|Legally, Maine’s open water anglers can gather at the river April 1 and begin fishing for trout, salmon, bass and other popular freshwater species. This year that rule carries about as much weight as the fact that “spring” officially began March 20. It may be spring by meteorological decree but it sure doesn’t look like it!
Though it is legal to fish open water beginning April 1, the regulations clearly state that it is unlawful to fish open water “while positioned on ice.” Slowly but surely our lakes and rivers will open up and water will begin to flow again, and when that happens anglers will test their skills while standing on shore or from a boat, kayak or canoe. No matter how thick the ice or wide the channel fishing while standing on the ice is illegal. Folks in Michigan and other Great Lakes states learn this the hard way every year, as groups of anglers are stranded while standing on large chunks of ice that break off and drift away. It’s probably a fun and interesting experience but the risks to fishermen and their rescuers are too high.
Another thing I’ve learned about opening day fishing is to avoid using an aluminum canoe. My favorite old 17-foot Grumman square-ender is a great craft for fishing most of the year but in spring . . . not so much. When the water is ice cold and there are rafts of crushed ice drifting along my aluminum canoe turns into a portable freezer. The metal absorbs the cold and transfers it to my feet and seat wicked! Even when using cushions and heavy clothing the cold is just about unbearable. In addition, the fish usually aren’t biting, either, so the experience is not quite what I imagined it would be as I anticipated the fun and excitement of opening day. Better to wait a few more weeks till things warm up a little!
The ringer in spring fishing is that conditions can change literally in an instant. Traditional opening day may be April 1 but some years it’s all but life-threatening to try to wet a line that early. At worst you can’t even get near the water to make a cast, and even if you did (purely for tradition’s sake) whatever bait or lure you decide to use is going to be swept away in a torrent of crushed ice, proof positive that spring is not quite upon us.
There are those who adhere to the old adage about fishing being best when the leaves on the poplar as big as a mouse’s ear, which really means late April into early May. It’s the rare spring when fishing isn’t good by then, but who can wait that long? Most anglers push the laws of tradition by testing the waters frequently starting in about mid-April, and sooner or later they will make the big strike. Most years the best fishing coincides with black fly time and mud time, but the persistent few who get there just before the changeover can enjoy some really good fishing without the bug bites and soft shoulders bogging things down.
For me the best fishing begins just after the spring runoff period ends; when all the snow is gone, the frost is out of the ground and the rivers and streams are at normal flow once more. This usually coincides with black fly and mud time, but may occur just a few days earlier. This truly is the perfect time to be on the water. It’s warm, there is little foliage to interfere with casting and it’s dry enough along the stream banks to allow anglers to creep up on promising pools without worrying about sinking knee deep into the mud. It’s a short period of piscatorial bliss, no doubt, but when everything falls into place that’s the time to make those first productive casts of the season.
It does seem as though winter does not want to let go of us but unless we’re entering another Ice Age spring will come again. If daydreaming counts for anything the hook-and-line brigade has been through with cold weather for weeks. More fishing catalogs are coming in every day and the major stores are having their “spring fling” weekends in hopes of cashing in on the exuberant anticipation. The few thaws we’ve had just add fuel to the fire. If anglers could wish the snow and frost away it would have been gone long ago.
What I try to do is sit by the stove with a cup of hot tea and try to imagine a perfect opening day, with soft, warm winds, clear-running streams and a perfect spot where a fat, hungry trout lies at the bottom of a slow-moving, deep pool.
Last year I had a particular hole in mind that haunted me all winter. I knew exactly where I wanted to be that first day, where I was going to cast my offering and could almost see the colorful brook trout that would come out of the depths to signal the true start of the new season.
When I finally arrived at the stream I approached the pool, baited up and waited a few minutes before making my first cast. Everything looked right: the water was clear and cold, and I knew there had to be a trout lurking in that swirling pool.
I tossed my bait into the head of the pool, let it sink and watched as it drifted slowly through an eddy and into the fast-running tailwaters. Right behind it was the dark shadow of a hungry fish, and just like that another season began. I caught my limit of brookies that day but that first fish was all I needed to make it a successful trip. Gone were thoughts of snow, cold, wind and winter; now it was spring and the trout were biting again. These are the days that fishermen live for and they’re coming right up!