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Messalonskee Lake a Popular Gathering Point for Fish and Fishermen Alike

February 06, 2008 - SIDNEY -- Officially, it's known as Messalonskee Lake, a long, relatively deep body of water dividing three towns in central Maine. Locals often refer to it by its more colloquial moniker, Snow Pond. Anglers have another name for the place that plays off that nickname -- "Slow Pond."

Despite its unflattering representation in that name, it's one ice fishermen use rather affectionately. And though it's reputation for trying the patience of those who carve holes through its frozen surface, people flock to it and apply harsh pressure to the fishery on winter weekends.

Why?

The answer is a simple one, according to Mike Guarino.

"You can catch some big fish in there," Guarino said. "Man, there's some really big ones there."

If there's anything ice fishing teaches it's patience, but anglers from the hardwater crowd don't mind waiting things out for the right payoff. With nearly a dozen different fish species to target, there's plenty of payoff in Messalonskee Lake.

Messalonskee Lake's fishery isn't unique in this area, in that it offers a blend of both cold water and warm water species. What does make it unique, however, is its position as a funnel -- leading all of the waters of the Belgrade Lakes region out to the Kennebec River -- which gives it a seemingly endless array of fishing opportunity in just one spot.

One way or another, it's all connected; water from Long Pond, Great Pond, North Pond, East Pond and Belgrade Stream finds its way to Messalonskee. The fish crossover, too.

"It's the catch-all of the Belgrades," said Guarino, a fishing guide who runs Maine Wilderness Tours and lives on the lake in Belgrade. "I use that line about the lake a lot. Everything kind of flows into each other, with Messalonskee being the end of the road."

Messalonskee is stocked annually with brook trout, brown trout and splake. Some of those brown trout have been caught as far away as Long Pond, which is not stocked with browns, while some of the salmon put into Long Pond are caught on Messalonskee.

"There's almost everything in there," local fisheries biologist Jim Lucas said of the lake, which covers more than 3,500 acres and holds more than 100 feet of water at its deepest point. "I don't know if I'd really say it's a unique place, but there is quite a variety there."

In addition to the salmonids, there are also two species of bass and perch, as well as black crappie. Of course, Messalonskee is also home to the state's most controversial finned creature -- the northern pike. Anglers like Jim Bence of Bar Harbor come from across the state searching specifically for pike that grow to more than 20 pounds in the lake.

"It is just a good destination for travelers," Guarino said. "There are guides and bait shops around, and the towns really seem to open up to ice fishermen. It's a great destination.

"That's it -- it's a destination, man."

The state's new boat landing on Route 23 has helped more people gain access to the lake. That could be seen firsthand last Saturday, when after the launch's parking lot overflowed, trucks set up a makeshift parking lot on the ice. Vehicles were parked five deep on either side of the submerged boat ramp.

The pressure is up this year on Messalonskee.

"This year it is, a little bit," Lucas said, noting that in the Belgrades only Great Pond receives more fishing pressure. "Reports have been that it's pretty high. That new boat landing has led a lot of people there. There was always a good-sized group of shacks on the upper end (near the closed Route 27 landing in Belgrade), but now there are a lot right out in front of the landing."

The people making the point to be there are being rewarded, too.

Lucas said that DIF&W stocked Messalonskee with between 3,000 and 4,000 splake this fall, but most of what anglers are targeting are holdovers from previous stocking classes that have grown to several pounds in size. Guarino said that the brown trout are growing big quickly, too.

All apparently are feeding on the same food that's helping the pike get so large -- landlocked alewives, fish that were illegally introduced years ago.

"The alewives are more established there, and they're pretty heavy into them now," Lucas said. "That's one reason why the fish are getting so much bigger.

"That, and there's the opportunity for them to grow," he added, noting that more anglers are releasing splake instead of keeping them the way they were when they were first introduced some years back.

Guarino refers to the alewives as "bait balls" in the water, with thousands of the fish just a few inches long schooling together in concentrated pockets.

"The amount of bait in (Messalonskee) is extreme," said Guarino, who fishes the lake year-round and estimates that more than half of the fishing trip he guides are on Messalonskee. "It's an alewife-driven forage base. There are literally hundreds of thousands in here."

So many alewives, Guarino said, is part of what keeps the ice fishing so slow. Limited to mostly smelts, shiners and suckers, fishermen only have so many choices at the local bait shop. And none of those choices are alewives.

"Of course, you can't use alewives for bait, so you're trying to catch a fish that's been eating alewives all its life on a medium-sized shiner," Guarino said. "Then you combine the lake's size with its massive forage base and it's a tricky place to fish."

Given that ice fishermen take great pride in their ability to embrace raw winter conditions while the rest of the world nuzzles up to the woodstove under a heavy blanket, succeeding in such temperamental elements can be worn as a badge of honor of sorts.

"A lot of die-hard ice fisherman like it just for that reason," Guarino said. "Because it is tricky."

SOURCE: Central Maine Morning Sentinel

DATE: 02-02-2008


Lakes: Messalonskee Lake
Regions: Belgrade


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