For the past several months, Gilbert Roy has been looking forward to a milestone day on the St. John River near his home in Van Buren.
Earlier this week, he erected signs to commemorate the big day.
“Ice fishing open on Jan. 1,” announced one sign.
“Grand opening,” proclaimed another.
Roy said he and others joined forces to convince the state to open a section of the river.
“I’ve been working for about a year and a half to get ice fishing open on the St. John River,” Roy said Friday, as he prepared to go onto the water and check ice thickness.
Dave Basley, the Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife’s regional fisheries biologist for Aroostook County, said that unbeknownst to him and DIF&W staffers, Roy was mounting a petition drive as the DIF&W mulled the same issue.
“It was the funniest thing. We had thought of opening that same section of the St. John. That same spring we had talked about it,” Basley said. “We did some sampling, some water quality [readings] and some soundings. Before we could propose it in [the DIF&W’s] rulemaking [process], the commissioner said he’d received a petition to open it.”
The petition was Roy’s. The idea was popular. And it passed through the rulemaking process easily.
“I told Gilbert, ‘Great minds think alike,’” Basley said with a chuckle.
According to the new regulation, only a small portion of the St. John — from the international bridge in Van Buren downstream to the Maine-New Brunswick border at the easternmost border of the town of Hamlin — will be open. General border fishing regulations apply.
That stretch of water is several miles long, but is relatively slow-moving, Basley said.
“That section of the river is really an impoundment behind the Grand Falls hydroelectric dam in Grand Falls, New Brunswick,” Basley explained. “It’s about 500 acres, but it’s quite a long section of river.”
Roy hopes the new ice-fishing season helps revitalize his home river during the winter months.
“You used to have all kinds of activity on that river. We used to have a snowmobile race,” Roy said. “Then people moved out, and people moved to Florida. Hopefully, now I’ve got time, we can revive some of that stuff.”
Early on, before his petition drive, Roy heard all kinds of negative comments from people when he mentioned his grand plan for the St. John.
“I go to the coffee shop in town and we talk, and some people said, ‘Oh, that will never go anywhere,’” he said.
But as he began to ask people to sign the petition that would open the St. John to ice fishing, more optimists stepped up to offer their support.
“We got over 200 [signatures], and 186 were certified,” he said. “We only had three people that were negative.”
Basley said in the middle of the channel, there’s 20 to 25 feet of water under the ice. He said a problem that anglers may face is finding a way to ice fish on moving water.
“There is a current there,” Basley said. “I’m not sure how people are going to weigh their lines down.”
If anglers figure out that process, which they likely will, Basley said they can expect to catch bass, muskellunge, and an occasional trout.
And during an electro-fishing survey he conducted in July, he found another species he thinks St. John Valley anglers will target.
“We sampled a couple of places where there were schools of smelts,” Basley said. “We were kind of hoping that there would be a hook-and-line fishery for smelts.”
Basley said he was eager to find out how many take advantage of the newly opened fishery, but cautioned anglers to be careful when they head out onto the ice.
“I don’t know how it will be used, but it is a river fishery so people want to certainly check the ice before they go out,” he said.
Basley said last April he headed onto the ice to do some research on the dissolved oxygen content of the water that is now open to fishing, and found that even late in the winter, the ice was thick.
“It took the whole bit of an auger to go down through that,” he said. “That’s 30-some inches.”
Still, Basley said anglers would do well to remember that ice conditions can be fickle, and may not be constant.
“I would emphasize that river ice is a lot trickier than lake ice, and people should treat it as such,” Basley said.
On Friday, Roy planned to do just that: He was heading to the St. John for another recon mission.
“I’ve got a chopper and I’m going down to do some chopping, see how thick the ice is,” Roy said.
Roy, who admits to being “plus 75” years old, said he’s looking forward to taking advantage of the new fishing opportunity he helped create.
“I’m fortunate I can walk. I ride my snowmobile, I do my firewood,” he said. “And I enjoy the outside.”
Ice fishers out early up north
Basley and his colleagues were hard at work on New Year’s Day, as Aroostook County ice anglers headed to their favorite lakes and ponds for opening day.
On a frigid day, wardens and biologists checked parties on several productive lakes, including some that were open on New Year’s Day for the first time in several years this season.
A new regulation that went into effect this year eliminated a rule that had called for a Jan. 15 opening day on some lakes.
Basley wasn’t surprised by what he learned: “Long Lake was probably the busiest of all the lakes up here,” he said.
Long Lake in Madawaska and St. Agatha, home of chubby landlocked salmon that many call “Long Lake footballs,” is one of the few places in the state anglers can go and have a realistic chance to catch an 8- or 10-pound salmon … if they’re persistent … and lucky.
Basley said wardens counted just two parties on Square Lake, and two more on Cross Lake.
That wasn’t the case at Long Lake, as Basley and colleague Frank Frost talked to 50 or 60 fishing parties during a busy day on the ice.
Basley said the ice was about 10 inches thick on Long Lake.