the water you plan to fish, or ask a local bait shop owner what his customers have been saying. Some waters are perfectly safe; some are not, so it’s important that you find out before you go.
Most winter fishermen target trout and salmon, with bass, pickerel, pike, muskies and cusk coming in at diminishing levels of interest. Serious lake trout fishermen may spend several days dropping foot-long suckers to the bottom before they see a flag, but big baits mean big fish, and 10- to 20-pound togue are caught every year; not many, but they are out there.
I like panfishing because regulations are few and catch restrictions are even fewer. I can catch as many fish of any size as I want, which is as good a cure for cabin fever as any. You can’t be depressed when the flags are flying fast and furious.
Many of Maine’s lakes and ponds are managed by site-specific regulations that are available on the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Web site (www.mefishwildlife.com). Click around on the site to find the water you plan to fish. If it’s not listed it falls under the general rule for size and bag limit, number of traps allowed, etc. Waters that are closed to ice-fishing are also listed a good thing to check before you get set up on a lake and wonder why there’s no one else out there!