The joys of time spent
on a frozen lake
Nothing moves out here on the lake. No wave crests nor troughs.
The trenchant winds that sweep from the eastern shores and slash into the stand of sub-alpine fir to the east compel my wife to zip her coat up those last few inches and hunch closer to the hole she and the dog are staring into.
We’re surrounded by snow for at least a hundred yards in every direction, standing on the frozen, snow-crusted surface of an alpine lake, two miles and a 30-minute ski from the nearest human settlement.
A bald eagle launches from its nest to the south, and I imagine that, from its vantage point soaring above the lake, we must look like a strange contingent of snow creatures as we stand tree-trunk still in the middle of the frozen expanse. Given the right light and vantage point, perhaps the eagle could even see the fish approach and then swim away from my mealworm bait as it hangs there in the murky waters of my fishing hole.
Ten minutes pass. My wife takes up her fishing pole, grabs the ice auger, walks a short distance, swipes away some snow with her ski and drills another hole. She releases the cage on her fishing reel and sends her line and the hooked mealworm on the end of it down into the depths. Not too deep, just deep enough. Within two minutes, she has a bite.
The hooks are small, the fishing line light and the fish surprisingly strong after two months spent lazing beneath the four-inch icecap. The fight is short but intense. She lands a nine-inch brook trout and it flops in the snow. The dog barks: it can barely stand the excitement.
This is why we ice fish.
During the holiday season, we spend a week in the Tushar Mountains of central Utah. We’re lucky enough to have the use of a family cabin there. But every day, we leave those comfy confines and cross-country ski three miles up a snow-covered forest road to a lake where we know we’ll catch our dinner.
My wife isn’t an avid fisherwoman. The idea of driving to a lake to stand on the shores waiting interminably for a fish to take the bait—that bores her to no end. And I’ll grant there are other approaches to lake fishing, but try telling her that.
It seems oxymoronic, but ice fishing is one of the hottest bets in angling. It requires little gear—at least in the semi-temperate environs of many of Utah’s lakes; I mean, we’re not talking ice fishing in a man-shack on Lake Pisquatannywannasquannymauckett. With the right bait presented at the right depth, catching a fish is nearly a guarantee. Added bonuses: We don’t have to wake at dawn’s asscrack to haul the boat out to the lake; during wintertime, fish feed all throughout the day.
For us, alpine ice fishing is a low intensity biathlon, with a fishing pole instead of a rifle. We take our time skiing uphill to the lake, spend a couple hours catching meaty rainbow, brook, and tiger trout, then shush back down to the cabin. Sure, it gets cold, but it never gets crowded and you’d be hard pressed to go home empty-handed.
Above all, alpine ice fishing is a peaceful and calming endeavor. Standing on the frozen lake, you’re faced with few choices. You can stare at your fishing hole—obsessively if you’re the dog—trying to find the fish by strategically raising and lowering the bait. It’s a fun guessing-game challenge, and once you’ve puzzled it out, you can reliably catch fish at the same depth all day.
After a while, you’ve no choice but to look up from the hole and take in the austere and placid scenery. You hear the wind brush through the trees, watch the sun tuck behind the clouds over the mountain to the east. You wonder what kind of critter it was that made those tracks on the lake’s southern end, down by the warm spring. Probably a fox. Here it comes now. You’re standing so still it doesn’t even notice you as it takes a drink.
The wind blows and you hunker down a little to stay warm. You watch your hole. You wait. You catch a fish. You do it all over again.
The sun’s going down. It’s time to cook your trout dinner.