Flathead Ice Fishing Draws a Devoted Crowd to the Lakes

By Beacon Staff

Ice fisherman Kevin Pettyjohn doesn’t try to glamorize his favorite winter pastime: “It’s the dumbest sport you’ll ever see. You come out on a frozen lake, sit down on a bucket and watch a pole. It’s, without a doubt, stupid.”

Yet, while some celebrated New Year’s day in the warmth of their homes Pettyjohn and his friends Gary Paddock and Gary Leffler joined about 20 hearty individuals on Foys Lake at first light, 5-gallon buckets and fishing poles in hand.

So what lures the trio out on frozen waters in below-zero temperatures? “Catching fish,” is the simple answer they give in unison. And, even on the worst day, “It beats working,” Paddock added.

Gary Leffler, left, watches as Gary Paddock pulls his fourth rainbow trout through a hole in the ice while ice fishing on Foys Lake.

For avid fishermen, ice fishing is a chance to feed their addiction, even when their favorite summer streams are frozen over. The Flathead Valley has plenty of spots where fishermen, drawn by the chance – however slight – of catching a fish, are regularly seen squatting on makeshift bucket-chairs or huddled in small, canvas huts. Every year ice fishermen gather at tournaments around the valley to compete for everything from the popular perch to trout, salmon and cutthroat.

And, unlike most other outdoor winter sports, ice fishing doesn’t require a lot of athletic ability, is easy to learn and is relatively inexpensive.

After drilling a small hole in the ice, either with a hand-driven or automatic auger, movement comes in short, infrequent bursts. A nibble sends the fisher scrambling to grab the pole and reel, and sometimes requires them to plunge their arm shoulder-deep in icy water to wrestle a fish out. Then it’s back to sitting, and waiting.

Garry Paddock uses a plastic scoop to remove ice debris from one of the fishing holes he monitors during a day of ice fishing on Foys Lake. Paddock caught his limit of five rainbow trout from the small hole in the ice.

Fishermen are quick to tell you there are tricks to increasing your catch – some anglers hold their maggots under their lip to keep them warm and writhing – but readily admit a large part of successful ice fishing is luck. Pettyjohn and Leffler pointed to the five rainbow trout piled near Paddock’s feet as proof. The three men were fishing holes just feet apart with similar lures, but whereas Paddock had five, Pettyjohn had one fish and Leffler had none on the day.

“One day on the Bitterroot we were sitting in a three-foot circle and they’re just getting madder and madder ‘cause I was the only one pulling fish out of the water,” Leffler said. “That’s just how it goes.”

That chance of success, even for the most inexperienced, and a low start-up cost makes ice fishing a good sport for families. Across the lake small children, made awkward and stiff by layers of winter clothing, could be seen peering in their fishing holes or playing in the snow. Rob Nimmick and his four sons, ages 4 to 12, stayed warm in two portable huts as they fished. After several hours, they had only one fish for the day, but Nimmick said that didn’t dampen his kids’ enthusiasm: “Keenan, my 4-year-old, is the most excited to get out here,” he said. “Every day, it’s ‘Dad, we’re going tomorrow, right? Dad, can we go?’”

Cody Seliger, left, and his cousin Michael Kingery fix the bait and bobber at one of their fishing holes on Foys Lake.

Like other outdoor sports, ice fishing gear has made advances. People can head to the lake equipped with heaters, GPS systems and canvas huts, which run about $120 each. But, for less than $100, beginning ice fishermen can be outfitted with an ice auger, a simple short rod and reel, a few inexpensive flies or jigs and a plastic scoop to skim ice from their fishing hole. Nature provides the cooler – caught fish are simply thrown on the snowy ice – and an added benefit: “I think the fish tastes better during the winter. They’re firmer and taste more fresh because they’re colder,” Leffler said.

A five-gallon bucket and plastic children’s sled complete the basics.

“Some people go all out,” Pettyjohn said. “I guess we’re a little more old school than that. It’s more about getting outside, fishing and hanging out with your buddies.”