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One of the most popular year-round game fish in Maine, the landlocked salmon, just happens to be abundant and prolific in our area of the state. Most of the major large, cold lakes in this region contain salmon, and not just the puny 14-inchers that constitute the legal limit. Fish in the 3- to 5-pound range are not unusual, and some specimens that are twice that size are taken “’round here” every winter.
Every cold-season fish has its foibles, and the fabled Maine salmon is no different. If you intend to fish for salmon in winter (one of the best times of the year to catch them), you need to know the ins and outs of the ouananiche (the popular Canadian term for salmon). Without the basic knowledge that goes with successful salmon fishing, you could feasibly spend an entire winter on the ice and never get a bite!
For starters, the best time to be on the ice for salmon is at first light and shortly after sunrise. How the fish know the sun is on its way up as they swim around under several feet of ice and snow is beyond me, but that’s not for us to understand – they just know! I have always had the best luck when I get to the lake before sunrise and have all my traps set just as the first glow of dawn creeps over the eastern hills. There have been many times (in the distant past and five traps were legal everywhere) when I had a fish on all five traps at once. These days, only two traps (or one in some cases) are allowed on many waters, but even so, I have often had fish bite immediately at dawn, and as soon as I’d land a fish and put a fresh bait into the water, another fish would hit. This is why many anglers believe salmon travel under the ice in schools – you’ll get several catches at once and then nothing, perhaps for hours, when the action starts up all over again for no particular reason.
Another oddity of salmon behavior is that they generally prefer live (meaning very lively) shiners, smelts or minnows. No dead meat for these guys. I have often looked into the water to see what was going on below the ice and found a nice salmon just hovering near my motionless bait. The salmon would wait for the bait to move and, of course, the lifeless bait was not going anywhere. But, a little jigging on the line would get the shiner moving and that would invariably elicit a strike. It’s best to have shiners that do their own wiggling, so pick your baits well. Save the dead or dying shiners for bottom-feeders such as togue or cusk because a salmon won’t take a second look at a lifeless bait.
Hooking shiners for salmon is always a topic of heated ice-shack discussion. You can hook your baits (always use small, strong, fine wire hooks) through the back just behind the dorsal fin, or through the meat of the tail just ahead of the caudal (tail) fin. Some shiners are too small for this application, but if you want big salmon, use bigger baits: 2- to 4-inch shiners are about right. Whenever possible, experiment with different size baits and find out what the fish want – they are always right! Also, when setting up in extremely cold weather, keep your bait bucket close to the hole so you can quickly choose a shiner, hook it up and get it into the water because the chill air will kill a bait in seconds.
Now for the absolutely most important thing you need to know about winter salmon fishing – they don’t live on the bottom. Nor are they found just off the bottom, in the middle of the lake or 30 feet down. Surprising as it may seem, salmon are almost always found in the water just below the ice, usually within 15 feet or so of the top. You can sometimes see fish swimming below the ice, though they move fast and rarely linger after a missed strike.
Complicated as it all may sound, it takes no time at all to cut a hole, skim the loose ice away from the surface, set up a trap (or tip-up) and drop your bait into the water at least three or four feet below the bottom of the ice. If possible, set up several baits at depths varying from 3 to 10 feet below the ice. When you start getting hits, set the majority of your baits at the same depth.
Be aware that salmon are active, fast-moving fish that do not linger around a bait. They zoom along under the ice and hit a bait at full speed, gulping it down without delay. Some anglers swear that the fish will be 50 feet past the trap before the flag goes up! For this reason, be sure you leave plenty of slack line, either loosely coiled on the ice (an old-fashioned trick), or on a freewheeling spool under the water (the more modern approach). This gives the salmon a chance to take the bait and swim on at top speed before it reaches the end of the line, swallows the bait and (hopefully) hooks itself.
Another consideration is that salmon have “soft” mouths, which means hooks often pull out during long fights. The key is to play the fish slowly but steadily to the hole and get it out of the water quickly and smoothly. Should the fish be undersized, unhook it quickly and get it back into the water immediately because the cold winter air (and the stress of being caught) can kill a salmon in seconds. Ideally, and because so many salmon being caught these days are under the legal size limit, it’s best to use barbless hooks, or consider carry a wire-cutting tool so you can bring the salmon to the edge of the hole, assess its size and simply cut the hook or line and release the fish if it is too small.
Don’t expect to catch lots of salmon, or lots of salmon that are really big – biologists are trying but the days of 10-pound landlocks are pretty much over for our generation. Maybe someday...but for now, get out there early, set your baits just under the ice and be ready – some of the tastiest freshwater fish in Maine are sure to be headed your way!
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