True Tales: Surf's Up

Finding a winter break on Quake Lake. 

Up early for the 100-mile drive to the “Between the Lakes” section of the Madison River, I sip coffee and look for wildlife. I see more elk than cars and before I know it, I’m at the head of Quake Lake. Quickly donning my gear and snowshoes, I roll over the guardrail like Ralphy’s kid brother in A Christmas Story.

Hiking upstream, I find a good spot, strap the snowshoes to my pack, and tie on a standard nymph rig. I get to work hitting seams and drop-offs. Gradually, I’m in a dream of sorts in gently falling snow. There’s no trying to meditate here; it comes naturally. Casting, mending, and navigating the river becomes a mindless exercise. If you’re a fisherman, you know what I mean.

The fish are where they should be and I’m able to work in a couple good ones. They are all vibrant and well-defined in color, plump, and appear to have never been hooked. There’s no sign of humanity from my current view and I pretend I’m the first man to ever catch a trout here.

Warm and comfortable in Gore-Tex, wool, and fleece, I pull a thermos and snacks from my pack and kick back. It’s amazing what a hot beverage and some food do for the soul. Feeling rested, I strap on my snowshoes and start back with an idea in mind. Where the river widens and slows into Quake Lake, I want to pitch some streamers off the ice shelf.

Concerned about the strength of the ice, I walk a few feet, jump up and down, walk a few feet, and jump up and down. There’s no settling or cracking, so I make my way to the edge to see how thick the ice is. It looks good; I tell myself I’ll be fine.

I tie on a streamer, work some line, let the fly sink, and then strip, strip, strip.  As my fly approaches the edge, a fish hammers it. I know it’s a good one as the line pulls deep. We fight for a few moments before I bring the buttery slab up and see he’s my best fish of the day. Landed and released, I take a few more steps down the ice shelf and repeat the process. As soon as the fly approaches the ice, it gets clobbered again. I remove the fly and set the second fish back in the water, realizing I’m on to something.

This great fun continues for 30 minutes, but then I hear a CRACK.

I’m now gently surfing on a Cadillac-sized piece of ice. Thoughts race through my mind. The water is deep. There is a slight current. I’m going to have to swim about 40 yards along the ice shelf or perhaps I could become trapped underneath it. This could be bad.

The ice is sinking fast so I thrust myself upstream and begin to swim. All seems okay, and then my leg kicks as I’m pulled under water—I forgot about the snowshoes.

The hinged bindings have the opposite effect of a scuba flipper. Instinctively I kick again, drawing myself further under. I’m panicked now, and try to leave my legs as limp as possible and use only my arms. The frigid water enters my collar, giving me a shock, but I make my way away from the shelf to safety. Wading in the water with snowshoes is difficult, so I have to crawl to shore, at which point I’m completely soaked. Thank goodness I had my wader belt sucked tight, or I might not have made it out alive.

Being wet and cold in a Montana winter is no joke, but my body warms on the hike back. I pull out a car mat to stand on and strip next to my Jeep, caring little about the likelihood of a passerby seeing a naked fisherman. I put on fresh clothes as my Jeep warms, and think, Ah, it’s the simple things in life, like fishing one of the most beautiful places in North America, not drowning after doing something dumb like standing on an ice shelf with snowshoes, and perhaps most of all, a towel and clean, dry clothes after taking a bath in Quake Lake in the middle of February.