The new Ski-Doo is sitting on its trailer, ready to go.
The pack basket’s got a fresh coat of stain and you’ve already got new line and new hooks on your traps.
It’s time to hit one of Maine’s 6,000 lakes and ponds, fire up the auger, fry up a charge of deer steak, and take part in one of the state’s most traditional outdoor activities: ice fishing.
Not so fast.
According to game wardens from across Eastern and Northern Maine, it’s important not to rush the season.
And even though the calendar says January and the rule book says “fish away,” the conditions on Maine’s popular fishing holes ranges from safe to sloppy to downright scary.
Wardens caution that taking the time to talk to locals about a lake you may want to fish can help avert a tragedy. In Washington and Penobscot counties, many of the larger lakes – and hottest fishing spots – still have patches of open water.
Wardens say that even open water doesn’t necessarily mean a lake shouldn’t be fished, and said that safer ice is often available near the shore.
Still, as recently as Sunday morning a snowmobiler broke through thin ice on a Maine lake.
V. Paul Reynolds, the director of information and education for the Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife, said 78-year-old Ernest Niles broke through the ice on China Lake in central Maine and was rescued by two nearby fishermen.
Reynolds said Wednesday’s mixed bag of rain, sleet and freezing rain made marginal conditions deteriorate a little bit more.
“The January thaw we’ve had the last few days is probably going to create in most places some pretty treacherous conditions,” Reynolds said.
“That doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to go through the ice,” he said, explaining that at the very least the warm weather and rain has made for some rough sledding.
The culprit: slush.
“What happens is that snowmobilers get out there and get bogged down and it’s a real hog wrestle from there,” Reynolds said.
From Machias to Ashland and nearly everyplace in between, it seems, snowmobilers are facing the same problem.
In Ashland, investigator Terry Hunter of the Maine Warden Service said the wardens who have been out in the field are reporting that most people are fishing from shore.
“Along the Allagash waterway, on Big Eagle and Churchill, you can’t get 50 yards off shore before you’re in a foot of slush,” Hunter said.
And while slush is more a an inconvenience than a safety hazard, wardens say there are more reasons for concern.
One is the total unpredicability of each individual lake.
Warden Jeff Lewis counts the prime cold-water fishing grounds of the Ellsworth area – Branch Lake, Green Lake, Beech Hill Pond and Tunk Lake – among his responsibilities.
Listen to Lewis tell you where there are still patches of open water, and you realize that ice conditions are iffy.
“Branch. Green Lake. Beech Hill. Tunk,” Lewis itemized, admitting that he’s seen fishermen drive their trucks on those lakes despite open areas.
“They’re still fishing where they can,” he said. “The bad thing is, I hope they don’t feel that because there’s a foot in one cove that it’s safe everywhere.”
Lewis said safe ice often doesn’t form until late January. This year, even before the thaw, things are dangerously unpredictable.
“On Beech Hill, there’s a deep hole that’s usually last to freeze,” Lewis said. “That’s frozen up, and up there in the narrows [where it usually freezes first] there’s still a big opening.”
Still, Lewis said he wouldn’t advise people to stay off the ice entirely. Instead, a little caution should suffice.
“I wouldn’t be hesitant,” he said. “I’d use an auger or a chisel and cut a hole about every hundred feet or so. Just because there’s ice in one spot doesn’t mean there’s ice in other spots.”
Down East, Warden Joe McBrine reported slightly better results. Small, warm-water ponds may be frozen entirely, while larger, deeper lakes with inlets and outlets tend to be more variable.
McBrine said the problem with Washington County lakes is that the water tends to be in motion in many of them.
“A lot of the lakes down here are really just wide spots in a river, and there’s still current going through them,” McBrine said. “When you’ve got current, you’re not going to see ice until it’s good and cold.
Still, McBrine said even the bigger lakes in his area are fishable, with a little caution.
“Pennamaquan Lake, out in the middle, is one of the worst ones I’ve got,” McBrine said.
Some other lakes have ice 15 to 16 inches thick all the way across. He won’t say which ones. Again, the more caution people use on the ice, the better off they are.
“The problem with giving that information out,” he said, “is that unless you know where all the spring holes are, you can still get in trouble.”
According to McBrine, there are plenty of spots to fish near shore, and those who are showing up are glad they did.
“The fishing has been fantastic compared to past years,” he said. “On the trout and salmon, they’ve been doing fantastic.”
In the Allagash, fishing and snowmobiling are at the whim of the weather.
“The lakes, there seems to be enough ice to get around, if you can get out and go,” Hunter said.
“[But] the pilot got out and flew over two days ago and there were yellow spots. We call that major slush.”
The DIF&W’s Reynolds knows there’s only one thing that can solve the problems that exist across the state.
“This see-saw weather pattern we’ve had does not lend itself to safe ice conditions,” he said. “But if we have another four or five days of sub-zero nights, things will change.” Ice safety hints
Ice safety hints
The Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife offer these tips for keeping safe on Maine’s frozen waterways this winter:
Never go onto the ice alone.
Don’t bunch up on the ice – especially if you’re snowmobiling.
Carry a rope or throw bag when you venture onto the ice.
Carry ice picks such as spikes, screw drivers, or manufactured devices. If you do break through the ice, these tools can make the difference between life and death.
Ask locals who live on lakes and ponds how the conditions are before you head out.
A person should have 2-3 inches of ice underfoot before trying to walk on water.
A minimum of 6-7 inches are needed for snowmobile traffic.
The DIF&W recommends that trucks and cars should remain on dry land, no matter how much ice there is.