After drilling holes Monday on Cochnewagon Lake in Monmouth, Josh Zayac found 4 or 5 inches of ice underfoot, enough for a safe outing on the water.

“My brother had been out a couple of days ago, so we weren’t too worried about it, with the cold weather,” said Zayac, a Cony High School graduate stationed with the Navy in Bremerton, Washington, who is visiting for the holidays and plans to fish all week. “You walk out there, and if it feels safe, drill the first hole, and check the ice from there as you go.”

Cpl. John MacDonald, public relations and information officer for the state Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife, said it’s still too early, and the ice too thin, to fish safely on most larger lakes, but some ponds are “starting to be a little more safe.” The cold weather is expected to allow for a stronger, earlier, start to ice fishing this year than last year, when mild temperature prevented lakes and even ponds from freezing over until much later in the season.

“Conditions are setting up fairly well, but things are certainly not safe yet,” MacDonald said. “The smaller ponds are getting there. The bigger lakes, they take a bit more time, because they’re subject to wind and currents that keep them free of ice.”

He advised anyone looking to get out on the ice to check it by drilling or chopping through the ice to see how thick it is.

In general, guidelines for ice safety indicate a minimum of 4 inches of solid ice is needed for a person to safely be on the ice, and 6 to 8 inches for someone on a snowmobile or all-terrain vehicle. Authorities discourage anyone from driving a car or a truck onto the ice, regardless of thickness, though doing so is generally not illegal.

It’s important to look at the quality, not just quantity, of ice, too. Clear ice is typically more solid, while white cloudy-looking ice is weaker.

And ice conditions can vary even in the same body of water. So officials say it’s best to check with people who know local waters, and to measure the ice personally, before venturing out onto it.

“If you’re going to go out on the ice, whether you’re skating or playing hockey or fishing or whatever, we encourage people to be sure to physically check the ice,” MacDonald said. “Don’t go unless you absolutely know how thick it is. And take it pond by pond. Every body of water is a little different.”

Verne Keith, owner of Cobbossee Bait in Winthrop, said some hard-core fisherman have been fishing on the ice since the first weekend after Thanksgiving.

He agrees checking the ice is the best way to be sure it is safe.

He said being in the business of collecting bait fish puts him out on local water bodies earlier than most people, and he admits having fallen through the ice on multiple occasions. Each time, he said, he hadn’t checked the thickness before venturing out. He noted that when he is out on the ice, he is equipped with picks, ropes and other tools to help get himself out of the water, should he fall through.

“I tend to be the first one out on the lake,” Keith said. “There have been some times I was hurrying, and I didn’t check the ice, and I had problems. If you check the ice, you don’t go through. I’ve never gone through when checking the ice.”

Keith said so far mostly hard-core fisherman, most of whom tend to be ice-savvy, have been fishing this season. He said this year is the first in the last three years in which there has been ice to fish on before Jan. 1.

Zayac, fishing with girlfriend Mackenzie Stevens, brother Tyler Leet and friend Sam Tobey, said the fishing was pretty good Monday. They caught three brook trout.

Dave Bubier, who owns Baker’s Dozen Bait Shop in Winthrop with his wife, June, said most smaller ponds in the region “are buttoned up good” with ice, but some of the larger lakes have yet to freeze over enough to be safe. Coves and other areas on larger water bodies might be safe, but Bubier, like MacDonald, warned that people should check the ice every few feet, because thickness and safety can vary even on the same lake.

Bubier said the bait shop isn’t open full time yet but does have a limited selection of bait.

He said he hears fishing has been really good so far this season, especially for catching brook trout.

He anticipates more people will be hitting the ice as school vacations get underway this week. He said many young people go ice fishing.

MacDonald, Bubier and Keith said this year is off to a much stronger start than last year, leaving them hopeful for a good ice fishing season if the cold temperature keeps freezing ponds and lakes.

Keith said central Maine is becoming known as a good place for out-of-state people to go ice fishing, and they have the chance to catch a variety of fish, from large pike to smaller trout.

MacDonald said he hadn’t heard of anyone falling through the ice and needing to be rescued so far this season. Earlier this month, Wayne and Readfield firefighters rescued a dog that fell through the ice on Lovejoy Pond.

MacDonald said quite a few people seem to have been out ice fishing already this season, which, hopefully, he said, will be the start to a strong winter recreation season in Maine.

“Things have kicked off pretty well, especially compared to last year, when it was so mild,” MacDonald said. “We’re getting kind of a jump on winter.”

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

[email protected]

Twitter: @kedwardskj

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