The ice is perfect down on Fremont Lake in Pinedale, Wyoming. Traditionally, February on Fremont offers the best shot at pulling a big lake trout through the ice. Ice fishing is one of those sports that many snub their nose at. But I love it. Every type of ice fishing whether its tip-up fishing for walleye and northern pike, jigging for panfish or in this weekend’s case, jigging for lake trout, I enjoy them all. The sport is a lot more challenging then most think, and the ice is a peaceful place. When you think about it, fishing on top of ice is truly amazing and for me a great way to enjoy the solitude of winter at its best. Unfortunately because of my winter schedule at this point in life, I rarely get to enjoy the experience anymore. That’s why when my old buddy Mike Braghini asked me to join him this weekend I made the time.
Fremont is large lake about 14 miles long and 2 miles wide in places. It backs right up into the Wind River Mountain Range and is as beautiful as any lake I’ve ever ice fished. What’s most amazing is that it’s over 700 feet deep in places making it one of the deepest mountain lakes in the Rockies. I think that’s what intrigues me the most. I know there are some frightening monsters down there and when I stand on top of the lake in the dead of winter looking into that dark ice hole it intimidates me. I feel like and anything could happen.
In the early 90’s I enjoyed chasing the big lakers of Fremont Lake through the ice as much as summer fly fishing. There was one winter that I ice fished sixty days on Fremont. I could share some unbelievable stories. More importantly I caught some huge lakers. In fact, during that particular winter I landed twenty lakers over 10lbs, five of which were over 20lbs and my biggest was 26lb. With a full stomach that 26lber would have been well over 30lbs. Imagine pulling this guy though a hole in the ice!
Just because you’re on a lake that’s home to big lakers doesn’t mean you’ll catch one. Fremont actually goes by the nickname the “Dead Sea”. You need the magic touch to get those big lakers regularly. I’ve been skunked on Fremont more than any other place. It took me years to perfect the soft jigging techniques needed to nail big lakers. Those days I had a good quality fish finder and I could watch my jig going up and down and see the fish looking at it. It was incredible. In fact it wasn’t much different than fooling a rising trout on a stream during a hatch. Only a 20lb laker is a heck of a lot smarter than a 20” trout. I had a lot of special tricks, jigs and colors that could entice a laker to eat under each condition. These days, I’ve forgotten many of my tricks and the fish finder along with my best jigs are long gone.
I met Mike at his house in Jackson, Wyoming around 7 AM Saturday and we loaded up and headed the hour drive to Pinedale. It’s still plenty dark here at 7 so we eased along. We must have seen a dozen moose and hundreds of mule deer along the roads, more than even the biggest wildlife enthusiast would want to see while driving. When we got to Fremont we were fully amidst a freezing fog. It was cold and damp as we geared up. Once ready Mike fired up his snowmobile and I hopped on the back and we were off.
We snow machined about ten minutes to one of my favorite old spots. It’s where I caught most of those big fish nearly 20 years ago. We were the only fishermen on this location. In fact, we only saw about a dozen other anglers across this massive lake but of course the ice fog made it impossible to see more than a ¼ mile. We punched out our holes with Mike’s power auger and in minutes we were ready to jig.
I tied on a rust colored DOA Minnow and jabbed a dead minnow through the hook and lowered it down the hole. There was a lot of excitement for me when my jig hit bottom. I was in about 110 feet of water and often times within the first three jigs you get a bite. But that didn’t happen. Soon an hour went by without a bite . . . then another hour . . . and another. The morning fishing was slow to say the least.
At noon Mike, who has a fish finder, started graphing some fish. However they kept swimming up to his jig and leaving. Either they weren’t hungry or we had the wrong stuff. It wasn’t until about 2 that Mike got the first bite of the day – he missed him. Then he went on a run and set the hook and missed about three more fish that he was watching on his finder. The big problem with lakers is they often get in moods where they barely touch the jig and don’t take the hook in their mouths. This was one of those times.
Meanwhile, I had my rod lying next to my hole. I was about fifty feet away so I left my reel on free spool in case a fish grabbed my jig as a dead bait. I’d been hanging with Mike waiting with my camera for him to finally hook up. I glanced off at my rod only to see it bouncing all over. I sprinted for it picked it up and set the hook. I got there just in time. I had on a nice fish and not much line left on the reel. I pumped this fish hard to gain back some line before he started to smoke me. There was no doubt this was nice fish. Not a giant, but could easily be a 10lber. The fish made a couple runs but overall I was bringing him in fast with my 14lb test. Then, after five minutes of battle he was gone. I lost him. Bummer!
That was all the excitement for Saturday. The end result a big fat skunk. This is something that happens all too often when chasing the big lakers through the ice on Fremont Lake. Mike and I were totally cool with our efforts however and headed back to his house where I spent the night and we crushed some meatball subs and watched hockey. Trust me; a guy with a last name of Braghini can make some mean meatball subs!
Today was much nicer weather. It was too nice. A few days ago the weather was predicted to be snowy and windy. Those conditions often mix with low barometric pressure and fishing for lakers can be excellent. But instead the weather was a disappointing complete opposite. We had lots of blue sky, sunshine and literally no wind. And the temperature had to be hovering around 40ºF which for February in Wyoming is virtually sunbathing weather. Sure enough, again our fishing was slow.
We messed around and had a great time though. I rigged a monster jig with a 7” long sucker and drilled a hole in 180 feet of water. I dropped the oversized bait to bottom and slowly bobbed it. Then the lack of action and the warm sun put me to sleep. I put my reel on free spool and slumped in my chair and dozed off for at least a half hour. Naps on the ice are good ones. The only outdoor naps better are the ones in the tall grass of the Henrys Fork Ranch on a hot summer day.
After five hours of trying to force a big laker on the big bait I went back to a small gitzit jig with a minnow and at last I nailed a fish. It was a small laker of 23 inches. But the skunk was off and Granny and I will have one heck of a delicious fish dinner tomorrow night. (Lake trout caught through the ice from down 100 feet deep are a delicacy!) I went on to catch one other and got a few taps while jigging the smaller jig and bait. Mike, an experienced ice fisher, settled for the two day skunk. He took a deep breath as we left the lake and suggested we stop for a drink at the Corral Bar in Pinedale on the way home.
If it was easy to catch a big lake trout everyone would ice fish and it would be boring as hell. So despite the slow fishing, this weekend reminded me of how much I love to ice fish. Being out there in such an amazing setting is unreal. Naturally with little action my mind had plenty of time to wander. Should I really be on the road most of the winter? Should I really be missing what I love so much? Well, I think we all know the answer. We need to make a living and unfortunately it takes us all away from the amount of fishing we’d really like to be doing. That’s life.
Lucky for me, I love my work and this week I hit the road again. I’m headed to Kalamazoo, Michigan to the Kalamazoo Valley of Trout Unlimited to give my presentation “Fly Fishing Through Midlife Heaven”. Best of all, I’m going to hang around an extra day and do some fishing. And if I’m lucky it just might be through the ice again! Stay tuned . . . .