All about the art of ice fishing.
Thanks in large part to a certain feature film, fly fishing has anchored itself into a recessed part of the American narrative as something that all “outdoors” people in southwest Montana do or aspire to do. This is, for the most part, fine. If one is looking for a true angling experience, however, it lies no farther away than a hole in the ice.
Some of the earliest documentation of ice fishing comes from observations of native peoples in the Great Lakes region using a carved “decoy” of mussel shell and wood. Dangling or “jigging” this decoy would entice large predatory fish to the area to investigate. Once in range, these unsuspecting fish would be speared and hauled in using a hand-line.
Despite its historic significance, ice fishing has been relegated to the bench of the fishing world. Ice anglers are a fishing subculture, even among the widest ranging and tactically diverse fisher-folk. The sport has its own rules, its own language, and if observed from afar, it appears that it should also have a clinical psychological diagnosis and corresponding medication. Ice fishing is, if nothing else, honest—a way to access in winter those fishing areas that are only accessible by boat during warmer months.
Those who regard themselves as fishing “purists” are the first to point out that ice fishing is, like so many other truly American pastimes, a bit tacky. Ice anglers use, gasp, bait: worms, scented marshmallows, maggots, leeches—even chunks of cut-up sucker to trick their Piscean quarry. Even modern ice fishing, with its full range of high-end gear, including portable shanties, ATVs, snow-machines, power augers, propane heaters, satellite TVs, submersible cameras, and military-grade sonar fish-finding devices, tends to be scoffed at, and sometimes ridiculed.
Maybe that’s why it has an almost cult appeal. It can be as simple or as complex as an angler desires. There are certainly no lift lines on a frozen lake, and the chances of your secret spot being hashtagged or posted on Facebook are nil. Ice-fishing fashion tends more toward the practical—if it’s warm it works—and enjoying your favorite beverage, grilling or cooking lunch, or even napping while simultaneously fishing, is encouraged. Ice fishing allows an angler the chance for deep personal reflection, if practiced in solitude, and if practiced with a friend or group of buddies, it calls for drinking. It’s a test of patience against the elements, against the fish, and maybe against one’s own notions of sanity.
As famed radio host Garrison Keillor notes, “Walking onto a frozen lake, cutting a hole in the ice, and fishing is an alternative to both therapy and divorce, and a way to experience transcendence.” So if you’re interested in experiencing transcendence this winter, and don’t value all your toes, visit fwp.mt.gov for more info about ice fishing in southwest Montana. Welcome to the cult.
Kurt Dehmer owns Durty Kurty’s Guide Service in Bozeman.