Don’t try it around Seattle, unless we have a new ice age. But go east when temperatures plummet to try novel winter sport.
CHELAN COUNTY — I had been working my ice auger for 10 minutes, slowly grinding a round hole in the ice. Ten inches doesn’t sound very thick when you’re considering walking on a frozen lake, but when you’re boring a hole with an enormous hand-cranked drill, it takes patience.
I tapped the end of my auger on the bottom of the hole and it echoed with an eerie thump that resounded beneath my feet. A few more taps and the last half inch of ice broke lose. My hole gurgled and quickly filled with water like an oil well striking pay dirt.
I’d grown up hearing stern warnings about avoiding frozen ponds in the Northwest, yet here I was 200 yards from shore carving holes into a perfectly good frozen lake.
Try ice fishing
Fish Lake, near Lake Wenatchee, is a favorite ice-fishing destination and one of the closest to Seattle. You can buy tackle at Midway Village & Grocery, a mile south of Fish Lake (midwayvillagegrocery.com).
Other lakes that offer good ice fishing during cold winters include Sidley Lake, near Oroville (edenvalleyranch.net/leisure-activities/snow-sports/87-ice-fishing.html), and Banks Lake, in the Grand Coulee region (gcdvisitor.com/are-the-fish-biting).
• For safety, you need to have at least 4-5 inches of ice to venture out; ideally there should be more. Always check first with the locals or the nearest ranger.
• It’s a good idea to bring a chair or bucket for sitting, lots of warm layers (including good socks), and a sled for pulling your gear.
• Ice fishing requires a state fishing license. See wdfw.wa.gov/licensing.
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That’s because there was a bounty of hungry trout and perch swimming below, and a foot of ice and snow wasn’t going to stop me from turning some of them into dinner.
Not just faraway fishers
The sport of ice fishing has always had an exotic ring. It’s the kind of thing hardy folks do in places like Sweden, North Dakota or Lake Wobegon.
The Pacific Northwest isn’t typically known for long, sustained freezes that make it safe to ice fish, but it is possible at a handful of lakes east of the Cascades, as I was learning at Fish Lake, near Lake Wenatchee, about 40 minutes east of Stevens Pass.
While recent winters have been too warm to safely fish this classic destination, the deep freezes this winter have created thick ice that should last until March.
And while you could simply wait until spring to angle these same fish, dropping your line into an ice hole is bound to create yarns for years to come, simply because everything about the sport is so unusual.
Before stepping onto the ice, my group of 40 heard some basic safety instructions from local guide Jon Hagedorn, who organized the community outing through his nonprofit organization, Family Lines (familylines.org).
In the unlikely event that someone was to fall through, our insulated winter layers would keep us afloat for a short time. “You’ll want to do everything you can to flail and flounder and try to get on top of the ice,” he told us.
Others shouldn’t rush out to save someone because they might become another victim. Instead he had several throw lines we could toss to someone in need.
Thankfully his warnings were unnecessary. The ice was plenty thick and dozens of groups were already out on the lake.
Party on the ice
After a short orientation our group found our poles and tied on lures called Swedish Dimples, which looked like minnows.
We took turns using the auger to drill new holes, but we could also claim several abandoned holes. In fact, if you weren’t paying attention, the biggest danger was accidentally stepping into one of them.
Our group clustered around holes where lake water had soaked the top layer of snow, making a slushy soup. I instantly regretted wearing my hiking boots instead of rubber waders, but was thankful for my wool socks, which kept my feet toasty.
Once our lawn chairs, sleds and buckets were assembled for seating, our outposts became little islands where we could sit out of the slush and watch our lines in relative comfort.
It’s called fishing, not catching
Hagedorn told us perch like to hang out near the bottom, so after clearing our holes of slush, we dropped our lures until they hit the lake floor and then reeled them up about 10 feet. Every few minutes we would gently jig the line.
And that’s really all there is to it. Once you have a hole drilled, ice fishing is pretty simple. Some of the kids in our group were using miniature poles and Hagedorn said some people choose to fish with hand lines.
Once my line was in the water, I paused to enjoy a look around at the stark white lake and the snow-coated trees on shore. That’s when I had one of those blissful “I can’t believe I’m doing this” moments.
Sipping hot cocoa I noted the colorful dots of fishermen scattered across the wintry lake. It was a festive scene with groups playing music and laughing.
Earlier we’d heard stories about others catching their limit of 25 perch in the first hour, but our luck was poor and the fish were no longer biting.
It took an hour before anyone had a strike. Three-year-old Sadie, in a pink snowsuit, reeled in the first fish of the day. And while it was only an ugly little sculpin and not a keeper, you wouldn’t know it by the beaming smile on her face.
There’s something about fishing that brings families closer together, says Hagedorn. It’s what motivated him to start his nonprofit work to improve child-parent bonds.
“Shared experiences build relationships,” he says. “Sometimes when we struggle to find words to share, time on the water is a good starting point and can communicate volumes.”
While our group only pulled up nonkeepers, no one seemed to care that much. The whole experience of stepping onto the ice and trying something unusual made it worth the effort.
One of the dads in our group, Ron Niemi, grew up on a lakeside in Michigan where he frequently ice fished. It was his first time trying it in the Northwest. I asked how it compared.
“It’s warmer here,” he laughed.