Die-hards will tell you, ice fishing brings a unique excitement. There’s something about seeing the water through the ice, the freshness of the brisk air, the camaraderie with buddies and the challenge of pursuing fish that are not readily visible. Not to mention, many people claim fish taste better in the winter.
Yellowstone Country has four main ice fishing locations:
- Cooney State Park Reservoir, full of Walleye, Rainbow, Ling and Yellow Perch.
- Hebgen Lake holds Rainbow and Brown Trout.
- Quake Lake, formed by massive earthquake in 1959 is home to Rainbow and Brown Trout.
- Hyalite Reservoir is known for Cutthroat and Brook Trout along with Arctic Grayling.
There is also a section of river between Hebgen and Quake Lakes where people snow-shoe or cross-country ski to access some awesome fly fishing.
We asked two resident experts, Mandy Messman and Chris Swenson, about the appeal of ice fishing…their answers definitely piqued our interest.
How did you become interested in ice fishing?
MM: Well, I love to fish and the ice shelves on the rivers are often too big to safely get to fishable water in the winter. I’m a “once a winter” skier, so being outdoors and getting some sun on my face is tough in the cold and without a mission. I always saw people out on the ice and wondered if it would be fun, and then an old fishing buddy of mine bought some ice fishing gear and we started going. I loved it!
CS: Being from Minnesota, I’ve always been interested in ice fishing. Specifically in MT, I became interested when co-workers in Butte took me to Georgetown Lake fishing for Rainbow Trout and Salmon.
What's your favorite part?
MM: There is some real beauty to the desolation of winter. The leaves and grass are gone, firewood is harder to come by, the cold and wind can be brutal and wildlife is fairly scarce. The snow dampens sound, and with the temperature fluctuation in the morning and evening, the ice booms and pops and cracks through the silence as it tries to expand and contract. It’s magical…oh, and the catching fish part.
CS: Finding new spots on the lake that no one else fishes. And watching my slip bobber go down the hole when a fish is on the line.
Ice aside, what makes if different than warm weather fishing? What's the thrill?
MM: I go after different fish in the winter than I do in the summer— I spend all summer after trout on a fly rod or worms. In the winter, it turns to live bait, on treble hooks with steel leader. I somewhat forget about trout and go after Pike, Walleye, Perch and Ling. The water and fish are cold and healthy, and for the thrill, negative temperatures add the “survival in wintery conditions” factor.
CS: It’s different because it is so much work, specifically on Hebgen Lake— you need snowshoes just to get out onto the lake, plus hauling all of the gear like the auger, heater and ice fishing hut. The thrill is that the fishing is a lot better in the winter, especially if you can find a spot where no one else is fishing. It is addicting watching your slip bobber go down the hole when a fish bites.
Any tips for first timers?
MM: Yes, get up early and keep working, you won’t get cold if you are hiking, drilling and cleaning holes then setting and re-baiting lines! Sunup and sundown are the magical hours, so make some coffee, head out early and be patient. Also – sunscreen!
CS: Talk to other fisherman on the lake. Basic gear needed is power auger, ice fishing poles, and sled to pull it in.
If you decide to give ice fishing a try, we recommend talking to a local outfitter for recommendations and ice conditions. Keep in mind these safety tips:
New ice is generally stronger than old ice.
Ice is usually not uniform. Don’t assume it will hold up the same in different parts of the lake.
Flowing water and currents under the ice can be dangerous.
Cracking and booming sounds doesn’t necessarily mean the ice is dangerous, it’s just the ice expanding and cracking.
Be prepared for inclement weather; bring plenty of clothing, fire starting materials, food and water.
We suggest giving it a try…as they say, “A bad day of fishing is better than a good day at the office!”