It’s a strange breed that’ll spend hours sitting atop a bucket in sub-zero temperatures staring at a saucer-sized hole in the ice, hoping to outsmart a fish or two. But fishermen are an insatiable lot, and there are those who, in the days after the temperature has fallen and the sporting goods stores are advertising snowboards instead of flyrods, throw their gear in a bucket and head for the ice. They’ve forsaken the more widely practiced winter pastime of kicking back in front of the boob tube with a six pack of animal beer, watching reruns of “Fishing in the West” on TNN. These guys are hard. They’d sooner freeze their asses off than go three months without catching a fish.
Some people have a difficult time grasping the appeal of ice fishing. After all, the water is frozen, don’t they get the hint? Well, the hint was duly noted and ignored. No sooner did man fall through the ice while attempting his first shortcut across the frozen lake did he discover that the ice is only a couple of feet thick and that the fish were, in fact, alive and well and hungry beneath it’s surface. Hence ice fishing was born, and with it, a market for stubby fishing poles.
While ice fishing in western Montana doesn’t posses the disturbing level of popularity that it does in places like Minnesota, there is no shortage of opportunities, and it’s unlikely you’ll be alone on the ice. About this time of year, sporting goods stores start stocking the necessary gear and tackle; within a few weeks area lakes should be developing safe ice.
With a modest investment, one can purchase the specialized equipment that will make you feel like a pro. For less than a hundred bucks you can walk out of any sporting goods store with an auger (of the manual variety), an ice rod, an ice scoop and a lawn chair (which will win you some points with your backside). It’s no secret though, that anglers are gearheads and you may not be able to resist the urge to convert the contents of your wallet into garage-clutter. You can get gas-powered augers, portable propane heaters, fully enclosed and collapsible ice shacks, miniature spinning reels to go with your miniature rods, buckets with padded lids, rod holders (in western Montana you’re generally allowed to have two lines in the water when ice fishing), crampons, etc.; the list goes on.
Selecting tackle for ice fishing is a lot easier than other types of fishing. When fishing for trout or salmon, the preferred rigging is simply a glow hook (a hook with a bulb of glow-in-the-dark paint on the stem, the most popular ones being manufactured in our very own Pablo) with a couple of maggots on it. There are other effective lures such as scud flies and rubber worm jigs, but the glow hook setup is probably the best arrangement for the novice because it’s easy and it always catches fish.
Finding a good spot to fish is not a difficult task either. With dozens of lakes within a couple of hours drive of Missoula you’ll be pulling trout, salmon, pike, perch and whitefish through the ice. Drive just a little further and you may add walleye and ling to that list.
Georgetown Lake near Phillipsburg is arguably the most popular ice fishing spot in western Montana with plentiful stocks of salmon and rainbow trout. Lake Mary Ronan west of Flathead Lake was once regarded as a premier salmon fishery but the once-robust salmon population has given way to perch in recent years. Northeast of Missoula, Salmon Lake is a popular pike spot, while Seely Lake offers pike, perch and trout. The unassuming Browns Lake past Ovando harbors some good-sized rainbows amidst its multitude of suckers, and Canyon Ferry Lake by Helena offers pretty much the whole gamut of Montana fishing and hosts some popular derbies as well.
Lastly, a note about ice. If you’ve spent time on the ice in northern Minnesota, you’ve probably seen people drive one-ton trucks onto six inches of ice. In Montana it’s a different story. Montana lakes are generally just slow spots in a river and moving water does not freeze as solid as still water. Additionally, western Montana winters are often mild by comparison, and frequent and wide variations in temperature can cause the upper layers of ice to partially thaw and refreeze. Before you go too far from shore you should drill a test hole or two to make sure the ice is thick and solid. And ALWAYS stay away from open water. If you’re going ice fishing for the first time, you should go with someone who’s been before and knows how to judge the ice conditions. When in doubt, ask the locals. They’d rather tell you where not to go than have to pull you out if you fall through.