Head north for trophy fishing

Posted Jan. 31, 2009, at 12:05 a.m.

Despite a plethora of top-rate ice fishing locations throughout the state, during recent winters more and more hard-water anglers pack up their gear and head north. That a perfectly acceptable lake may be only a half-hour drive from their home makes no difference, ice drilling sportsmen are flocking to Aroostook County with amazing regularity. For many cold-weather fishermen, Crown of Maine lakes and ponds offer the chance to catch a trophy-size fish, perhaps even a state or world record.

Other tip-up tenders travel north for the wide variety of species to be caught from one particular waterway, while a handful of outdoorsmen visit the County as much for the vast array of well maintained snowmobile trails to ride when they’re not fishing.

Wanderlust is a natural-occurring trait of most sportsmen, the yen for a new, secluded river or lake to visit, regardless of the season, just seems to be ingrained. Even when fishing is mediocre, exploring new territory and enjoying nature and enchantment of a fresh location is invigorating. So we reconnoiter, we travel, and then we fish, hoping that this time will yield that one supreme memory of a lifetime. Following are some worthwhile destinations, some well known, others more obscure, but each rewarding in its own way.

Long lunkers

No conversation about trophy landlocked salmon among Pine Tree anglers can occur without some reference to Long Lake of the renowned Fish River chain of lakes near St. Agatha. This frozen jewel of the north gives up 3- to 5-pound salmon as run-of-the-mill catches, then randomly bestows 6- to 8-pounders, once-in-a-lifetime wall-hangers to a dozen or more lucky ice drillers each winter. Just the possibility of hooking such a fish draws fishermen not just from Maine but from throughout the U.S. and Canada. This very weekend the fourth annual fishing derby is taking place on several Aroostook lakes, but you can rest assured Long Lake will garner the greatest attention as a multitude of anglers try to entice football-shaped, chrome-sided salmon to strike their bait.

Although Long Lake isn’t thought of as a brook trout haven, there are trophy brookies to be had, too. In the late 1980s Omer Lebel, a novice angler from Van Buren, broke the state and world record when he landed an 8.4-pound brook trout the last week of February. It was only Lebel’s second ice-fishing outing ever when, while hand jigging a Swedish Pimple, the 24-inch-long trout with an 18.5-inch girth grabbed the lure. Two very rewarding aspects of ice fishing are never knowing what species and size fish will strike a bait and not needing expertise to enjoy success.

Smelt, Maine’s smallest game fish, are another great reason to visit Long Lake. Not only is a healthy population of these silver slivers the main reason salmon and trout grow so well in this waterway, but they offer a fishing alternative that may be enjoyed from inside a warm, comfy fish hut day or night. On frigid days or when a nasty storm is in progress, renting a smelt shanty can save an outing, and the handlining fun can continue on into the evening after tip-ups must be pulled. When flags aren’t flying outside, jigging a smelt line or two inside helps pass the time. Besides the steady action these small fish provide, they are delicious tablefare and many folks prefer their succulent taste over trout.

Jigging for smelt is often much more productive after dark anyway and for folks who have to work all day, using a fishing hut offers an additional chance to fish. Another perk of jigging cut bait for smelt in the evening is how often a cruising salmon or trout grabs the hook, and what a fight one of these brutes puts up on a light handline. Also, nights are prime time for catching cusk, and while this ugly half fish/half eel isn’t much appreciated as a quarry, large ones really put up a great tussle and the solid white meat makes a tremendously tasty fish chowder.

Mammoth muskie

Let’s move on from the state’s smallest winter quarry, the smelt, to the largest, the muskellunge, or muskie for short. Ten years ago there was no discernible population of muskie in Maine waterways, but severe spring freshets and a couple of unusually rainy summers led to flooding that allowed muskie stocked in Canadian bor-der waters to escape into northern Maine’s river and lakes. It was not uncommon five years ago to hear these toothy water wolves referred to as nuisance, predator, scavenger, pest and even trash fish. Many of the more descriptive and colorful monikers are unfit for print.

In recent years, however, many Aroostook anglers have developed a different outlook as more and more fishermen not only accept muskie but embrace the challenge of hooking what experts refer to as “the fish of a thousand casts.” Glazier Lake — more an elongated, wide stretch of the St. Francis River than a true lake, holds the distinction of yielding multiple, state-record muskies.

Five times in recent history this waterway has produced a state record. One record was replaced only an hour after a sport in the same party set a record, and then another angler’s muskie surpassed that weight only a week later.

Half a dozen regional fishermen suffering from muskiemania, as well as my brother-in-law who has a camp on Glazier Lake and fishes regularly, swear they have sighted record-breaking 30-pound mammoth muskie. Other devout all-season muskie anglers relate tales of splintered rods, broken leaders and lines, and burnt-out reels during fights with huge water wolves, possibly record setters, hooked in Glazier Lake and the St. John and St. Francis Rivers. Glazier Lake can be reached via roads on the New Brunswick side as well as the American side of this boundary lake, which is actually half in each country.

