ORLAND, Maine — On a December morning when most of the rest of the state’s avid anglers were left wondering when they’d get to venture onto a frozen pond, Jonathan Carter of Glenburn took matters into his own hands.
The aspiring bass fishing pro fired up his BassCat boat on Wednesday and headed out onto Alamoosook Lake for a couple hours of open-water fishing.
Even a decade ago, what Carter was doing would have been unthinkable — and illegal — as the state’s lakes were closed to fishing during late fall, with most opening up for ice fishing in January.
New rules enacted over the past five years have opened up many lakes and ponds to year-round fishing: Put in your boat if there’s open water … or ice fish if the ice is safe.
Still, on this midweek morning during a decidedly mild late autumn, Carter’s was the only boat on Alamoosook.
He said that’s often the case at this time of year.
“Out of all the Maine tournament anglers that I know, there are probably five who still have their boats out and are fishing,” Carter said.
For Carter, fishing as much as possible is a means to an end: He wants to be a full-time bass fishing professional, and these sessions on nearly frozen lakes — the water was 38 degrees — serve as his off-season workouts.
“It’s really good this time of year, if you find the fish,” he said. “And every time I’m sitting at home, doing nothing, I think that I’m not getting any better. The more experience you get, the better you get.”
As legions of ice anglers wait for their local hotspots to freeze up, few are out on the water the same way Carter is, state fisheries biologists say. Many have simply turned the page on their calendars from “open-water” season and are waiting for the next opportunity to present itself.
“Once the spawning season [for trout and landlocked salmon] has gone by, which is basically right now, we see hardly any open-water use on lakes and ponds,” said Francis Brautigam, a fisheries biologist in the Sebago Lake region for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.
Brautigam said there’s a natural progression of outdoor activities in Maine that many enthusiasts embrace.
“If you’re a traditional Maine outdoorsman, you’re going to get your boat ready in March and you’ll be out there fishing in April, and you’re going to fish through the summer,” Brautigam said. “Then, when you get closer to the hunting season — usually in September and October — you’re going to winterize your boat or have it winterized, and you’re switching gears into the hunting season. And then, as hunting season winds down, you start thinking about ice fishing.”
An exception, according to biologists, is that hardcore fly anglers still target flowing water where it’s legal to fish — relatively few allow fishing in the winter — whenever possible. In southern Maine, for instance, fly fishers flock to the Presumpscot, Saco, Royal and Mousam rivers.
Gregory Burr, the regional fisheries biologist in the Grand Lakes Region, said that most anglers, of which there are relatively few in his area, who take advantage of the extended season on lakes and ponds focus their efforts on fall fishing.
“Fewer than that continue to take advantage of those opportunities here with the warmer weather in December Down East,” Burr said in an email.
With that said, he admitted that there are plenty of ice-free options for folks who just can’t wait to fish again, as long as they’re willing to troll or cast from shore. A few of the options he suggested: Indian Lake in Whiting, Little Tunk Pond in Sullivan, Keene’s Lake in Calais and Bubble Pond in Bar Harbor.
Wes Ashe, an assistant regional biologist who works out of Sidney, said many of the lakes and ponds in that area — Region B — not only allow year-round fishing, but also allow the harvest of some fish.
Though conditions have been tough on ice anglers thus far, he said there’s are a few different kinds of people who like to fish through the ice.
“I think we may have three different groups of ice anglers this time of year,” Ashe wrote in an email. “Exclusive ice anglers who are currently playing the waiting game … ice anglers who also take advantage of all the open-water angling opportunities, and ice anglers who would take advantage of all the open water angling opportunities, but currently aren’t aware that they exist.”
A check of the state’s fishing rulebook can clear up any confusion.
Tim Obrey, the regional fisheries biologist in the Moosehead Lake Region — a winter playground for many Mainers — said Jack Frost has also been absent in his neck of the woods.
“It’s looking pretty grim up here for early January ice fishing,” Obrey said in an email. “In a normal year, we see East Cove in Greenville ‘catch’ around the week of Thanksgiving. It has tried several times with no success. We really need a prolonged stretch of calm, cold weather to get this winter started.”
When it does get colder, Obrey said anglers will have a few promising options.
“Ponds like Fitzgerald, Prong, Brann’s Mill and Harlow/Manhanock usually freeze the earliest and our heavy stocking programs in those waters provide great early season brook trout ice fishing, year in-year out,” Obrey wrote.
Up in Aroostook County — Region G among the state’s fisheries — things are different … right?
After all, Aroostook is our northernmost county, and us mid-Mainers sometimes assume it’s always cold and icy.
Not so fast.
“Region G has no waters safe to ice fish on on this date, and I don’t expect any to be fishable in the near future,” regional biologist Frank Frost reported via email on Wednesday. “Once we do get safe ice, I expect the fishing to be excellent on a number of waters [where] we stock the larger fall yearling brook trout and retired brood fish.”
While Frost said his crew is seeing nobody taking advantage of the lakes and ponds that are open to year-round fishing, there is an exception on flowing water.
“The lower Fish River in Fort Kent is developing into a great fishery,” he wrote. “While there are only a few people using it at this point, the interest is there and growing — fishing for wild and hatchery landlocked salmon can be excellent in this reach that is about 7.5 miles long from the Fish River Falls to the St. John River.”