Trophies Through the Ice

Sitting in the morning sun, jigging through the ice for cold-water trout has to be among the most relaxing fishing experience available; that is, unless your fishing partner happens to be a rabid ice-fishing derby participant. 

Four years ago, I conned my hunting partner into giving ice fishing a try. The first outing was met with lukewarm reception, but having my best buddy participate in the outdoor things I like was especially important, and thus I was inspired to figure a way to make it more palatable for her. Little did I know I would create a monster who would turn rabid and leave me 10 pounds lighter each February.

Not being a participant in fishing derbies myself I thought perhaps entering an ice-fishing derby would give my fledgling ice-fishing partner more purpose and a reason to tolerate some of the colder times sitting on the hard water. Little did I know it would turn an otherwise very calm and rational person into a raging lunatic. But such is the nature of competition, and while her enthusiasm eliminated any relaxing February ice fishing, it also made me a much better ice fisherman.

The Soldotna Trustworthy Hardware store sponsors an annual ice-fishing derby that starts the first day of February and ends the last day of February. This derby is intended to get youngsters participating in the out-of-doors, the experience enhanced with awards and prizes for fish caught in various divisions. The youngsters participating receive some sort of small token just for entering a fish. It is a great family-oriented activity that can best be appreciated by seeing the faces of these young folks with their pictures posted on the leader boards and their beaming smiles when they win a prize.   

As much as it is for the youngsters, there are adult divisions that include categories like the largest rainbow, lake trout, grayling, burbot, whitefish, char, pike, and salmon (kokanee in most cases). There are also categories for a “flush,” which is a composite weight of one rainbow, lake trout, kokanee, char and pike, and a “straight flush,” which includes the aforementioned and adds grayling, burbot and whitefish. The first year my partner participated she was trying for a big rainbow and didn’t do well.  But the result was a piqued interest in ice fishing and a pursuit of bigger fish after the derby concluded.  We had been fishing with standard ice-fishing tackle, tiny jigs, single eggs, shrimp, the usual suspects, and they were effective for catching fish, but nothing of any significant size. Purely by accident we discovered what has remained the secret for catching bigger fish through the ice and we haven’t looked back since. 

While fishing a lake we had snowshoed a couple of miles into on an early March morning, we had fished most of the day and had caught a few small char. I had thrown a Mepps “Piker” kit that had been a Christmas gift in my pack on a whim and decided to give one of the new lures a try.  It was a silver 5/8-ounce Syclops spoon. I attached the lure and dropped it to the bottom in about 30 feet of water and started jigging. Lifting the rod up about 18 inches and letting the spoon free-fall, I worked my way up the water column.  I worked my way up through the depths with ten strokes and then a couple of turns on the Ambassador 6000 and then ten more strokes. At about 15 feet I had a solid hit, finally a fish of substance was interested in my lure. Two strokes later I was ready and hooked an 18-inch natural-run char that was as gorgeous as any magazine photo you would ever see of the species.

Red-finned char are a subspecies unique to the Swanson River lakes on the Kenai Peninsula and they are gorgeous fish. I removed the hook and placed the fish in my pack (I fish for the table) and dropped the lure back down and repeated the process and was quickly rewarded with another char, the twin of the first.        

A subsequent trip to the same lake revealed the second and equally important “secret” to catching fish through the ice. It is real simple, and boils down to: drill more holes.  We arrived at the lake and I drilled two 6-inch holes close to where I had caught the char before. This time we started with the Syclops, my partner’s a fluorescent orange, mine the silver… and caught nothing. That is, nothing in the first 15 minutes, which is about all I will sit in one place while ice fishing. My fishing partner, even in rabid derby competition, is content to fish one hole all day long (of course this is in part due to her certain knowledge that I’ll eventually find the fish, at which point she will move to the better hole) but I get impatient and start moving and drilling. That day I drilled nineteen 6-inch holes. On the sixteenth hole I found the fish and my partner quickly moved to where I had pulled a 20-inch rainbow up and took over. 

