A bait bucket on a frozen Maine lake can sometimes be a hiding place for illegally caught fish. Credit: Courtesy of Jim Fahey

Surveillance of people ice fishing is inherently challenging. Staying still in frigid temperatures while peering through a spotting scope or binoculars can test the mettle of the hardiest of game wardens.

The anglers, on the other hand, are moving about, tending traps or cutting new holes and moving lines. They may even have an ice fishing shack or a fire on shore. Hot lunches are common. It is safe to say they are generally fairly comfortable.

I enjoyed the challenge of snowmobiling, then snowshoeing into position to observe activity on the ice. It was solitary, cold work but the best way to enforce the laws protecting the state’s cold water fisheries. Simply walking out or driving up to a fishing party on a snowmobile was not an effective way to detect undersized or extra fish that had been illegally taken and hidden beneath the snow or in the various containers and gear that ice fishermen haul around.

I set out early one New Year’s Day, the traditional season opener for brook trout and landlocked salmon on Portage Lake. I saw activity off a point and knew of a good way to make my approach undetected. I parked my snowmobile and went ahead on snowshoes, then eased into position and began surveilling a lone angler fishing off the point.

I counted his traps to make sure he wasn’t fishing more than five. It can be difficult to see ice fishing traps due to snow depth and their various sizes or styles. Oftentimes, it is only when the fisherman makes his rounds checking or tending lines that the game warden can tell exactly where they all are.

This fisherman soon had a flag and I watched him catch and keep what appeared to be a legal-sized brook trout. The minimum length limit on trout on Portage Lake was 12 inches, and it looked to be plenty long enough. After a while, a snowmobiler stopped by, apparently someone the angler knew. I heard bits and pieces of a conversation about a short trout that had been kept. I concluded that it was not the fish I had seen caught, but one from before I arrived.

This particular day was quite comfortable with temperatures in the low 30s. In fact, it was forecast to rain by mid day. Sure enough, by early afternoon the temperature rose and the skies darkened. A light rain began to fall. The angler soon began picking up his gear. I had to hustle back to my snowmobile and drive around the long way to contact the fisherman. By the time I got there, he was all loaded up and headed down the lake on his snowmobile.

I pulled alongside him, and he stopped. I conducted a routine snowmobile registration compliance inspection and inquired about his fishing activities. He told me he had caught and kept a trout. He showed me the fish and his fishing license. I believed there was another trout somewhere, based on the conversation he’d had with the snowmobiler. I requested and received permission to check his gear.

I did not locate any fish.

The only place I hadn’t looked was the bait pail. I opened up the cover and found a dead short trout and another, live trout swimming around with the live bait! I asked him where the live trout came from. He told me that it was on one of his lines when he picked up his traps, but hadn’t set the flag off.

The live trout was of a legal size, but was an extra fish — the bag limit on trout was two. He was over his limit and had a short trout in his possession, as well. The live trout had only been in the bait pail a short time, so I told the fisherman to start his auger and drill a hole right there in the middle of the lake.

He looked at me a bit puzzled, but did as I said. I further instructed him to release the live trout back into the lake. He did. I issued him a summons for the short fish. It was an intentional violation. The fisherman knew the law, concealed the fish and tried to deceive me when I inquired about the fishing. I felt it was a fair resolution and that the resource was protected.

In later years, I assisted with the instruction of new game wardens at their training academy. I told them to be sure to always inspect the bait pail.

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Jim Fahey, Outdoors contributor

Jim Fahey worked for the Maine Warden Service as a seasonal dispatcher, deputy and full-time game warden from 1990 to 2019. He patrolled districts in Aroostook and Penobscot counties.