Maine winters last forever, it seems, especially to those who don’t embrace any snowy activities during that four- or five- or six-month stretch when the sun goes down too early, the weather is too cold, and everything’s covered with ice or snow.
But after winter’s grip loosens a bit, and streams start to flow, many anglers and lakeside denizens begin to pay close attention to their own favorite pieces of water.
Sooner or later (often much later than they’d prefer), fishermen will say the magic words that kickstart a spring and summer of unlimited potential. Fish await. The boat is loaded up on its trailer. It’s time to hit the road.
Some say the ice goes out on a given lake all at once. Others say the ice vanishes incrementally. And still others say they’ve been standing beside a lake when the ice finally disappeared, and describe the situation in near-mystical terms.
Terry Farren, a veteran angler and former photographer at the BDN, says he’s only seen the ice go out once. And while he didn’t hear harps, or a sonic boom, or witness anything overly mysterious, Farren still has vivid memories of that day on Upper Middle Branch Pond, near Aurora.
“We were fishing around [the main ice sheet],” Farren said. “The guy I was fishing with used to be a game warden. He looked to me and said, ‘Two hours, the ice will be out.’”
That estimate was off by an hour, but the duo were still fishing when the ice vanished.
“My amazement was how quick it disappeared,” Farren said. “Once that large piece was small enough to break up into small cubicles, it just dissolved. Very fast.”
Farren said the wake of the boat on the calm day seemed to break up the ice a bit, and finally, the ice just wasn’t there.
“It seemed to make a noise, too,” he said. “Like a sizzle.”
Up on Nickerson Lake in Aroostook County, the locals have devised an elaborate system to make their annual ice-out contest more official.
According to Al Cowperthwaite, a cinder block is set on a platform out on the lake ice, and a wire stretches back to a clock, which sits on a dock. When the battery slips off the platform at ice out, the battery wire is disconnected and the official time is established.
No monetary prizes are given, but the lake Nickerson Lake Association does collect prizes from members.
Randy Spencer, a registered Maine guide who works out of Grand Lake Stream, said there are ways of telling when a lake is getting ready to shed its winter coat.
“It goes dark. That’s the tip-off,” Spencer said. “For a long time before that, it’s white, and it’s not safe because it’s rotted. The arc of the sun is so high that it has begun to rot underneath the ice all during the day.”
Spencer said ice anglers who push the season as long as possible will see the evidence of that rotting ice.
“On those last legal days of ice fishing, many years your ice auger will go down through like it’s butter,” Spencer said. “It’s punky. It’s just like snow ice. Granular.”
Eventually, Spencer said the ice will turn dark. It might look black under some light conditions, or can appear blue under others.
“The coves go last,” he said. “It’s sort of in reverse of how [the ice] comes in.”
On many Maine lakes, Spencer said, old-timers have well-established definitions of “ice out,” and folks are expected to respect those definitions.
“On West Grand, [it’s] ‘when the narrows are out,’” he said. “You can’t say that the ice has gone out until the narrows have gone out. You have to be able to take a canoe from town all the way up through the narrows and into Junior Bay. That’s ice out.”
Many years ago, Spencer said Grand Lake Stream residents had a pretty good barometer when it came to predicting ice out. It’d happen not long after legendary guide Pop Moore returned to town.
“In the old days, but still in my time, Pop Moore used to drive a Ford Bronco, and he would be the first one to go up the lake because he was the caretaker of a camp in Junior Bay,” Spencer said. “He’d be the last one [to come back over the ice each spring]. And a few times in his long life, that truck went partially in and it had to be tripodded out.”
And sometimes, anglers think the ice is out when it’s really not.
I learned that the hard way several years ago, while fishing Branch Lake in Ellsworth.
On a glorious spring day, a pal and I arrived at Hanson’s Landing and found that the lake was ice-free. We launched our boat, trolled around for a few hours, and enjoyed what had been a rare wind-free day on the water.
Then, while leaning back relaxing in the stern of the boat, I heard an odd sound coming from right behind me: It sounded like someone had just poured milk into the world’s largest bowl of Rice Krispies.
Snapping my head around, I saw that we were trolling next to the ice sheet, which had apparently floated back to our side of the lake when the breeze picked up. The noise? That was thousands of tiny pieces of ice grinding up against the main sheet of ice.
Luckily, our path to the landing was unblocked, and we were able to get back to shore without incident.
And luckily, we were both left with an interesting not-quite-ice-out tale that neither of us have forgotten.