The next year she had figured out that catching the biggest fish in a category was more a matter of luck than hard work and so decided to work towards the “flush” category. No female angler had ever completed a flush in the derby’s history, making it even more of a challenge. With that, the gauntlet was laid down for me. In other words, “Okay, show me how good of a fishing guide you can be.”  Now I’ve never been a great fisherman, hunting has always been my first love in the outdoors with fishing filling in the voids. But my fishing partner was persuasive in her argument that, if I would just shut up and fish (read that help), she could catch five decent size fish of different species in a month’s time, and what the hey, most of the February hunting I do is at night anyway.

Armed with her Eskimo 2 ice-fishing shelter, Mr. Heater Buddy heater, Eagle Claw medium-weight ice rod adorned with an Ambassador 6000 filled with Berkley 10-pound-test Micro Ice Fire Line and a good supply of Mepps Syclops, my derby contestant was ready to do battle with the first fish on the list, lake trout. Lakers hold a special place in this old fisherman’s heart. They are vicious predators (we routinely find 7- to 9-inch fish inside 5-pound lakers), they strike hard and do it regularly on the upstroke of a jigging motion, and they put up a great fight. They have a prehistoric look about them that says they are all business, and perhaps best of all, at least in my opinion, are some of the best freshwater table fare going.

The difficulty in finding and catching them is another reason they are high on the list. They inhabit very few waters of the Kenai Peninsula and of those; even fewer are really fishable in the winter months. The deep, clear lake we fish is surrounded by jagged rock and is “the” lake trout spot on the peninsula. But, few who fish it actually come away with a lake trout in the creel. They are tough to find and often finicky about what they will strike. Nevertheless, on a 20-degree February morning with a north wind blowing about 20 MPH, we stopped on a rocky point and quickly drilled a hole and set up the Eskimo ice shanty.

My fishing partner headed into to the shack and began jigging a Syclops from the bottom up, announcing the depth was about 80 feet where she was fishing. Moving north one hundred feet, I drilled another hole and then one hundred feet from that one, another. The first hole revealed a depth of around 90 feet, the second about 115, which is what one looks for. Drop-offs along rocky shelves and outcrops seem to be the habitat lakers frequent in the winter. Dropping a 1-ounce silver Syclops to the bottom, I reeled up 2 cranks and began what ends up being thousands of jigging motions that day. I lift the rod moderately quickly, then drop the tip, letting the lure free-fall. Repeat. After about ten jigs I crank up ten feet and repeat. You never know where lakers are going to be holding on a given day so working the water column is how they are located.

I had jigged up to 70 feet when my partner hollered for help. Running to the ice shanty I heard some colorful expressions coming from inside that told me the fish had escaped. Turns out she had caught a kokanee right off the bat, a decent 12-inch fish and it had hit at about 30 feet. The laker had struck at around 60. 

This is common for lakers. Finding the bait fish, which in this case are kokanee, does not always dictate the depth lakers will be hanging. A return to my spot and more jigging resulted in a hard strike at 60 feet. He hit hard on the upstroke, almost at the top and that is always the worst time, unless you have really long arms. I don’t and thus was not able to get a good hook-set only to lose him. No matter, I was pleased knowing first that they were there and at what depth. I moved to the northwest and drilled another hole, this time closer to shore and with a bottom of 60 feet. 

Now that will sound a bit suspect if not downright stupid to the uninitiated, but let me explain. Once a fish strikes and the area is disturbed I have found over the years that immediately leaving the area alone for a little while will settle things, and then returning after 10 minutes or so will almost always result in another strike. Conversely, dropping the lure right back down and going at it again has never worked for me with these fish. Certainly it is different in other areas but not in my experience for most lakers and for that matter, any big trout through the ice.

A short while later I returned to the original hole, dropped all the way down to 115 feet and began working the water column again. Of course this time when I reached the 60-foot area I was ready and when the big fish hit I set the hook hard and the fight was on. A great thing about fishing these clear lakes is being able to look down in the hole and see these magnificent fish in their struggle with the angler. He ran out of steam after several hard runs and soon his gorgeous dark green/light green flanks were displayed on the snow.   

