There was a day when an ice fisherman didn’t concern himself much with the kind of live bait used to entice a landlocked salmon or a trout under the ice. You always used live smelts if you could find them.

Short of that, you used what were generically called “minnows.” Sometimes we caught our own live bait; and sometimes we purchased a couple dozen from the local bait dealer.

V. Paul Reynolds, Outdoors Columnist

Bait was bait. As long as they were fish, small and lively, any kind would do.

Not so today. There are live bait regulations galore. And, unless to want to get crossways with the law, you really want to familiarize yourself with the many varieties of live bait species before you venture forth, especially if you trap your own live bait. There are only 17 species of live bait that are legal to use in Maine. The list of permissible live bait can be found on the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife website and the fishing lawbook.

Good luck trying to distinguish a Finescale Dace from a Mummichog or a Fathead Minnow from a Banded Killfish.

Unless your favorite uncle is a Maine fisheries biologist, you are probably better off to purchase your live bait from a reputable, state-licensed live bait dealer. (Find a list of bait dealers at the MDIF&W website.)


Here is a summary of the state-wide live bait regulations:

• South Zone: Use of all legal forms of bait (including live baitfish/smelts), artificial lures, and artificial flies is PERMITTED under General Fishing Law.
Exception: Some waters in the South Zone have the “S-4” Special Law Code, meaning use or possession of live fish as bait is prohibited (the use of dead fish, salmon eggs or worms is permitted.) To see if the water you intend to fish in the South Zone has this special law, look in the Special Fishing Laws to see if the water is listed and has the S-4 code. If the water is not listed under special fishing laws then it falls under General Law and live bait is allowed, if the water is listed but does not have the S-4 code, then live baitfish is allowed.

• North Zone: Under the North Zone General Fishing Law, the use or possession of live fish as bait is PROHIBITED, unless the individual water contains Special Fishing Laws to allow the use of live fish as bait. This conservation approach helps protect the abundant native resources in this part of the state. To determine if the North Zone water you wish to fish allows the use of live baitfish, find the water in the Special Fishing Laws section and look for the “S-11” Special Law Code indicating that the use or possession of live baitfish/live smelts is permitted. If your water is in the North Zone, and has that “S-11” Special Law Code, you can use live baitfish/live smelts.

• North and South Zone: Waters in both the South and North Zones with Special Law Code “ALO” do not permit live baitfish, worms, or dead baitfish. These waters are artificial lures only.

Once an ice angler has purchased bait from a licensed dealer, the burden is still on the angler, especially in the northern zone, to make sure that that legally bought bait is, indeed, legal for a particular body of water.

Yes, recreational fishing, like modern life, is not as simple as it used to be with all of the “S” codes and zone determinations. The live bait regulations are there for a purpose, however, to protect our precious sport fishery from invasive species getting in waters where they don’t belong.


To this end, a couple of good practices: 1) Never dump live bait into your ice hole at the end of the day; and 2) If you are putting on fresh bait, don’t dump the old bait into the ice hole.

If you are a nonresident angler visiting Maine, know that it is illegal to bring any baitfish into the state. Conviction for illegal transportation of live bait into Maine can result in a fine as high as $10,000 — a costly fishing trip.

This winter, especially, with the ever-changing weather patterns and mild startup of the winter, be sure to check ice thickness before heading out onto the lake. And, if possible, avoid snow sledding across inlets and outlets of water bodies.

Stay warm, stay safe and good fishing.

V. Paul Reynolds is editor of the Northwoods Sporting Journal, an author, a Maine guide and host of a weekly radio program, “Maine Outdoors,” heard at 7 p.m. Sundays on The Voice of Maine News-Talk Network. Contact him at

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