Winter fishing: why, when, where?

My dear old Dad, a practitioner but not a true devotee of winter angling, used to say, “When you’ve done all the chores inside and outside the house to fight cabin fever, then you might as well go ice fishing.” 


I’ve gotten more and more that way as years pass. Hard water fishing has become more of a last resort than a first option. With so few cast-and-blast ventures available once deep snow and bitter weather arrive, it’s drill holes and set out tip-ups or stay inside and vegetate.

Another answer to why brave the elements for a bit of fishing is, it’s difficult to beat the taste of a feed of freshly caught smelt. And unless you planned ahead and froze a few summer trout, ice fishing offers fresh wild brook trout all winter. Camaraderie with friends and fellow sportsmen is always good reason to drill a few holes. Look closely and you’ll find very few solitary ice fishermen. Pairs, trios and groups of four are far more common, and one of the best answers to why is to share time with a son or daughter or a young novice from the neighborhood.

When to go ice fishing is a question with dual elements, one based on legal rules and regulations and the other governed by ice and weather conditions. Fishing on most Aroostook lakes and ponds opened Jan. 1. The yearly booklet of open water and ice fishing laws lists all waterways and specific rules and regulations. Annual law books can be picked up free of charge at city halls, town offices and local sporting goods stores. 

Safety, which translates to ice thickness, is always the prime concern when venturing onto any frozen waterway. Weather conditions vary so much each year, sometimes from month to month, so it’s crucial to check with an ice chisel or auger on each lake. Three inches of clear, blue ice is considered safe to support one adult, 4 inches for a group in single file.

A car requires 7 1/2 inches while a light- to medium-size truck of 2 to 3 tons needs 8 to 10 inches of ice for safe support. Don’t drive in a group, park at least 500 feet apart, and during the trip, proceed at slow speed with seat belts off and doors unlocked. Every lake has spring holes, currents and depth change that affect ice thickness. Don’t assume 8 inches of ice 100 yards from shore will be the same half a mile down the lake. Check often to be safe. 

A surprising number of ice fishermen put out a fishing hut if they live fairly close to a lake, while others who enjoy traveling to various locales each week take along a quick set-up portable fishing shelter. There are days with sun and temperatures in the 30s perfect for ice fishing with no need for shelter, and there are frigid, stormy days when even a warm shanty isn’t worth the misery of setting and minding tip-ups. If you’re just going to stay inside and handline for smelt or use a jigging rod, it’s tolerable. 

Where to fish is both a simple and difficult question for the same reason: there are just so many choices. Some sportsmen choose a spot nearest home, others like to explore and figure the more remote lakes get less pressure. Still others pick their spots based solely on the particular species of fish they enjoy catching, or perhaps the slim but ever present chance to hook a big, bragging size trophy.

Cross, Square and Long lakes of the Fish River chain are popular early season destinations, but for less pressure I’d visit St Froid. Smelt jigging can be very productive this month on St. Froid or Pleasant Pond in Island Falls, as well as Squa Pan Lake near Mapleton. If you have never caught a musky, check out Beau and Glazier Lakes near Allagash. A lot of ice fishermen might not realize that sections of the St. John River are open to winter fishing and offer easier access locations for large, toothy muskie than the lakes.

Meduxnekeag Lake (also called Brown’s Lake) near Houlton holds a variety of gamefish, but its main distinction is the chance to catch a brown trout, a unique feat in Aroostook. Portage Lake is another simple-to-reach, easy-to-fish location with great trout and smelt fishing. There are also a number of what I call “urban edge” waters, close to towns and villages and perfect for a quick two- or three-hour outing. Arnold Brook in Presque Isle, Portland Lake in Bridgewater, Nickerson in Houlton, Hodgdon Mill Pond and Rock Crusher Pond in Island Falls are just a few options. 

Ice fishing season is in full swing as of New Year’s Day. Let safe ice conditions and tolerable weather be your guide. It’s good to get outdoors and away from the house, so pick a good day, call a friend, find a novice or youngster that needs a mentor and drill some ice.

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