Trout and salmon anglers know that after the ice goes out on their favorite lakes and ponds, it’s time to grab your rods for some of the best fishing of the year.

Why is that?

Once the ice goes out, the water starts to warm, increasing a fish’s metabolism and stimulating the urge to feed more. Interestingly, at this time of year, water temperatures are near the same at all depths of the lake.

With water temperatures consistent throughout the lake, game fish are no longer captive to the cool, deep water. Salmon and togue start traveling throughout the lake, feeding not only in depths but also along the shore and at the surface.

Bait fish such as smelt are more active as well as they get ready to spawn. As smelt stack up near the shore, at the surface and at the mouths of rivers and streams, salmon and trout follow, feasting on one of their favorite spring foods.

Anglers will have success all over the lake when this starts to occur. It is one of the few times of the year when shore anglers will catch fish such as salmon and togue. Most anglers use some type of live bait fish or bait fish imitation to try and fool the fish. However, one of the most successful tactics is to troll a sewed-on smelt.

“It’s pretty tough to beat the success of a sewed-on smelt that’s been attached to your line and is allowed to roll in a smooth rotation to make it look like a crippled smelt,” said Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Biologist Francis Brautigam.

Of course, learning how to sew on that smelt so it rolls just right takes some practice. It is difficult to describe, but watching someone do it can save you a lot of time. Head to your favorite bait shop that sells smelt and ask them to show you. There’s also an excellent explanation that features a series of pictures on

When sewing small bait, I like to use 10-pound fluorocarbon leader with size-six hooks. Use hooks with a bent eye, which allows you to tie a snell knot utilizing the shank, which makes it easier to sew bait. You can also buy sewn-bait leaders as well.

To sew your bait on the hook, use your hook as a needle and sew through the head twice in a vertical motion, leaving slack in the loops, and then moving past the gills towards the tail, sew through the side of the fish several times along the lateral line, leaving the hook exposed near the tail. Tighten the line so there is a slight bend in the fish, and then tighten your loops around the head.

The two keys to trolling a smelt effectively are making sure you have the proper bend in the fish and trolling slowly, a mile an hour or less. This allows the smelt to generate the proper looping motion.

“When the water is so cold and you want to troll your boat as slow as you can so you can get that nice rotation. If you can, you want to troll slower than a mile an hour,” Brautigam said.

When to go is also extremely important, with the early morning hours being the best.

“Time of day is a more critical factor than others. When you show up early in the morning, if the smelt haven’t spawned yet, they will be high in the water column, in the shallow waters, highly concentrated, and that’s where all the salmon and togue are going to be,” Brautigam said. “All those fish are extremely photosensitive, and once the sun pops up, they start heading for deeper waters.”

Of course, where to go is also important.

Sebago Lake and Lake Auburn are known for their early-season fisheries. And Brautigam says not to overlook Moose Pond in Bridgton and Pleasant Pond in Otisfield and Casco. Thompson Lake also looks good.

Don’t wait long because the great fishing doesn’t last forever.

“Once the water starts to get into the 50s, that’s when things start to change quite a bit. We are starting to wind down here, as the smelts have stopped spawning and are headed back out to the middle of the lake so the fish are not as concentrated as much,” Brautigam said. “But as you head north, things are just beginning to pick up.”


Mark Latti is a former public information officer for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife and a registered Maine Guide. He can be reached at:

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