Winter in Maine has started out with roller coaster temperatures, snow, rain and everything in between, which makes planning outdoor activities tricky, especially when it comes to anything involving ice. Skating, fishing, snowmobiling and skiing on ponds and lakes requires caution and know-how, especially early in the season, when ice is just starting to thicken.

“From year to year, especially with recent weather patterns, things are all over the place,” Maine Game Warden Jim Fahey, who serves Greater Bangor, said. “Compared to a year ago, we are further ahead [in ice thickness throughout the state].”

But don’t let this fact lull you into a false sense of confidence. Ice conditions vary throughout the state. To help people navigate these dangerous waters, the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife releases monthly ice fishing reports throughout the winter, and these reports include firsthand knowledge from state biologists about ice conditions throughout the state.

Where to find ice

The first report of the season was released on Dec. 22. In it, the DIF&W announced that ice fishing was already underway throughout the state.

“There are a lot of people out already, and there is more than a couple of inches of ice on the smaller ponds,” DIF&W fisheries biologist Jim Pellerin from the Sebago Lakes Region said in the report. “A lot of the bigger lakes are still open in the middle, but the shoreline and coves have frozen over.”

The ice fishing report provides suggestions for specific bodies of water by region where fishing may be good and even provides information about the species and size of fish being caught in those places.

For example, if you’re looking for trout in the midcoast area, DIF&W fisheries biologist Jason Seiders suggests ice fishing on Levenseller Pond in Searsmont or Dutton Pond in Knox, which are stocked with brook trout that range in size from 10 to nearly 20 inches. In the Moosehead Region, DIF&W fisheries biologist Tim Obrey suggests Fitzgerald, Prong and Shirley ponds for early-season fishing.

In general, warm, shallow ponds tend to ice over first, Fahey said, while the deep, cold lakes take longer. In Greater Bangor, for example, ponds such as Pushaw, Hermon and Perch were reported to have up to 10 inches of ice in mid-December, while big lakes including Phillips, Green and Branch had thinner ice and were still open water in some places.

“Every year can be different,” Fahey said. “The rule of thumb is to not assume anything. Check for yourself. Certainly inquire about the ice at local bait shops and people who live around the body of water, welcome all resources, but it’s your individual responsibility to check the ice.”

Checking the thickness of ice with a chisel or ice auger is key to ensuring the ice is safe for walking, skiing, fat-tire biking, skating or driving on.

The Maine Warden Service provides the following ice thickness guidelines, which are for new, clear, solid ice:

— If the ice is 2 inches thick or less, stay off it

— 4 inches may allow ice fishing or other activities on foot

— 5 inches often allows for snowmobile or ATV travel

— 8 inches to 12 inches of good ice will support most cars or small pickups

— 12 inches to 15 inches will likely hold a medium size truck

“If you don’t see tracks across the lake, there’s probably a reason why,” Fahey said.

It’s important to keep in mind that ice doesn’t form uniformly across a body of water. The thickness of the ice can change dramatically in just a few feet for a variety of reasons. A water current, especially near streams, bridges and culverts, often makes ice thin and dangerous. Also, objects protruding from the water, such as large boulders and beaver lodges, can absorb and produce heat, causing the surrounding ice to be thinner. And perhaps most surprisingly, the movement of fish can actually stir up warm water from the bottom of a lake. In the past, this has opened holes in the ice that snowmobiles and cars have broken through, according to the DIF&W.

Breaking through ice

The Maine Warden Service responds to emergency calls every winter that involve people, pets and vehicles crashing through the ice and plunging into frigid ponds and lakes throughout the state. Often, these accidents could have been easily avoided.

“I heard there was a Subaru car on Plymouth Pond [in Penobscot County] the other day,” Fahey said. “That’s just not prudent. Even if they had cut and found sufficient ice, the ice wasn’t uniform across the whole pond. That puts themselves at risk and puts everyone who is a rescue responder at risk.”

In addition to offering ice thickness guidelines, the Maine Warden Service provides tips for rescuing people who’ve fallen through ice, as well as guidelines for escaping a vehicle that has crashed through ice. This information is available on the official State of Maine website,, and includes the “preach, reach, throw, row, go” method of rescue.

“People have to use good judgment in how they approach someone that appears to be in distress,” Fahey said. “Use what is at hand to reach them, like a tree branch or snow shovel, so you don’t put yourself on the edge of the ice.”

A throw-bag containing rope is one useful piece of gear that Fahey suggests people carry while on or near ice this winter. It could mean the difference between saving someone and waiting for helping to arrive.

Ice picks are also great tools for ice safety, especially self-rescue scenarios, when they can be used to grip slippery ice and pull yourself out of the water before the onset of hypothermia.

“I commonly carry mine in the front pocket and always in the same place,” Fahey said. “I’ve made them before out of an old broom handle and a nail, but the commercial type has a plastic sheath that protects you from the pick.”

A whistle can also be useful.

“You can blow a whistle longer and louder than you could ever yell,” Fahey said. “And it’s a universal sound of distress.”

Before every outdoor adventure, Fahey suggest to leave an itinerary with someone at home telling them where you’re going and when you plan to return. That way, if you don’t return, wardens know where to start their search. This is even more important in the winter, when harsh weather conditions can make outdoor survival more challenging.

For more tips about ice safety, to find the Dec. 22 Maine ice fishing report and to access the 2017 Open Water and Ice Fishing Laws booklet, visit the DIF&W website at

Aislinn Sarnacki

Aislinn Sarnacki is a Maine outdoors writer and the author of three Maine hiking guidebooks including “Family Friendly Hikes in Maine.” Find her on Twitter and Facebook @1minhikegirl. You can also...