Officials are urging caution on thinning and slushy ice ahead of Maine’s peak pond hockey and smelt fishing seasons.

A warmer-than-average winter, combined with low precipitation and untimely storms, is leading to less ice forming on Maine’s lakes, ponds and rivers, according to Mark Latti, communications director for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife.

“It is an unusual winter,” Latti said. “It’s similar to what things were like last year, so maybe we’re transitioning into where winter arrives a little bit later and ice takes a little bit longer to set up.”

Dave Ellingwood sets an ice fishing trap Wednesday on Messalonskee Lake in Sidney. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

Sarah Jamison, a forecaster with the National Weather Service in Gray, said temperatures were well above average throughout much of December and January, following the trend established in recent years, which have seen warmer winters in Maine.

“As a whole, our temperatures were running 3 to 5 degrees above normal for the month of January, and that really is the key month for us to see ice growth,” Jamison said Thursday. “We did see the lakes and the rivers start to grow some ice, but just not at the rate at which we’re probably used to.”

Jamison said this year’s winter has been made warmer by El Niño, a climate pattern that occurs every few years in the Pacific Ocean. It is characterized by a warming of the ocean surface that can have significant effects on weather patterns — namely, milder temperatures in some regions — around the world,


“Temperatures have been above normal, so we’ve seen a lot more thawing degrees than we have the freezing degrees by this time of year,” she said. “I can certainly attribute this year in part to the effects of El Niño and other global patterns.”

As this winter continues to be mild, Latti said officials across Maine are emphasizing education, awareness and caution when it comes to ice safety.

“We remind people that you can’t tell how good the ice is just from looking at it,” he said. “You should look for over 4 inches of ice, and we want it to be solid ice. Not slushy, not granular, which when we get into these freeze-thaw cycles like it looks like we’re going to have this weekend, you’re probably going to have.”

Latti said those who head onto frozen bodies of water should look for ice to be about twice as thick as is safe to walk on before driving a motor vehicle onto it, although some people have different ideas on this.

“You’ve got people who are happy to go out in a truck with 8 inches of ice, and you have other people won’t even walk on foot with less than 12 inches of ice,” Latti said. “People should look for 4 to 6 inches of solid ice before venturing out on foot, and about 10 (inches) before taking the snowmobile or truck out.”

Along the Kennebec River and its tributaries, the warm conditions are limiting smelt fishing opportunities. While Worthing’s Smelt Camp in Randolph has set out smelt shacks, others, including Baker’s Smelt Camps in Pittston and James Eddy Smelt Camps in Dresden, said they will not be setting out camps this year.


“We don’t have very good ice,” Sharon James of James Eddy Smelt Camps said.

The camps operate on the Eastern River, a tributary of the Kennebec.

“Where we put the camps,” James said, “the ice is really soft.”

Dave Ellingwood sets an ice fishing trap Wednesday on Messalonskee Lake in Sidney. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

Last year, James said, the camps were open only for four days. In earlier years, some seasons have been as short as three or four weeks, but it has been nothing like what they experienced over the past two years.

“There’s not much we can do about it,” James said. “I noticed today the rivers are opening up pretty fast.”

Organizers of the Maine Pond Hockey Classic, set for this weekend in Sidney, say they have been working hard to prepare the ice on Messalonskee Lake, also known as Snow Pond.


Patrick Guerette, the tournament’s director, said crews have been freezing as much water as possible ahead of warm temperatures in the forecast for this weekend.

“We have some large pumps — pumping a couple thousands of gallons of water — trying to build up some good top ice,” he said. “We would normally flood during the tournament a little bit, but because of the warm temperatures, it won’t freeze, so we’re kind of hitting it early and often to try to build up as much as we can.”

Lincoln Tilby, 9, of China laces his ice skates Monday before skating with his family on China Lake in China. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel

Though Guerette said the ice is still safe this year, it is not the first time organizers of the Maine Pond Hockey Classic have had to work against warm weather to hold the event.

“The last couple years have been very mild, which has been concerning as far as if we are going to have ice,” he said Thursday. “We’ve looked at backup locations, but, fortunately, this year worked out, and we’re on about 11 inches of ice, which is great.

“I have a Zamboni (ice resurfacer) that we would need more ice to be able to bring that out, so we can’t do everything we’d like to, but we can still have the event and be safe.”

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