Think a cold snap has made the ice safe? Think again

After “suffering” through a December of mild weather, the state’s ice anglers have received a New Year’s gift, with a cold snap that has surely begun to freeze up Maine’s lakes and ponds.

Steve Burtt of Orrington tries his luck ice fishing on Brewer Lake on Jan. 6, 2016. Burtt said he drilled a hole through three or four inches of ice, but the ice farther away from shore looked to be much thinner. (BDN photo by John Holyoke)

Steve Burtt of Orrington tries his luck ice fishing on Brewer Lake on Jan. 6, 2016. Burtt said he drilled a hole through three or four inches of ice, but the ice farther away from shore looked to be much thinner. (BDN photo by John Holyoke)

Notice I used the words “begun to.” That’s an important.

That doesn’t mean that lakes or ponds are necessarily safe to fish, and it certainly doesn’t mean that anglers or snowmobilers ought to take their sleds onto the ice quite yet.

As the Maine Warden Service often warns: Check early. Check often.

On social media, including Facebook, I’ve seen plenty of photos from folks who have found fishing spots with ice that they trust. In some of those photos, I also see that there’s open water just a few feet away from an ice fishing trap.

Curious about conditions, and eager to write a cautionary column, I reached out to Wes Ashe, a fisheries biologist for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.

In his private time, Ashe also organizes a benefit ice fishing derby that lasts throughout the season, and he has been receiving entries from anglers around the state. He is certainly tapped into the ice fishing scene, and as I suspected, he had some valuable information to pass along.

First and foremost: The ice isn’t very safe right now.

“In my recent derby update, I had counted the number of anglers breaking through the ice,” Ashe wrote in an email. “[I checked] Maine ice fishing Facebook sites, various news articles, and through work, and that number was approximately two dozen … or more.”

That’s a bit alarming … but it gets even scarier.

“We even had a report from a warden stating that there were so many anglers on the ice at Levenseller Pond in Lincolnville — 35 acres — that the entire two- to three-inch layer of ice shifted downward and was compressed. I’m betting that was pretty freaky,” Ashe wrote.

Ashe said Levenseller Pond is particularly attractive to anglers in December and January because the pond is typically stocked heavily with brook trout in the fall.

“It’s so popular that passionate anglers will defy death to get their hands on a brookie,” he wrote.

Ashe said he visited a few ponds in the Livermore Falls-Turner area and said most were gaining ice, though others, including Brettums and Round ponds, are still open in spots.

“I would recommend shoreline fishing at least for the next few days in this neck of the woods,” he wrote.

Ashe did some creel surveys — interviewing ice anglers to learn what they’d caught, but on Lake George in Canaan. Many anglers remained close to shore, but a few had ventured out much farther, and Ashe decided to conduct those interviews after the anglers returned to terra firma.

“They reported between one and four inches [of ice],” Ashe wrote. “I waited for them to walk to shore before interviewing them. I’m not a big fan of swimming in 34-degree water.”

I asked Ashe if he had any warnings or cautions to pass along to anglers as the lakes and ponds continue to firm up, and he offered a few.

“I’m an accident-prone individual, so I have a few [rules] that keep me out of trouble on the ice … at least most of the time,” he wrote.

“[First], if I don’t see footprints or tracks in front of me, I turn around and take an alternate route,” he wrote. “A fellow biologist taught me that one when I started, and I live by it.

“[Second], I wear a winter float coat at all times. The department bought us wonderful winter float coats last season, and it will be worn from here on out,” he wrote. “I know a gentleman who wears a life jacket under his winter coat while ice fishing — definitely not a bad idea at all.

“[And third], use common sense. If it looks sketchy, it’s probably sketchy. No fish is worth it,” he said.

Sgt. Ralph Hosford of the Maine Warden Service supervises wardens in Hancock County. In his neck of the woods, conditions are very poor for prospective ice fishermen.

“It’s treacherous,” Hosford said on Wednesday. “We haven’t had any serious cold … there’s no ice to speak of, even on the small ponds.”

Hosford said his wardens have made a concerted effort to make sure that when they head afield each day, they have cold-water rescue gear in their trucks. Still, he hopes they don’t have to use that equipment.

And he said that after a cold start to the week, anglers should realize that conditions are likely to deteriorate this weekend.

“People have to use great patience,” he said. “I was very hopeful when it looked like it was going to be cold, but the forecast for this weekend is 40s and rain.”

Hosford says he tries to live by a saying when it comes to explaining what safe ice looks like.

“I love this quote: ‘Thick and blue, tried and true. Thin and crispy, much too risky,’” he said.

And in Hancock County, there’s much more thin-and-crispy ice than thick-and-blue.

“Right now, you’re apt to look out [at a lake] and see water,” he said. “That’s almost a good thing.”

John Holyoke can be reached at or 990-8214. Foillow him on Twitter: @JohnHolyoke

John Holyoke

About John Holyoke

John Holyoke has been enjoying himself in Maine's great outdoors since he was a kid. Today, he's the Outdoors editor for the BDN, a job that allows him to meet up with Maine outdoors enthusiasts in their natural habitat. The stories he gathers provide fodder for his columns, and this blog.