OXFORD — Jeff Witham eats, sleeps and breathes ice-fishing — and that’s not just a tired cliche.

Witham runs Jeff’s Bait and Tackle from the bottom half of his trailer on Fore Street in Oxford.

“Ice-fishing is one of my biggest passions,” he said.

With very cold weather freezing up smaller ponds in the area, Witham and local anglers are celebrating the early start to a much-beloved season.

Witham sells ice-fishing bait, mostly baitfish known as shiners, in black 100-gallon tubs in a side room. The chilly room hums with the sound of running aquarium filters, and a subtle smell, not unlike the smell of an opened can of tuna, lingers in the air.

Witham said he can hold a couple thousand fish at a time — jumbo shiners, good for the massive pike inhabiting Sabattus Pond in Sabattus; medium shiners, good trout bait; and tommycods, good for perch and bass.

“We get a lot of customers and they’re always happy,” Witham said.

The bait room at Dag’s Bait in Auburn smells like the bait room at Jeff’s, and Scottie Bragdon, who has worked at Dag’s for about five years, said this year customers came early.

Bragdon said last year Dag’s began selling bait around Dec. 13, when ponds finally began to ice over. This year, he’s been selling bait straight out since Nov. 23.

“We keep a little tab on a local fishing spot’s first freeze of the year,” Bragdon said.

Cody LaChance of Lisbon Falls said he started fishing on Black Friday.

“One of my buddies went out and checked the ice in the morning,” LaChance said. “He gave me a call and said, ‘Hey, we’re buttoned up over here.’ As soon as he said that, I put my fishing pants on, got my gear and off I went.”

“That day we didn’t catch anything,” he said.

“I’ve never fished the day after Thanksgiving,” LaChance said. “I got into ice-fishing eight years ago. The earliest I was ever on the ice was Dec. 16.” 

Since then, LaChance said, the action picked up and he’s gone out on the ice five or six times. One of his favorite spots is Ceaser Pond, a small, shallow and stocked pond off Litchfield Road in Bowdoin.

As long as potential anglers are careful and check the ice before they head out, smaller lakes and ponds are safe.

Witham said Sabattus Lake has 5 to 6 inches of ice, the Androscoggin Boat Launch in Turner has 4 to 5 inches, Halls Pond in West Paris has 8 and Hobbs Pond in Norway has 4.

“The ice is doing pretty well for this time of year,” Maine Warden Service spokesman John MacDonald told the Morning Sentinel on Tuesday. “It seems like there’s been unprecedented cold, so a lot of the smaller ponds are freezing, though the lakes certainly aren’t safe yet.”

Another consideration for potential anglers is the law: Some lakes and ponds don’t open for fishing with live bait until Jan. 1, and many lakes and ponds have special laws dictating the rules of the water.

The law book can be read online  or picked up at most bait shops.

For new anglers, Bragdon gave his recommendations for must-have gear this season.

“You’re going to want a jig rod to keep yourself busy,” he said. “If you just hack at it when you get out there the first time, you don’t always have a lights-out trip and chase flags all day.” 

He added, “You need something to do to keep yourself occupied. You’re going to need some food, a jig rod and warm boots, that’s the biggest thing.” 

Jeff Witham demonstrates how Jack Traps work at the shop he owns, Jeff’s Bait & Tackle Shop in Oxford. The ice-fishing traps are made in Monmouth. (Sun Journal photo by Daryn Slover)

Jeff Witham dips a bunch of shiners at the shop he owns, Jeff’s Bait & Tackle Shop in Oxford. (Sun Journal photo by Daryn Slover)

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