In the West, most fishing is done between April and November. For most of us, this means the rest of the year is reserved for drinking beer and enjoying the great indoors. But before cracking that first cold one, consider replacing that icy beer with icy fish, as hardwater shouldn’t be overlooked.
Even if chasing perch and walleyes isn’t your thing, the big trout you were pursuing all summer in the alpine are still living there. Grab your skis or rent a pair of snowshoes for cheap and hit that trail you were laying rubber on a few months prior. Your efforts chasing ‘em will certainly be rewarded, as you’ll realize that the fishing may be better in February than in June.
One thing to consider is the amount of gear required for ice fishing compared to fly fishing or conventional fishing. You will need to consider how you're going to carve a hole out of ice potentially over a foot thick. The best tool for the job is a hand auger, although I have gone a little more hick in the past and gotten away with a hammer and screwdriver. If you choose to use these alternative tools, expect to spend a good half-an-hour or so making your hole — also giving plenty of time for scared fish to leave for another part of the lake. Make sure to bring the supplies necessary to spend a night out there if you have to. You’re taking a huge risk if you think it’s okay to travel into the mountains of the West unprepared for its worst. It's rare for absolutely everything to go to plan while heading into the hills.
I’ve found that a sled is the best way to pack in gear. Any sled will do, but the best would be one made with high walls and a thicker base made specifically for hauling through the snow. Having a small plastic sled will make the experience exponentially more enjoyable, and also allows you to head much further up the trail. Your sled can haul your auger along with any other gear you bring such as your poles, tackle, shelter, food and survival equipment.
Once you arrive at the lake you should consider drilling at one of the spots that produced fish for you that summer. Points, inlets, outlets, rock piles and any other traditional alpine trout habitat will suffice. Understand that you don’t need to be a ninja on the ice. Your noise will most likely not affect the fishing much. My favorite way to rig up is quite common here in Montana and will apply to almost any lake in the West. Tie a micro jig directly to the mainline and tip it with a piece of fresh maggot. Don’t put a large maggot on your jig as you’ll miss hooking into plenty of fish that just nibble on the maggot’s tail. Drop your jig to the lake bottom and bring it a couple of feet up. Continue to bring it closer to the surface a couple of feet every few minutes to gauge where the fish are schooling up. When jigging, use any cadence you desire. I’ve caught them stationary and with constant action. It really just depends on what the fish want that day.
Along with the feeling of being in the woods, a limit of red-fleshed alpine trout will be a hit at dinner that night. Once you fry up a couple and smoke the rest, you’ll be wanting to get back in the hills to chase trout again soon. Your sense of appreciation for the outdoors is sure to deepen, but the hole in your wallet will as well as you blow your paycheck on ice fishing gear. Enjoy your new obsession and apologize to your significant other for me.