It was in my sights to sneak in an afternoon of midge fishing on the Henry’s Fork to break up a day of working at home. That was until while on a big night on the town of Victor with Granny, I bumped into friends Andy Asadorian and Rick Schreiber. These two long time pals suggested I dig out my dusty ice fishing gear and join them for a little adventure they had planned.
To the surprise of many, I have been an ice fisherman my entire life. I grew up tip-up fishing the lakes and ponds of Massachusetts and New Hampshire for panfish, bass and pickerel to name a few. I purposely went to college in Northern Wisconsin and Minnesota to fish for northern pike and walleye. It didn’t take but “first ice” to realize that ice fishing for these species was about as fun as it gets. Then, upon arrival to Jackson, Wyoming in 1987, I found a whole new ice fishing world – jigging for big lake trout. Turns out, catching a big laker through the ice was one of the hardest fishing challenges I’ve had to crack, but in winter of 1995-96, I did just that. I landed 20 of North America’s super charged char over 10lbs, four of which were over 20lb and one monster of 26-pounds. Not bad for the south of the Canadian border!
These days, I find little time for the ice. Working the show circuit is a great way to make living and fly fishing expeditions to foreign lands is hard to beat. But I spend many a moment wondering how thick the ice is on my old haunts. So when Andy and Rick reminded me of just how dusty my ice gear was, without any hesitation, I was in.
In winter of 1995-96, I’d leave my house at 3:30 am and spend both my days off on the ice. I was in my early 30’s back then. Today, I met the boys at 10. In fact, I ran a little late from doing errands so they left without me like they should. I arrived at the trailhead at about 11am, clicked into my backcountry skis and began the trek to catch up with them. Winter in the Tetons is spectacular to say the least. I’m usually the first to bitch about winter, but get me on my skis in this frigid wonderland and I’m in Heaven. Today was no exception. Jackson Hole received a dusting of snow last night and the lodge poles and aspens were glistening with fresh powder.
The ski in is about two miles. It is nearly all up hill to the lake. This can be a grunt but makes for an easy and enjoyable ski out. Today I was lucky; Andy and Rick already busted a track through fresh snow in so I barely worked up a sweat. In fact, I got to the lake only minutes behind them. Rick was just dropping his jig to bottom and Andy was making the last few turns with the ice auger on his hole. The ice was thick. Andy was struggling to make these last few turns because there is about 3 feet of ice!
Looking for action rather than a trophy, I dug my hole in 55 feet of water and tied on a small jig with a Palomar knot. Normally, if I was in search of a big laker I’d bring my fish finder and set up in about 120-feet of water. I’d fish a 7/0 jig with a dead 6” long sucker rigged with a trailer treble hook. I’d jig all day and hope for one bite. Big lakers don’t come easy and many times the day ends with a big fat goose egg. Today was about catching fish.
By the time I dropped my jig, Rick had already broken a fish off on the strike and Andy iced an 18”er. It didn’t take long for me to join in on the fun. I felt my jig reach bottom. I reeled up three cranks of the bait caster and began to methodically swim my chartreuse fat gitzit jig. Trust me, there’s a knack to this. Within seconds I had a touch and I do mean a touch. Lakers often grab softly and those new to the sport often don’t notice. If they do feel it they usually reef on the rod. Rather than hastily set the hook, you must literally try to feed the jig to the fish. And remember, you can’t see what the hell is really going on down there. I like to raise my rod tip gently and than let the jig slowly flutter back down two inches at a time. When I see my line go slack the fish has it and I set the hook firmly. You need to set hard in order to compensate for any stretch in the line which does happen in over 50-feet deep. When chasing big lakers over 100-feet deep I use braid that does not stretch.
After teasing the fish below me for about a minute, the slack line I was waiting for happened and I struck. The laker was on and after a decent battle I iced my first laker of the year – a 21”er. That was all it took to realize it’s time to spend more time on the ice. It’s some of the most peaceful fishing time you can get. We had an entire lake to ourselves. It was dead quiet. No sounds of distant traffic. There was no sound of human life other than a chat with my friends. Just a distant coyote howl and ravens chatting about what lake trout remains we might leave behind to provide them a special meal. What a magnificent day to start the 2010 fishing season.