It’s a simple fact that ice fishing produces steady action and larger fish compared to spring and summer trolling and topwater casting, On top of that, for some reason February seems to deliver more bragging-size muskie than other months. Heavy line and a strong shock leader are a must on sturdy traps with adjustable tension reels, and large lively bait, 8 to 12 inches, will entice the big ones. Expertise often takes a back seat to luck when ice fishing, so youngsters and novice ice fishermen are just as likely to hook a monster as veteran ice drillers. For the fish and fight of a lifetime, visit Glazier Lake at the tiptop of Maine.

Brown brutes

Brown trout are a rare commodity in Aroostook, but one particular lake boasts not only a strong population of this hard-fighting species but the chance to pull a real brute through the ice. Meduxnekeag Lake, locals call it Drew’s Lake, harbors white perch, yellow perch, pickerel, brook trout, splake and plenty of brown trout. Browns average 12-16 inches and 20-inch beauties are caught regularly, but every once in awhile an eye-popping trophy in the 4- to 6-pound class is caught. That possibility alone makes a visit to this New Limerick waterway worthwhile.

Traveling anglers need only drive I-95 to Houlton, take Route 1 for a mile or so and then turn onto Route 2A and finally the Drew’s Lake Road. A public boat landing sign will indicate the turn leading to a shoreline parking and unloading area as well as a snowmobile trail onto the “small lake” portion of this three-part frozen gem.

While a snowsled is a great benefit to those wishing to explore the main lake and the distant third portion called The Fishing Grounds, the small lake and the very productive narrow neck and shoulders of the junction are easily fished on snowshoes. Small minnows seem to catch a lot of perch, so I suggest 3- to 4-inch shiners to better entice good-sized splake and wary browns. One of the rewards of visiting Drew’s Lake is thanks to the multiple species, at least one variety is usually biting, and that makes it a great spot for kids and rookie ice anglers. Whenever a flag flies, until you set the hook it’s a mystery whether it’s a small perch or a big pickerel or, when you finally flip the fish from the hole, perhaps it’s that big brown everyone hopes for.

Bountiful brookies

If catching beautifully speckled brook trout stokes your fire, it’s back to the Fish River chain of lakes. Square Lake is a sure bet for consistent action and the chance at a big brookie. Two-pounders are fairly common and 3-pound-plus trout turn up more frequently than you’d expect. Moderate-size shiners work fine, but small smelt are even more dependable. In fact, handlining for smelt while overseeing tip-ups yields fairly steady action most days, and when a flag pops, it could as easily be a salmon as a trout.

There are no plowed roads to any shoreline on Square, so a snowmobile is a must, and be sure to bring a spacious tote sled to haul gear since some of the best drilling sites are far up the lake from the main trails. Newcomers might want to drop a line near Limestone or Barstow Points and the shallow reaches of Goddard Cove generally won’t disappoint. The shoreline between Yerxa’s Cove and Salmon Point offers steady interest from trout and salmon and is seldom crowded.

For sportsmen who really want to avoid crowds and don’t mind a long ride over rough, snowy roads, investigate either Big Eagle or Churchill lakes way back in the big woods. These are truly snowmobile access locations and if you own a portable fishing shelter, all the better. Once again, each lake holds a variety of finned quarry, but big brook trout top the list and it’s a sure bet you’ll see more wildlife than people.

Let’s talk togue

Lake trout, or togue to most anglers, come in purebred or hybrid varieties and can be found randomly in deep, cold lakes polka-dotting the Crown of Maine. Splake are actually a man-made cross between a brook trout and a lake trout developed to be stocked in waterways where their hearty constitution and rapid growth will al-low them to excel. Squa Pan Lake in Squa Pan Township (T10 R4) has turned out to be the perfect environment for growing large, healthy, hard-fighting splake.

Squa Pan is a large boomerang-shaped waterway with maintained winter vehicle access at two locations as well as snowmobile trails entering at least two other lakeshore sites. Often a road is plowed out onto the ice and for a good distance up the lake. Along with good-sized splake, brook trout, perch and smelt will keep flags flying and handliners busy.

For true togue in a remote setting visit Beau Lake in far northern Aroostook County. This massive 2,000-acre lake is another border water, but this time between Maine and Quebec, and unless anglers buy a Quebec license, only the Pine Tree half may be fished. Half is usually plenty, however, as togue in the 2- to 3-pound class provide steady action and occasionally one in the 5- to 7- pound class grabs a bait.

Access is via Little Black checkpoint on well-groomed trails, but it’s a fair ride, so be sure to bring plenty of bait, food and gear for a full day of fast and furious fishing. Brook trout, salmon, cusk and whitefish will keep anglers hopping between togue takes.

While I have a good deal of experience on most of these Aroostook lakes, I took the liberty of shoring up my opinions with a true authority on Crown of Maine fishing. Dave Basley is Ashland’s long time head fisheries biologist and is always very helpful and candid while chatting with me about my selections, and his respected input is always appreciated and welcome.

Perhaps you only live in southern Aroostook, or maybe along the coast or clear down in Kittery, but in any case, for top-rate ice fishing and the chance at a real trophy, come visit Aroostook. Pack the truck, load the snowmobile on the trailer, grab DeLorme’s “The Maine Atlas and Gazetteer” and head north, the fishing’s great and there’s lots of ice.

bgravesoutdoors@ainop.com

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