A number of years ago, before I became a sun-chasing snowbird, ice fishing was my thing. Most winter weekends found me, my wife, my youngsters and my English setter Sally chasing red-flagged tip-ups for pickerel and salmon at Seboeis Lake. Our first stop northbound was always at Old Town Trading Post to pick up a bait bucket full of live bait. Every once in a while, you could buy live smelts, which were the ticket for the landlocked salmon.
Life was simpler then, especially when it came to fishing regulations. Back then, a bait fish was a bait fish. You didn’t concern yourself with the species of bait fish. If it wiggled under the ice, it would catch fish. Not so today.
Let’s face it, Maine fishing regulations over the years have become increasingly layered and complicated. The specific regulations regarding the winter use of live bait are no exception. In an effort to protect Maine’s precious and fabled salmonid fishery, the state has enacted sweeping changes and restrictions for ice fishing with live bait. It is the only way to prevent unwanted fish species from taking hold in some of our special sport fisheries.
Here are some live bait advisories from the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife:
• Always check fishing regulations to ensure live bait fish/live smelts are allowed to be used in that water. Remember, live baitfish laws are different in the North and South zones.
• At the end of the day or if putting on fresh bait, never put old bait in the water body or down your hole. Dispose of it on land or in the trash.
• Never dump your bait bucket where fish could get into the water. Always dispose of unwanted bait fish on land or in the trash. Dispose of unused worms in the trash, not in the water or on land.
• Nonresident anglers visiting Maine are reminded that it is illegal to bring bait fish into the state of Maine, and those who do are subject to a $10,000 fine. This law prevents new species of fish and invasive hitchhikers in the bait bucket water from being introduced and harming Maine’s fish communities.
As a rule, most licensed bait dealers will only retail live bait that are legal in Maine. There is a complete listing of licensed Maine bait dealers by towns on the DIF&W website: www.fishwildlife.com. Click on Fishing.
If you catch your own live bait, a fishing license is required. There are only 17 species of fish that are legal to use as bait while fishing in Maine and therefore, not all fish captured in bait traps are legal to use. If illegal fish species are illegally used as bait, it could establish new populations of fish that harm important state fisheries. A good rule of thumb when sorting collected bait fish is to remove any fish that have spines (check your bait as you are removing them from the trap and put them back into the water from which they were taken).
Good luck on the ice. Be sure to check the ice thickness before heading out. So far, this has not been a typical Maine winter when it comes to making ice on our lakes and ponds.