Look Forward to Ice-Out (New England)
by Warren P. Balgooyen
Ever been on the shore of a lake or river
when the ice went out? It is a fascinating
experience, both to see and to hear.
Ice-out begins in late winter as the sun
becomes stronger and starts to melt the
ice. Weakening ice can be heard to “groan”
as the wind buckles it. As the ice melts,
its structure changes and it forms
pencil-like crystals arranged vertically
through the ice mass. The ice becomes
crystallized or “honey combed”.
If you are lucky enough to be nearby a lake or river the day of ice out, you
may hear a “tinkling” sound. The pencil-like ice crystals fall against each other
like dominoes when the waves of open water nibble at the ice edge, creating
that special sound.
Any weedy areas and rocks, logs, or any other solid objects in the water will
absorb the sun’s rays and heat up the water around it. Even a leaf blown out
onto the ice will melt its way downward in the ice. Often a band of open water
develops along shorelines before the ice weakens over the deeper, middle
part of a lake.
After ice out, the surface water warms to 39°F or 4° C. This is the temperature
at which water is most dense (heaviest) so the heavier water sinks to the
bottom. This process is called spring turnover. Now the water can freely mix,
with the help of wind and currents.
Turnover is an important event. The mixing water carries up nutrients (food)
from bottom sediments to the surface. The bottom sediment is filled with
nutrients and when that nutrient-rich water floats to the surface in fall and
spring, it carries up nutrients to the algae and other plant life as part of the
The mixing also brings oxygen down into the bottom waters. This
replenishment is vital to the fish that live deep in the lake.
As the temperature warms, all the living organisms that have been dormant in
the lake come to life and start growing again. Frogs, turtles, crayfish, snails,
and larval insects, which spent the winter dug into the mud, now rouse
themselves and start swimming. Open water also brings our spring visitors,
such as loons and migrating waterfowl headed for northern breeding grounds.
Spring overturn also happens to be the best time for spring fishing because the
mixed uniform water, now filled with oxygen, brings trout and other fish up
from their deep winter retreat. They can be found at any depth at this season.
Ice out is a time of quiet on the lake. Some folks love that first open water
paddle just to see what’s going on. Sometimes the winter ice has moved things
around and left some surprises. With everything waking up and the lake
getting restless, it’s a good time to keep your eyes and ears open to the
wonders of spring.
From an article by Warren P. Balgooyen. Edited by the Maine Department of