Many Maine water bodies are seeing diminishing ice thickness and even ice out happening earlier and earlier.
Wayne York jigs as he watches for flags on Pennesseewassee Lake on Feb. 16, 2023, in Norway. Although there was over a foot of ice on the lake, many bodies of water are unsafe, so it is wise to know the waters before venturing out. Credit: Russ Dillingham / Sun Journal via AP

For the third year in a row, Sebago Lake did not ice over completely this winter.

The state’s second largest lake, located in Cumberland County, is a popular destination for lake trout, landlocked salmon, smallmouth bass and northern pike. But history shows Sebago is becoming increasingly less reliable as a venue for ice fishing and other winter sports because of unpredictable ice conditions.

For ice anglers, it has always been a matter of time — with the exception of Sebago — before there’s ample ice. This year, anglers say it took longer than usual for safe ice to form on many waters throughout the state.

Ice-out records from Sebago, dating back to 1807, shed light on how climate change could disrupt winter outdoor activities in the state.

“Our choices of where to go were limited initially, but there were plenty of small ponds to the north that were fine,” said Sarah Cary of Wilton. “Now we are trying to get to every place that was on our list to fish this year before it melts.”

In January and February, ice fishing derbies were canceled due to safety concerns over the poor conditions. Others pushed back their derby dates.

When ice did finally form, anglers reported that it was often not as thick or hard as usual. That kept some folks home initially, while others sought out new places to fish or to leave their trucks on the shore rather than risk breaking through.

Some anglers, such as Shawn Asselin of Lewiston, prepared for the worst-case scenario

“It’s been a struggle earlier in the season, but now things are good but not perfect,” Asselin said. “That’s why I wear a floatation suit.”

It’s easy to chalk up ice conditions from year to year to normal weather fluctuations, but outdoor enthusiasts should consider that this unpredictability may become more prevalent.

The mean average temperature in Portland — which is 16 miles from the eastern shore of Sebago — for Dec. 1 through March 30 increased from 26.3 degrees Fahrenheit in the mid-1940s to 28.9 degrees during 2021-22, according to Don Dumont, the warning coordination meteorologist at the National Weather Service office in Gray.

The five warmest such periods in Portland have all occurred since 2000, including the warmest ever during 2001-02. This winter ranks fourth warmest on that list.

Dumont said the normal variability of winter conditions does not account for the warming trend.

“Look at the data. It’s obviously getting warmer. It’s pretty simple,” he said.

A lake of Sebago’s size and depth requires sustained periods of cold for it to become covered in ice.

“This year, it wasn’t even close,” Dumont said.

Sebago features a large open area on its western side known as the “Big Bay.” Consistent cold temperatures are needed to overcome the deep water and wind-induced water movement that can prevent the freezing process. It’s perhaps Maine’s only inland lake that doesn’t always ice over completely.

While parts of the lake can be accessed on the ice this winter, Big Bay did not freeze over. That development forced the Sebago Lake Rotary Club to cancel the Sebago portion of its highly anticipated ice fishing derby again — for the eighth time in 24 years.

Mainers for more than 200 years have been logging ice-out dates, and that data can shed light on what has happened over time.

Since ice-out dates were first recorded at Sebago, there have been only 16 years when Big Bay did not solidify. Six of those instances have come since 2010, including the last three years in a row, an unprecedented development.

“The trends are astounding,” said Nate Whalen, a water resource specialist with Portland Water District, which draws water from Sebago.

Sebago’s first year without a complete ice cover, as it is described in an extensive report compiled by the U.S. Geological Survey, “Historical Ice-Out Dates for 29 Lakes in New England, 1807-2008,” did not occur until 1937.

But there were four more such instances from 1947-53. Another in 1961. Then four more in 1991, 1998, 1999 and 2002.

During the 1800s, among 61 years of data for Sebago, the average ice-out date was April 16. Across the span of the 20th century, that date is April 11, a full five days earlier — and that’s without taking into consideration the nine years when the lake did not freeze completely.

From 2000 through 2022, the earliest ice-out at Sebago was March 25 and the latest April 24, but nearly a third of that sample (7 of 22) includes years without ice cover.

Any trend toward earlier ice-out dates likely will make its way gradually from south to north. But there is evidence the change is already underway.

At Moosehead Lake in Piscataquis County, the average since ice-out dates were first reported in 1848 is May 7, according to USGS data. During the last 22 years alone, the average date for the dissipation of the ice is April 30, a full week earlier than average.

Moosehead’s record for the earliest ice-out is April 15, set in 2010. It was challenged again in 2021, when the date was April 16.

“It’s farther north, and it’s a colder average temperature, so it can still freeze over,” Dumont said.

A few veteran anglers are predicting that 2023 ice-out likely will occur earlier than usual across the state because of the prevalence of slush and gray ice. We may even see records.

“There is plenty of ice now, but it is of poorer quality than in many years past and the season started later on the big lakes for me as a result,” said Lee Cloutier of Madbury, New Hampshire, who owns a camp on Sebec Lake in Bowerbank.

Cloutier said he recently safely used a side-by-side to fish on 15 inches of ice.


“That said, most of it was whitish-gray frozen slush instead of the stronger dark ice. It’s going to melt quick when the temps change,” he said.

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...