First the ice turns black; then cracks start to show. It may start to get soft before breaking up, but not until a boat can travel safely between two points on opposite ends of a body of water is the ice officially out in Maine.

The state Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry began tracking ice out dates across Maine online this year, but guidance for when bodies of water are officially thawed varies across communities, many of which have longstanding traditions associated with the breakup of winter ice.

Ice out days vary across Maine, and while most arrived later than usual this year, there are still some parts of the state awaiting a spring thaw and others where spring still seems far away even though the ice has broken up.

“It’s important to a lot of people because ice out is the start of open water fishing,” said George Powell, the department’s boating facilities director. “A lot of fishermen interested in getting out as soon as the ice is out, they like to keep an eye on those types of records.”

According to a Colby College report from 2010, the state’s 5,700 lakes bring an estimated $2.5 billion a year to the state’s economy, including providing jobs and supporting the tax base.

Maine’s lakes account for a large part of its tourism draw each year, and that’s particularly true of central Maine, where numerous lakes boost the warmer-weather populuation.

While fishermen itching to get out on the lakes may have to postpone their first trips, those on the lakes said it shouldn’t affect the summer recreation and fishing seasons much.

On Lake George in Skowhegan, ice has cleared from the center of the lake, but fishermen were having a hard time getting their boats into the water Friday because of lingering chunks of ice on the edge of the lake.

“A lot of folks have been down checking the boat launch, but all the ice has sort of blown into the cove. Boats can’t get out and around,” said Jeff McCabe, executive director of Lake George Regional Park.

Some fishermen made up for the lack of access by hiking through the woods to get to the water, he said. “This is the latest I’ve seen it. It just seems to be holding on,” said McCabe, who tested the waters with a swim off the boat launch on Friday, using a rake to push the ice out of his way.

In the long term though, McCabe and others said they don’t see the late thaw affecting summer use of Maine’s lakes.

“Most people don’t really get their boats out until Memorial Day weekend, and the water definitely isn’t ever warm enough to go swimming until the middle or end of May,” said Greg Dore, Skowhegan’s interim town manager. “I don’t really think it will affect the fishing.”

On Wesserunsett Lake in Somerset County, the ice was out on Tuesday, according to Dore, a lakeshore resident. The town has been tracking ice out dates on the lake since 1884.

The earliest recorded ice out date was last year, when the ice broke March 23; and the latest recorded date is May 7, 1971. Dore said he determines ice out simply by looking at the main part of the lake.

“The main part of the lake is open and it’s definitely out,” he said on Tuesday. “When the main part of the lake is open, I consider it out.”

In most of central Maine, ice out dates arrived within the last week or so.

On the Belgrade lakes, ice was off all the lakes, including North Pond, East Pond, Great Pond and Long Pond, by Friday, said Kathi Wall, director of the Maine Lakes Resource Center. And while it may be too early for humans to take a dip, Wall said she has noticed more animals returning to the water — a sign that spring is here.

“This is late,” she said. “Usually ice is out pretty consistently around the 15th to 18th of April. But the geese and ducks are out and about and the loons are back. They’re singing on the lakes. So that to us means spring is definitely here.”

Ice out usually occurs by the end of April, although generally in northern Maine there is ice on the lakes and mountains longer, Powell said.

In Jackman, there are still several feet of ice on Big Wood Lake, where Alan Duplessis has been monitoring the ice every year since 1985. He submits the data to Northeast Climate Control in Syracuse, N.Y.

“Someone in Jackman has been doing this every year since 1951. I kind of inherited that job when the person before me left,” said Duplessis. “It’s froze solid and hasn’t even started to thaw.”

Duplessis, who also tracks snow depth for the U.S. Geological Survey, said there is also 12 inches of snow on the ground and estimates the thaw will be late this year.

Sometimes he tests the water with a boat, and sometimes he borrows a friend’s plane to fly over the lake. He checks multiple times a day when signs of spring start to show, but for now he thinks the thaw is weeks away.

In the meantime, the community participates in several informal wagers about when the ice will break.

“It’s like you have to go from point A to point B without ice. I don’t know how he determines it, but I talk to him and use if for the contest,” said Tammy Cowen, co-owner of Cozy Cove Cabins in Jackman. Each year she invites renters to guess the ice out date, either by visiting the lake or watching the hotel’s webcam of the lake — to determine when the ice will melt and a chance to win a prize.

And on Rangeley Lake in Franklin County, residents along the lake have been taking core samples by drilling into the ice to measure its thickness.

“It still feels like winter up here. We’ve had some beautiful days as of late, but we have a ways to go before ice out,” said Kevin Sinnett, vice president of the Rangeley Region Guides and Sportsmen’s Association. Data for Rangeley Lake date at least to 1882, when the latest recorded ice out took place, on May 24, according to Sinnett. The earliest was on April 14, 1945.

Earlier this week, the ice ranged in thickness from 21 inches to 52 inches thick, Sinnett said.

At Lakeside Motel, Cabins & Marina in Winthrop, owner Andy Wess said he is anticipating a busy season and so far has a normal amount of reservations. The marina is preparing for its annual bass fishing tournament on Cobbossee Lake on Sunday. About 100 boats are registered.

“We anticipate another busy season and a good fishing season. Environmentally, things are sound, and we have a lot of support,” he said.

Rachel Ohm — 612-2368 rohm@centralmaine.com