The water dripping off the eaves has thickened into crystal stalactites, and outside my window snowflakes swirl before settling into a fine dust on the frozen ground — a sign that winter, with its slower pace, is still upon us. And, like everyone else in Alaska, I want to make the most of it. Yet, having always been one of those people that lives to fish (and by fishing I mean in flowing water) I have to admit — despite having all the ice fishing paraphernalia — that hovering over a frozen hole has never really been my favorite outdoor activity. Perhaps it’s the fly fisher in me. I’m a fly fishing devotee precisely because it is so proactive: constantly moving, seeking out where fish might be hiding, gauging which food source they are homing in on, hoping to lay down the perfect cast, and if not, at least working on it.
With ice fishing, though, once you are set up and at it, the wait is on. Nevertheless, on a recent weekend I met up with my friend Jim Quinn, an ice fishing fanatic, and most importantly someone I’ve always — since meeting him on the Al-Can nearly 30 years ago — liked to spend time with. That’s the important part, Jim reminded me, spending time with friends outdoors. That, he says, is what it’s all about. And I get that.
That’s why, on the very next weekend I headed out to join a large group, comprised of those new to the activity as well as many seasoned veterans of the sport. We all gathered last Sunday afternoon on Sport Lake for an event dubbed Ice Fishapalooza. It was sponsored by our local chapter of Trout Unlimited, with extra rods donated for use by the Kenai River Sportfishing Association. With unseasonably warm temperatures and a roaring fire, and with hot dogs and munchies provided by Trout Unlimited, being out on the ice was extremely comfortable. The event was also very well attended. Lisa Beranek, one of the organizers, estimated upwards of 50 people participated at different times throughout the afternoon.
“It really was a great day,” agreed Mark Wackler, a Kenai Peninsula Trout Unlimited board member who also helped organize the afternoon’s festivities. “The goal was to get people, including families, out there having fun, to help beginners learn the basics, and to hopefully spin that into fishing on their own.”
There were games, like a beanbag toss, for the kids, a lot of great food, including Dutch oven brownies, and of course a very convivial atmosphere — a party on the ice, with everyone in high spirits and having a fantastic time. I don’t know, if this is what ice fishing is all about, I may have to adjust my attitude. I think it might actually be an activity I’m beginning to become fond of, and one I now actually find myself looking forward to.
For those new to this type of angling, it’s best to hook up with someone who regularly ice fishes. They will have some good ideas about where to go and will have the requisite equipment, namely an ice auger. A hand auger is more work, but is lighter to carry and costs only about $50. A power auger, on the other hand, makes life much easier, especially on thick ice, but will run in the neighborhood of $300 or more. Ice fishing rods are relatively inexpensive, starting at about $40. Most ice fishers use a variety of jigs or bait such as salmon eggs, shrimp or herring.
That is really all that’s needed to get started. Of course, as ice anglers get more into the sport there is always room for expansion. My friend Jim, for example, carries an insulated bucket he can stash gear in, but that doubles as a cushioned seat when he doesn’t bring a folding chair along. There are also a wide variety of ice shelters — tents, really — that can quickly be assembled and equipped with a heater to provide a cozy fishing spot on windy and excessively cold days. There are even cameras that can be lowered for a peek beneath the ice.
Whether with just the basics or all the accoutrements, whether with just a few friends or at Ice Fishapalooza, ice fishing is a great excuse to get outside during the cold winter months. And having each member of the party bring a dish or beverage to pass and holding a potluck out on the ice is a great way for family and friends to gather and enjoy the outdoors. And there is even the possibility of an added bonus: that always wonderful and welcome taste of fresh fish in the middle of winter.
Dave Atcheson is the author of the guidebook Fishing Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula, and National Geographic’s Hidden Alaska, Bristol Bay and Beyond. His latest book, Dead Reckoning, Navigating a Life on the Last Frontier, Courting Tragedy on its High Seas is now available in hardcover, online, and as an audiobook. www.daveatcheson.com.
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