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Last week’s column about fishing Opening Day for better or worse resonated with some anglers who agreed that a bad day of fishing is still better than a good day of spring cleaning. Thanks to our endless winter weather and Maine anglers’ equally endless enthusiasm, the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife has extended the ice-fishing season (which traditionally ended March 31) for “as long as there is ice that is safe to use.”
In southern, central and Down East Maine, if lakes or ponds are open to ice-fishing and open water fishing under the general law, anglers may continue to ice-fish unless that lake or pond has a special rule specifying otherwise. In northern and western Maine, anglers may continue fishing on lakes and ponds that are managed under the “A” season in the most current regulations booklet.
So, instead of forcing die-hard anglers to fish rivers and streams that are deep, cold and brimming with crushed ice, the auger and tip-up crowd can continue to fish through the ice as long as there is ice enough to fish through. This means ice-fishing the old-fashioned way, because all ice shacks had to be off the ice by April 1.
For detailed information on where fishing is and is not allowed, consult the 2014 fishing law book, which is available at many locations where fishing licenses are sold, or go online at www.mefishwildlife.com.
This new law gives Maine sportsmen something to do in the formerly bland month of April. In most areas it was too early to fish and turkey season is still a month away. Fiddling with fishing or hunting gear can get old quickly, but knowing that it’s now legal to head onto the ice for a day of fishing changes everything. If additional incentive is needed, it’s a proven fact that many of the biggest fish of the year are caught in late winter. April or not, if a lake has enough ice for safe ice-fishing then, by heck, it’s still winter!
In most cases, especially in northern Maine, ice conditions will be such that one may still snowmobile, perhaps even drive, onto the ice, but it’s important to check ice conditions daily and make sure that whatever you use to get out there is the safest option. On some waters vehicles were already getting stuck a week or more ago and some anglers had the devil’s own time trying to get their ice shacks safely to shore.
There is certainly enough safe ice on most lakes and ponds, but in some areas that safe ice is covered by a mixed mantle of snow, crushed ice, rotten ice and slush. There’s no greater thrill that to be walking across the ice half a mile from shore and suddenly plunging through that soft mantle right up to your hip! The “real” ice will finally catch you and provide firm footing, but that first foot or two of slush can do wonders for an angler’s blood pressure. One year I was walking with a friend (much shorter than me) who stepped into an old ice-fishing hole that had expanded to about 2 feet and was covered with slush. Down he went, right to his shoulders! He didn’t have much to say (ice-cold water has that effect on a person) but I had a feeling that we weren’t going to be doing any fishing that day. I hoisted him up onto solid ice and then we ran as fast as we could to shore. By the time we got there my buddy’s clothes were frozen solid and he was not far behind. It took most of the rest of the day to warm him up and when the topic of going back onto the ice again came up he just shivered and shook his head.
This is why the MDIFW reminds anglers to check the safety of the ice before heading out by chiseling or drilling holes close to shore and measuring the thickness of the ice. Springtime ice can be softer than mid-winter ice, especially over deep water and near inlets and outlets, which tend to open up earlier than other parts of lakes and ponds.
While it’s likely that this winter’s ice cover will remain solid for most of April, it’s a good idea to enjoy the best but plan for the worst. My late-season ice-fishing gear includes knee-high rubber boots (thigh-high would be better, especially as the season winds down). I carry a 50-foot rope and ice picks in my gear bucket, plus a Space blanket in case someone gets soaked and needs to be warmed up immediately. I also use the Space blanket as a windbreak when I’m fishing. If you sit facing the sun with the silver side in, you’ll be warm as toast all day.
One good trick for foot-bound anglers is to use the existing snowmobile and 4-wheeler trails as travel lanes. The snow and ice on these trails has been packed down all winter and makes a great highway for anglers towing their own gear on a sled or toboggan. I also cut my holes in the ice just off the trail and use the harder surface for my base of operations. Sooner or later these trails lead to areas where other anglers have fished over the winter. Set up on solid ice nearby and use the old holes, which shouldn’t have as much ice in them.
If you want to be more adventurous simply proceed with safety in mind. Ice doesn’t break up all at once uniformly; it’s a long, slow, random process. As winter finally ends there will be areas of open water surrounded by blocks of ice that can be several feet thick. Stay well away from open water or areas that seem to be under water. The ice will swell, shift and buckle over time until one fine day there’s not a bit of ice to be seen. Then it will be time to get the rods and reels out for the open-water season. It’s just a matter of waiting till Old Man Winter has officially left the building!
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