Back to the derby contestant. She was taking a break when I came in and announced I had caught a laker. This always spurns her into a flurry of jigging activity. But to no avail. She was jigging around the 60-foot mark and, since the first hit, had no interest. In lake trout fishing, you have to be ready to adjust. If fish were striking in a zone and then after a bite there is nothing going on, then try moving up or down in the water column. She started reeling up and at 30 feet the payoff came. The laker hit her fluorescent orange Syclops hard, took the rod tip down into the hole before she knew it and then she recovered, set the hook hard, and fought the fish to the surface. Out of the hole the fish appeared to be the twin to mine—a nice representative of the species and all the derby contestant needed for that day.     

Two species down, three to go. Pike would be the next on the list. Catching a pike on peninsula waters is an iffy proposition at best. There are few waters that still hold them and those waters have been netted and fished to the point that while there are still pike, the fishing action is hardly what one would even call interesting. No matter, when your fishing partner is hell bent on being the first woman to ever actually enter the flush category of the derby then you do what you have to do.

With both of us working regular jobs the weekends were about all we had for fishing, but after several unsuccessful attempts at pike, we decided to increase the pressure and try in the dark after work. This particular night it had dropped to -11 by 5 o’clock and my hopes of catching a pike were basically non-existent, but my own philosophy, and as my fishing partner reminded me, you damn sure can’t catch them if you aren’t out there trying; so away we went.

This fishing in the dark is the only time we stray from using just the Syclops. Being dark it seems logical the fish may not see the action that seems to prompt strikes from every species, and thus, we placed some chunks of herring on our hooks before dropping them.  In this case, the water was less than 5 feet deep so the jigging motion was more of a wiggle. No matter, in about three wiggles, my fishing partner hooked a rather smallish two-pound pike. At 11 below zero we were more than happy to take that as her entry and quickly packed up and called it a job well done.

Rainbows and char are relatively easy to find and catch on the peninsula. There are numerous lakes that hold stocked fish that are fairly easy to access. But within every set of derby rules there are also additional personal rules, one of mine being that we would not be entering stocked fish. If we couldn’t get out and catch wild fish on the abundance of lakes that hold them on the Kenai, then as far as I was concerned we didn’t need to be fishing. No matter, my partner was up for the two- to three-mile snowshoeing trips into areas that hold not just natural-run fish but a chance at really big natural-run fish. 

As in all ice fishing, unfamiliar areas must be explored and that means a lot of hole drilling for me. But if one is persistent, you will find the fish. North shores off points or north-shore flats seem to be the most consistent areas that produce fish and so it was with our derby efforts. We located on a remote lake and began our efforts in relatively (10-foot) shallow water and worked out from there. On this day the rainbows were holding deeper and it wasn’t until she moved out to a hole that was over 30 feet of water that my partner hooked and landed a beautiful 19-inch rainbow. The difference in appearance between these natural fish and stockers is remarkable. They are a dark bronze backdrop with deep reds and oranges that really cannot be described; you have to see them right out of the water to appreciate how strikingly beautiful these fish are. 

The sequence was repeated with char on a different lake, a nice 15-inch fish to complete the flush and a first for the (at the time) 12-year history of the derby. Of course now it is an annual event that I must be prepared for. Mostly meaning drilling a lot of holes prior to the derby so I am in good hole-drilling shape when it arrives. 

The derby is really more about getting out and enjoying the Alaska winters at a time when many housebound themselves. We have come to regard this time of year as second only to the fall bird hunting season. The ice fishing season for us does not end at the conclusion of the derby on February 28. In fact, if anything, the derby is a warm-up for March and April, when the ice fishing in Southcentral is absolutely fabulous. But that’s another story for another time. 

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Because he refuses to sit in the shanty, and instead drills lots of holes, Steve Meyer regularly catches more and bigger fish than his now rather famous ice-fishing partner.