When your attitude about winter rhymes with “bucket,” you go ice fishing.
BY EDNOR THERRIAULT
If your idea of a good time involves sitting in a dark tent the size of an airplane bathroom, hunched over a tiny hole in a frozen lake while an arctic wind threatens to turn your shelter into a kite, do I have the sport for you!
It’s called ice fishing, and thousands of Montanans who apparently don’t have the NFL Sunday Ticket trudge out onto frozen lakes and reservoirs across the state every winter to test their mettle and establish their place atop the food chain. You don’t have to be crazy to enjoy ice fishing, but … you know what? I think you do a little bit.
For one long weekend each February, I hole up with a few friends in a cabin near Philipsburg, where we revel in a few days of poker, beer, snow- boarding, guitar playing and storytelling and, if there’s time, ice fishing. In the morning we walk out onto Georgetown Lake, one of Montana’s most popular ice fishing meccas, to try and harvest a few tasty trout or Kokanee salmon.
Thankfully one of our bunch, Kevin, is a full-on enthusiast, and has all the gear we need to set up fishing camp. The first key to success is locating Kevin’s secret spot, which he triangulates by finding two landmarks on the shore (I’m almost certain that the word triangulation would indicate that three points must be used, but we usually catch fish so I let it slide). I did suggest to Kevin last year that maybe we spray paint a big X on the ice so we can come to the exact same spot next year.
Once you have your spot it’s time to drill holes in the ice, which on Georgetown can be two feet thick or more. Kevin has a gas-powered auger, basically a lawn mower engine on top of a giant drill bit, which makes the job much easier and quicker, not to mention louder. Small gasoline engines are famously temperamental, and more than once we have stood around on the ice watching Kevin have a frantic phone conversation with a service tech at Ace Hardware while we stamp our feet, jam our hands into our armpits and make the unanimous decision that, no, it’s not too early to start drinking.
Once four holes are drilled in the ice, the tent is unfolded and slid over the holes on its sled-like base. Inside, we pop the covers off the floor to expose the holes and Kevin sets up a propane heater and a tiny folding table to hold tackle and bait.
Did I mention the bait? Most people use live maggots. You read that right. Housefly larvae. Two or three of these little wiggly grubs are threaded onto a hook and lowered deep into the dark water where trout congregate, presumably laughing their caudal fins off at the morons up top who believe housefly larvae are a naturally occurring life form in a mountain lake in the dead of winter.
Most ice tents are configured to hold four adult humans sitting back to back, perched on five-gallon buckets. Ice fishing rods are only about a foot long, and many fishermen dispense with the rig altogether, preferring to hold the line in their bare hands, especially if they forgot to stop by the sporting goods store on the way to the lake.
Occasionally we bring along a newbie who needs a bit of guidance. Last year was Tim’s first time ice fishing. He had a little trouble with his bucket.
“Is anybody else finding these buckets super uncomfortable?” he asked.
“It works a lot better if you turn it upside down,” I said. Problem solved. Kevin smiled and continued staring down into his hole, plucking lightly at his line, making the maggots jump with a motion he calls the “Georgetown Jig.” I offered him a sip of “mother’s milk” (ice fishing code for Crown Royal).
“Ima whet yuss a lid bid,” he said. “What?”
He spit something into his hand. “I’m gonna wait just a little bit.”
“Are those maggots?”
“Yeah, man,” he said. “They stay a lot livelier if you keep them warm in your mouth.”
I asked Tim if I could borrow his chair to throw up into.
“… these little wiggly grubs are threaded onto a hook and lowered deep into the dark water where trout congregate, presumably laughing their caudal fins off at the morons up top who believe housefly larvae are a naturally occurring life form in a mountain lake in the dead of winter.”
Like most forms of fishing, the ice variety takes patience. When the fish aren’t biting, things can get tedious. We try to keep the interest up by predicting the fish movements as they swim past our holes.
“Hey, Chris,” Kevin might say, “I just had a couple picklers sniffing around my maggot. Better keep your eyes on your hole.”
I swear, you hear phrases in an ice shack you’ll never hear anywhere else. A “pickler?” That’s what Kevin calls a Kokanee salmon too small to fry or smoke, so he pickles them in brine. I can’t decide if that makes it a delicacy or if it’s a slap in the face to all self-respecting Kokanee.
Sure enough, Chris will spot a pair of fish making short runs at his bait only to turn away at the last second.
“Ednor!” he screams. “They’re coming over to you!” Preparing for action, I sit up straight on my bucket.
“OK, fish. Bring it.”
When someone does bring a fish up through the ice into the tight quarters of the dark tent, it’s pure pandemonium for a couple of minutes while we try to grab the slippery, writhing fish. Then it’s removed from the hook and unceremoniously popped through a slot in the door onto the snow outside.
This goes on for several hours. If it’s cold and windy, we stay hunkered down in the tent, occasionally stepping outside into the blinding daylight for a sandwich or to create a yellow hole in the snow. Some years we’re blessed with a sunny day, with temperatures in the 30s. Downright balmy. Kevin will fire up the auger and set to perforating the ice sheet with several holes so we can sit in the sun in our shirtsleeves, free from the fart-scented darkness of the tent.
These warm days are usually less productive on the fish front, but, as people who don’t catch any fish like to say, catching fish isn’t really the point. There’s also the bonus entertainment of watching the other fish camps. A couple years ago, we were 100 yards from a pair of ice shacks with seven or eight dudes milling around outside, tending their lines. A sudden cheer erupted from the group, and we peered across the ice, trying to get a glimpse of the action.
“Somebody must have pulled a big one up,” I said. Kevin, who spends nearly every winter weekend on the ice with his wife Wendy, has seen it all at Georgetown Lake. He didn’t even look up to see what the commotion was all about.
“Somebody just found the bottle opener,” he said, setting the hook on a small trout. “Got one!”
Ednor Therriault is the author of several books, including Montana Curiosities, Myths and Legends of Yellowstone, Seven Montanas, and his latest, Haunted Montana. He lives in Missoula, where he’s learning to embrace the Montana winters, one silly sport at a time.