Jeff Witham of Gray shows off the beautiful male brook trout he caught while ice fishing on Dec. 13 in South Paris. The fish weighed 3 1/2 pounds and measured 19 3/4 inches. Credit: Courtesy of Jeff Witham

Winter has not officially arrived, but Mainers who enjoy fishing on hard water are already at it.

There is only a limited amount of ice on many of the state’s lakes and ponds — and none yet on a number of water bodies — but some avid anglers have been setting traps and catching fish in recent weeks.

Austin Childers of Dexter was among the first anglers to post an ice fishing outing on social media this season on Nov. 22.

“First ice. Got the itch out before work,” he said on Facebook after getting seven flags and landing five pickerel at a pond in Dover-Foxcroft.

Childers said there was 1 1/2 to 2 inches of ice that day.

In follow up posts, which included reports of catching a good number of fish, he reported 3 1/2 to 4 1/2 inches of ice at his fishing spots.

Safety is paramount when ice fishing. Ice conditions can vary tremendously any time of year, depending on the location of the waters and the weather conditions. That is especially true as ponds and lakes start to freeze up for the first time.

The best bet for anglers is to check with the Maine Warden Service, or someone who lives on or near the lake or pond you plan to visit, to find out about the latest ice conditions there.

In January, we put together this video featuring Warden Rick Ouellette to help point out some of the important steps involved in determining whether the ice is safe.

The Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife provides guidelines for new, clear (blue) ice on lakes and ponds. White ice or “snow ice” is only about half as strong as new, clear ice.

The state suggests anglers and others stay off ice that is less than 4 inches thick. Once there is 57 inches of ice, a snowmobile or ATV can often be supported. Eight to 12 inches supports most cars and small pickup trucks, while more than a foot of ice can likely hold a medium-sized truck.

Jeff Witham of Gray is a lifelong fisherman who really enjoys getting out on the ice. That’s what prompted him to visit a favorite water in the South Paris area on Dec. 13.

He was fishing on 2 to 3 inches of ice, which he admits kept him on his toes. The attached short video provides a look at what Witham was dealing with, including the sound of the ice cracking under his feet at the end of the clip.

“I almost fell through four or five times,” said Witham, who was prepared for the worst. He recently bought a flotation suit at Sebago Bait in Windham.

“So if I fall through, I float,” Witham said. “Parts of me saying I’m crazy for doing it. I guess it’s a love of fishing.”

He celebrates that fact with tattoos on his fingers that spell out, “fish on.”

Witham unfortunately has experienced the shock of going through the ice. It happened three years ago, in April, when there was about 2 feet of ice. He unwittingly stepped into a large sight fishing hole that had been covered in slush but was not properly marked with a branch to alert people to its presence.

“You’ve got to stay calm and put both your arms out to your side and put them up on the ice, then slowly start kicking your feet and slide yourself up onto the ice,” said Witham.

He was fortunate that it was a warm day and that his fiancee brought him some dry clothes so he could continue fishing.

Ice picks, which are attached by a cable and can be draped around the neck, can be used to grip the surrounding ice after falling through, are another recommended item for anglers to keep on hand — just in case.

Witham’s early season efforts have already paid dividends. He iced a gorgeous male brook trout that weighed 3 1/2 pounds and measured 19 3/4 inches long and 13 inches in girth.

“That’s why I’m getting it put on the wall,” Witham said. “I don’t care if it was brought from a hatchery.”

It was the only fish he saw during his eight hours on the ice. The first time it hit his bait, it was too big to fit through the original hole. Luckily, it returned a short time later after Witham had widened the hole.

On the same visit Witham saw, through the clear ice, a sunken rowboat resting on the bottom of the pond. He shows it in this video.

Isaac Shaw of Winslow has already been out fishing twice on Fahi Pond in Embden.

“I’ve always loved fishing, but I feel like ice fishing makes it easier to access certain parts of the pond,” Shaw said. “Also, early season like this is very good to catch brook trout.”

Shaw hasn’t experienced any ice thickness issues this season as he was fishing on up to 4 1/2 inches of clear ice on his outing earlier this week. There were two other groups of people fishing that day, he said.

Anglers should consult Maine’s fishing laws before heading out on the ice. There are some waters that fall under special season or law codes, depending upon whether they are fished prior to Dec. 31 or after Jan. 1.

And if there’s any doubt about ice thickness or safety, stay on shore and wait for another day.

Pete Warner

Pete graduated from Bangor High School in 1980 and earned a B.S. in Journalism (Advertising) from the University of Maine in 1986. He grew up fishing at his family's camp on Sebago Lake but didn't take...