Come the end of December, most avid anglers on Aroostook County’s Long Lake have typically prepared for a couple weeks of smelting in advance of their landlocked salmon season.
For the past several years, the season for those fat salmon — the fabled “Long Lake footballs” — hasn’t opened until Jan. 15, and has closed on March 15.
The taking of smelts, some of which were consumed by anglers, and others of which were used as bait, was allowed from the time ice formed until the time ice formed.
This year, things are different, and the state’s traditional opening day of ice fishing, Jan. 1, will observed for all species on the lake that sits in St. Agatha and Madawaska.
In past years, when Jan. 15 rolled around, the locals hit the water hard, and their efforts paid off in the form of hungry, massive salmon that hammered their bait.
This year, they’ll start two weeks earlier … and anglers are already getting excited.
As Scott Picard of Madawaska informed me in an e-mail earlier this week, he and his buddies are already making plans for the earlier opening day.
Picard is one of many avid anglers in the region, and spends plenty of time on Long Lake in the winter, spring and summer months.
“I have been talking to many fishermen about the new changes proposed for 2009,” Picard wrote in a follow-up e-mail, responding to a few questions I had posed to him. “Everyone is excited about the changes. I believe the change will encourage more people to fish.”
Dave Basley, the Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife’s regional fisheries biologist for the Aroostook region, checked in a couple of months ago with an explanation of the changes that had been approved.
“It is our opinion that returning to a three-month ice-fishing season — Jan. 1 through March 31 — for all fish is the most appropriate proposal for all the lakes now open in the Fish River Chain, given the amount of angler participation, current bag and length limits and an expressed interest by the public,” Basley wrote at the time. “We feel this extra month of fishing would offer an increase in ice-fishing opportunity for a greater number of anglers as well as be of benefit for the local economy.”
Basley explained that having all of the open Fish River Chain lakes — Long, Cross, Square and Eagle — open under the same guidelines removed the necessity for sometimes confusing special regulations on each lake.
Picard admitted that he had some doubts when the rule was first suggested.
“I was skeptical about the change, but time will tell how opening the season 15 days earlier to salmon fishing will impact the quality of the lake’s fishery,” Picard wrote. “I am not sure if the amount of fish caught in 15 days will greatly diminish the resources the lake currently provides.”
Picard said he has spoken to Basley, and is confident that the state’s biologists are paying close attention to the impact of the rule change.
And while the weather has been a bit unpredictable in recent days — blizzard, followed by 45 degree temperatures, followed by a cold snap in the Bangor area — Picard said anglers can expect safe ice on Long Lake.
“Ice conditions on the north end of Long Lake are good,” Picard wrote on Friday. “We have a snow base of six inches and 12 inches of ice. Conditions on the southern portion of the lake are good also, with a three-inch base of snow and six inches of ice.”
A quick warning is in order: If you head out on Long Lake (or any other lake), don’t take the word of Picard, or anyone else. Check early. Check often. Be safe.
With cold weather expected up north, Picard said he’s already making preparations for a productive opening week of fishing.
“I have three cabins which I will be setting up, and I have taken time off the week of Jan. 5 to fish,” Picard wrote. “I am sure many big fish will be taken out the first 10 days of the season. I am predicting a couple over 10 pounds.”
That would follow the trend at Long Lake, as veteran anglers maintain that the first 10 to 14 days of the ice fishing season offers the best action — and the best opportunity to catch a huge salmon — that they’ll see all year.
The new season does present a challenge, as Picard points out.
“I think the only problem fishermen will have is locating bait,” he wrote. “Normally bait shops have ample time to fill their coolers, but this year northern Maine begins fishing at the same time as all the other lakes.”
Other news from the ice …
On Friday I took my customary tour of some eastern Maine lakes to see how the ice conditions were.
Here’s the answer, in a word: Variable.
Over at Brewer Lake in Orrington, it appeared as though Old Man Winter had finally taken hold, with no open water showing on the end of the lake I surveyed. A couple of prospective anglers had drilled a test hole 30 yards offshore, but they’d packed up and left before I had the chance to turn around and talk to them.
They did, however, make it back to shore without breaking through, which bodes well for the future.
Nearby Fields Pond — a hotspot for white perch and pickerel — also looked socked in with ice, and a single ice shack was visible … although not too far from shore.
Out Route 1A toward Ellsworth, things were drastically different.
Much of Phillips Lake — “Lucerne” to the locals — was iced over, but plenty of thin, black ice was evident. In addition, a few spots on the lake were still wide open.
Over on Green Lake, two different access points told totally different stories.
At the public landing on Nicolin Road, the lake appeared to have a nice early coat of ice that had formed before the recent snow; from shore to shore, the lake gleamed white.
At Jenkins Beach, on the other side of the lake in Dedham, it was downright scary-looking: White sheets of ice had formed near shore, but just 100 yards off the beach the ice was thin and black. In the distance, it appeared that the lake was still open.
All of which is offered to you for a pair of reasons.
First, getting excited about ice-fishing season is a good thing, and if I can help fuel your early season fever, I’m happy to do so.
But second, it’s important to remember that accidents can, and will happen, especially during the first few weeks of the season, when lakes haven’t frozen solid enough for angler traffic.
If you’d care to pass along any information about your own local lake or pond, I’d be glad to share it with our readers.
And if you’re looking to network with other anglers in an effort to find a safe and productive place to fish, you can find a neat on-line community with message boards full of information at www.iceshanty.com.