It isn’t just about ice thickness anymore for the Maine fishing community

By Julie Harris, Bangor Daily News Staff

Many ice fishermen have already turned their sights toward open water fishing, turkey hunting, boating or other spring activities. That’s because parts of Maine just experienced one of their  shortest ice fishing seasons ever.

There are still people who are finding fishable ice, especially in Aroostook County, western Maine and some parts of Moosehead Lake, but many longtime fishermen are putting away their fishing traps and getting out their open-water gear.

Although ice thickness is always a factor for Maine’s lakes and ponds — especially the spring-fed bodies — the quality of the ice is deteriorating fast this year thanks to the warmer-than-normal temperatures and rain.

Several lakes and ponds are already listed on the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry’s 2024 Ice Out Dates for Maine’s Lakes webpage. 

Cross Pond in Morrill and Sebago Lake, which did not freeze much this winter and already has docks in the water at the state park there, were the first two listed on Tuesday, March 5. That number had grown to 16 by Friday morning and included waters primarily in central and coastal Maine.

“The ice-out reports are beginning early this year and since Thursday, they have been coming in relatively fast,” said Timothy Thurston, navigational aids supervisor for the Bureau of Parks and Lands Boating Facilities Division under the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry. “I suspect that over the weekend, I will receive a substantial amount of reports so the list on Monday will grow quickly.”

The bureau relies on people nearby the lakes to report when the ice is out, Thurston said. If there are conflicting reports on a lake or pond’s status, a game warden or forest ranger checks it out, but that is rare, he said.

Bait shops and guide services are starting to close shop for ice fishing too.

Dwayne Rioux, owner of Harvest Time Baits in Winslow, posted on Facebook that this ice fishing season was the shortest he’s ever experienced.

He said his business was looking toward spring, summer and fall fishing.

Muncey & Son Guide Service in Lincoln posted that its business was moving on from ice fishing for the season, as did Maine Fishing Guides, a group of registered guides that offers services in various locations around the state.

The social media buzz about ice safety is almost a roar. People are sharing information about ice thickness and quality related to dozens of Maine’s lakes and ponds multiple times a day. 

There is a lot of discussion about Moosehead Lake in particular. People on snowmobiles and ATVs have gone through the ice there this winter and the spring conditions are making parts of the lake more hazardous.

Some report dramatic changes within hours, such as inches of ice loss, sudden pressure ridges that cannot be crossed or have open water associated with them, ice degradation and difficulties getting to good fishing because the shore ice has broken up.

One Moosehead fisherman showed in photos on Facebook that two good taps with an ice chisel went through six inches of mush and hit maybe four inches of solid ice. He also said a lot of big holes had opened up on the lake. He was cautioning people to be careful, especially with machines.

“You could have 16 inches of solid ice early in the morning and in just a few hours, see that the top 3 inches have turned to granular ice. And it just continues to get worse,” said Mark Latti, communications director for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.

One fisherman posted on social media that he was fishing near Mount Kineo on Moosehead last Friday on 15 inches of ice, and that another fisherman posted Tuesday there were just 9 inches in the same vicinity.

Holes can go from 8 inches in diameter to 18-20 inches in a short period of time because they aren’t freezing over. Ice fishing holes drain off the surface of the lake and continue to get larger, Latti said.

He said people have used extension ladders and planks to bridge broken shore ice to reach their fishing spots, although the department doesn’t recommend it.

“It’s time you need to use a lot of caution if you choose to go out on the ice,” Latti said.

Thurston said it is unusual for certain lakes to be going out this early, although not unprecedented. He did not specify which lakes are unusually early, but said some in central and Down East Maine have gone out in March many times.

Before this year, the most recent early ice-out was in 2016 when Gardner Lake in East Machias went out March 2. This year, it went out on March 7, as did Unity Pond. Unity went out on March 15 in 2016, Thurston said. Before that, it was 2012.

“If you take a look at our historical records, you will see they can be all over the board. It remains to be seen how this season turns out. We have some lakes going out now, but all it takes is a cold snap and everything firms back up again and the ice holds on. That’s what makes this interesting and unpredictable. It may turn out to be somewhat ‘normal,’ but on the other hand, we may break some records. Only time will tell,” he said.

All of the concern about ice conditions doesn’t mean the winter fishing derby season is done. One derby in Roxbury in western Maine and another in Ashland in Aroostook County are still on for the weekend. 

The second annual Flag Runners Ice Fishing Derby for kids only will be held from 12:01 a.m. to the last weigh-in at 5:30 p.m. Saturday, March 9, at Gateway Trading Post in Ashland. Kids may fish Big Machias Lake, Little Machias Lake, Portage Lake, Scopan Lake and Carr Pond. The Portage Lake Loon 100 snowmobile race will be held the same day, so organizers caution derby fishers to be careful on that lake. Entry is free.

The Operation ReBoot OutDoors ice fishing derby will be held on Saturday as well. It is based on Ellis Pond in Roxbury, but all fishable waters in Oxford County qualify. Tickets are $20.

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