The ice is right.
Hardwater fishing has come a long way since the days of hacking holes with axes, lowering lead weights to check depth, and willow-branch rods. Nowadays there are specific ice-fishing rods, lures, shelters, electronics, and gas-powered augers. There aren’t many better places to give this a try than at trout-rich Hebgen Lake.
The regulations are a little different than thawed-water fishing: anglers are allowed two lines with two hooks per line and need only be within visual contact of the line (hello, pond hockey).
And to all the recent Californian transplants: Yes, ice fishing is real.
Who: Trout bums in need of a fix. Parents with bored kids. Those who don’t ski, climb, or snowmobile. Curious fans of Grumpy Old Men. And the frost-bitten, dedicated ice fishermen and women who’ve distilled this frigid pursuit to a science and hold it as a cherished pastime.
What: Vying for trout with short poles through 12-inch holes in frozen lakes. Equipment includes an auger for drilling holes, ice-fishing rods, tip-ups, lures (Swedish Pimples, Hali Sukkulas, various other jigs), bait (mealworms, nightcrawlers, maggots, etc.), a slush scooper, a five-gallon bucket for sitting and hauling gear, boots/bibs/parka, a six-pack or fifth of whiskey, an ice house if you’re fancy, an electronic fish and depth finder if you’re fancier, and an underwater camera if you’re the fanciest. A filet knife, cooking oil, pan, and camp stove if you’re hungry and confident.
When: Hebgen’s ice is usually thick enough (at least four inches is recommended) to support humans by mid-December, and usually remains safe through the end of March. But each year is different; call ahead to check conditions.
Where: Hebgen Lake is big but there are a few general hotspots. Terra Nova Cabins at Kirkwood Marina on US 287 is ground zero for Hebgen ice fishing. Anglers often only have to hike a few yards from the shore to start drilling. Other hotspots include the area around the dam and the narrows (where Grayling Arm joins the main body), or you can just drive along the north shore and look for the huddled groups of hardy anglers. If you don’t find fish, pick up and cut a hole elsewhere (keep in mind that ice conditions can be uneven across the lake).
Why: Because ice fishing is a healthy coping strategy. Because casting flies into the same four bits of open river gets old. Because the Park’s fishing season season doesn’t open until the third Saturday in May. Because it’s wintertime and the drinkin’s easy.