Once upon a time, I loathed the onset of winter. I hated being cold, as I already feel like I may be part lizard with my need for heat, and it signaled the hibernation phase for my outdoor activities. Ironically, I grew up in Utah where they have the “greatest snow on Earth” and everyone seemed to be out in the powder, so it’s not like frigid temperatures were alien to me. But, I still absolutely hated winter and counted the days until spring when I could get outside again.
And then I took over writing Fresh Air Fort Collins a little over a year and a half ago.
Boy, did that change some things in my life, and all for the better. There’s one promise that I made to myself when I took this blog on – I would try new outdoor activities at least once even if I was terrified or uncomfortable (including being cold). Solo camping? Did it and LOVE IT. Elk hunting? Hooked for life! Snowshoeing? Hell yeah, I’m out there every weekend we have snow! I no longer hate winter, and I’m thrilled when I see new snow level reports.
Having this open-to-adventure mindset has really made a huge impact in my personal life, but it doesn’t mean I’ll always love each activity I try.
And this is why I absolutely love that Colorado Parks and Wildlife hosts outreach education clinics to help people get out there and experience new things, providing knowledge and gear along the way. FOR FREE. It gives people a low-risk opportunity to see if they might like a new outdoor sport without the investment into gear and time. It helped me know that ice fishing may not be the thing for me.
Ice fishing was one of those winter activities that I wanted to try, but had the impression that it would be spendy with the need for augers and shelters, not to mention coupled a hefty fear of just walking out on the ice without knowing how to be careful about it. The last thing I want to write about is a first-hand experience of being rescued from an icy lake by the dive team. I’m not that open-minded to adventure.
I discovered the ice fishing clinic while writing up the Extra Mile newsletter, and from the social media updates from CPW (they do a great job with updates to keep people in the loop). These outreach events are paid for by the money brought in from hunting and fishing fees, and some of the gear is donated by outdoor sports stores, like Cabelas.
The ice fishing clinic was a two-part event, starting with a short presentation at CSU the night before on fish biology, fishing laws, equipment needed, etc, as well as providing time for questions.
Here’s the gear we went over:
- Rod – you can get a spring tip and rold holders if you want, but they’re not needed. And you can get a super cheap fishing rod from Walmart or the like.
- Jigs – essentially your fishing hooks. They make ice fishing jigs or you can get panfish jigs. Some people use lures and flies. These don’t have to be costly, and you don’t lose them like dry flies (I’ve lost so many flies fly fishing…).
- Ice scoop – to clear the ice bits from the hole that form over time
- Ice cleats – like your trail crampons
- Bucket – to keep your stuff in and sit on while waiting
- Ice picks – a must-have to pull yourself out should you fall through the ice
- Throw Bags – another rescue device should someone fall in
- Augers – manual and power options!
- Sled – because you need to haul your crap
- Shelter – which can vary in price and size
- Sonar – good on you if you can afford this
- Camera – another thing that only ice fishing geeks are going to get
A good number of these gear items aren’t totally necessary, like the sled, shelter, sonar, and camera. They sell kits where everything you really need fits into a bucket, and you’re good to go. It honestly costs about $100-150 to get the gear you need. If that.
After going over the gear list, we talked about the laws, like how it’s illegal to do any chumming, you can’t drill a hole bigger than 10 inches in diameter, and you can’t set up permanent shelters like they do in the Great Lakes area. Everything you need to know about laws and regulations are in the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Fishing Brochure.
Ice safety was something I was particularly interested in, since I’m the kind of person who would rather walk around a lake than over it.
We covered the fact that there are going to be cracks in the ice and sounds happening as the ice shifts, and those aren’t really risk assessment metrics. They’re going to happen regardless of the thickness of the ice, which is the most important safety measure, along with the distinction of clear ice vs gray ice (clear ice = good, grey ice = bad). Find some clear ice that’s thicker than 4 inches and you have your ice fishing spot! Again, CPW has this all covered on their website, along with details on how to perform a self-rescue with ice picks, or assist in a rescue with a throw bag should you need to do that.
So, now that you know the safety precautions and the gear that you need, what about finding the fish? It’s a little different than fly fishing where you can see the fish swimming around and jumping.
Lake survey results and the Colorado Fishing Atlas are available to the public on CPW’s site, and all for free. This data will help you learn what species of fish are in a particular spot, which will then help you determine the type of bait (or fly) that you might need to use. They also have stock reports so you can find the dumb fish for easy fishing – although you’ll know it after the fact as you can’t go chasing the stocking trucks. Most of the trout that are stocked are fished out within 10 days, which I thought was an interesting factoid to hear.
They don’t have lake topographic maps available for the public, but it’s something they are working on in the future. However, there are sites and apps that out there to help, like Fishidy (I haven’t used it, but it looks cool and helpful).
The next morning we headed out to West Lake in Red Feather Lakes to put our new knowledge to the test. All of the gear was provided for us (which consisted of poles and mealworm bait). There were Boy Scout troops there earning badges, families whom had never tried this out before, couples sharing a new fun experience together, and the CSU American Fisheries Society there helping out with gutting the catches people wanted to keep (to the legal 4 fish limit, anyway) and showing people how to drill the holes with the different augers.
And then the fishing happened. Well, for just about everyone. Ice fishing is just bait fishing in the cold, and boy did it get windy out on the lake. It’s a sit and wait, be patient, and make some adjustments every now and then kind of sport, and maybe do some pushups to get your blood flowing and body warm again. There were catches happening all around, kids excitedly holding up a trout they just pulled out only for it to flop back into the ice hole (I laughed because it was funny, and I can totally see my kids doing that too).
I got 4 nibbles and a bite that took the hook clean off the line. Story of my fishing life. I’m a terrible fisherwoman. But, it was still a good time regardless. I got a chance to try it out, learn how to do it, and decide that I’ll stick to more physically active sports. Which was the whole point of the clinic, and I appreciated the opportunity!