Winter Fishing

New Regulations Open Maine Waters

by Tom Seymour

Tom with a brown trout caught during the new winter fishing season. The unexpected bonus was not spur-of-the-moment legislation, it had its roots in a recent climate trend. Tom Seymour Photo

It’s an idea whose time has finally come. For untold years, Mainers have viewed some stream or pond on an unusually warm winter day and wished that they could go fishing. Now, with just a few exceptions, they can.

Last year, on March 25, recreational fishermen learned to their great joy that open-water fishing had begun almost a week early. Maine’s governor signed an emergency proclamation, opening all inland waters in the state to open-water fishing.

This unexpected bonus was not the spur-of-the-moment legislation that many of us thought it was, however. It had its roots in a recent climate trend, one that saw many lakes and ponds ice-free for much of the winter. Sportsmen voiced their displeasure at having to sit home, rather than going out and wetting a line. Up until this year, under general law, open-water fishing closed on January 1 and didn’t resume until April 1.

New Rules

Along with the bonus of an extra week last spring, the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (DIF&W) presented anglers with a whole new slate of open-water fishing regulations. This booklet, effective from April 1, 2010 to March 31, 2012, contains open-water and ice-fishing regulations.

Additional highlights allow for both ice-fishing and/or open-water fishing during the same time period. In other words, if a pond or lake doesn’t freeze over as anticipated, anglers may still go fishing; they needn’t wait for ice to form. Most waters in southern and eastern counties are open to fishing year-round. The upshot of this means that if conditions permit and suitable opportunities present themselves, we may take advantage of them.

Also, bag limits are greatly increased. Currently, general law (many waters are specially managed under different rules. These are indicated in the law book) allows for a daily bag and possession limit of five brook trout (this includes splake and arctic charr), two landlocked salmon, two togue (lake trout), two brown trout and two rainbow trout, a grand total of 13 salmonids.

Extra Opportunities

At first glance, these limits sound overly generous, but in actual practice, it would prove extremely difficult for anyone to catch a representative sampling of all these species in a single day. In fact, Joe Dembeck, Fisheries Management Supervisor with DIF&W in Augusta, told me in a telephone interview that, “Anybody who goes out and takes all of these species in one day deserves a patch.” Dembeck was alluding to the shoulder patches awarded to hunters and fishermen who take certain big-game animals and fish over a predetermined, minimum size.
Dembeck went on to say that brown trout, rainbow trout and in many cases, brook trout, are often stocked in situations where water conditions prevent their persisting for more than a year or so. In those cases, DIF&W’s intent is to provide additional fishing opportunities for people in waters that would otherwise offer little incentive for fishing.

Cold Sport

Even before these new regulations hit the state, folks in certain parts of Maine already had access to a few rivers that remained open to fishing year-round. The best example of this, the St. George River, has for some time remained open to fishing year-round.

So last year when snow began melting early in Mid-Coast Maine, though it was yet winter, I decided to try my luck at the brown trout living in the St. George. Although knee-deep snowdrifts atop the bank made it somewhat difficult to reach the river, the water was relatively low and the streamside was snow-free.

Lure Choices

My tackle consisted of an ultralight-spinning rod loaded with 3-pound test line and a Trout Magnet for a lure. These use a tiny metal jighead, shaped like a shad dart and a plastic body with a split tail. The body slides on the single hook and butts against the narrow end of the jighead. When cast, these sink on the horizontal rather than vertically, a great attraction to waiting coldwater fish.

While Trout Magnet bodies come in a number of different colors, my choice of black was based upon the predominance of hellgrammites in the river. In winter, trout feed heavily upon aquatic insects and hellgrammites, being rather large, provide a hearty meal. My choice was rewarded by a slashing strike on my third cast.

The fish, a 12-inch brown trout, fought well, considering that the water was only a few degrees above freezing. This dispelled once and for all the myth that trout don’t fight well in extra-cold water. Later, upon cleaning my prize, its stomach proved my choice of lure colors correct. It was filled with partially digested hellgrammites.

Prior to that, a fishing buddy took a similar-sized trout from the same pool on a Mepps spinner, always a good choice for pounding up a trout.

So for me, open-water fishing season 2010 began with a bang. It ended in a like manner. Checking the rulebook showed that DIF&W had stocked portions of the Kennebec River with 14-inch brook trout. So this past October and well into November, found me on the Kennebec, trout fishing.

After several fish-filled days on the Kennebec, a trip to the Medomak River in Waldoboro also proved productive, this time for brown trout.

Again, the fish fought with a surprising tenacity. In fact, fishing in late fall was far more enjoyable than being at the same place and doing the same thing in spring. Reasons for this include lack of biting insects, bigger fish (fish stocked in fall typically run several inches larger than those stocked in spring) and a general lack of competition. That last one bears explaining.
Although a growing number of sportsmen have discovered and are now taking advantage of these new fishing opportunities, numbers of anglers afield do not come close to those seen on any weekend in April, May or June. It is entirely possible for people to find a trout-filled pool with not a single other soul present. This should change in time as more and more folks tune in to wintertime trout fishing. But even at that, we must deduct from our numbers those who prefer to go hunting or who simply do not wish to go open-water fishing in cold weather. Which brings to mind an important point.

Weather Watchers

Just as spring and summer weather can turn bad in a hurry on Maine’s lakes and ponds, the same happens in winter. This means paying strict attention to local weather forecasts. It’s one thing to get hit with a rainstorm in spring, but something entirely different to face a sudden snowstorm in December.

Also, winter fishing, by necessity, presents a certain element of danger. This comes in the form of streamside ice and also, slippery, frozen rocks. It makes no sense to risk bodily harm in clambering over treacherous terrain in order to reach a fishing spot. Sure, each month sees a few perfect days, times when nature seems to call out to us to go fishing. And those are the days when we can catch a stolen moment on the season and perhaps even take a trout or two.
Besides all this, winter is still winter and even on an unusually warm day it’s still pretty cold. This means dressing for the season. Casting an artificial lure when the temperature hovers a few degrees above freezing means cold hands and fingers. Thin, warm gloves are a must. And footwear, too, must reflect the demands of the season.

That said, it’s still a pretty good thing to have the option to go out and cast a line when fishing fever strikes.

Finally, note that the new fishing laws booklet is very specific regarding special regulations on different waters. Don’t automatically assume that any water is open to fishing, or that the bag or possession limit is as represented under general law. Always check for special regulations first before fishing any lake, pond or river.

For those of us who love nothing better than going out and casting a line, this new direction on the part of DIF&W cannot have come too soon. It is a welcome change.


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