A Taste of Flathead’s Ice Fishing Culture

By Beacon Staff

More then 300 anglers, ranging in age from 1 to 80, showed up this past weekend for the 38th annual Smith Lake Ice Fishing Derby. A press release from John Fraley of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks contains a photo of a proud young boy standing with the weekend’s largest northern pike, a 4.24 pounder that is at least half as long as the boy is tall. The appropriate reaction is: “Whoa, that’s a little guy with a big fish.”

I have fished essentially since I could walk, but having spent most of my life in either the Livingston or Missoula areas, rivers have been my choice of water and fly fishing the preferred method. This whole lake phenomenon is still relatively new to me. I have done a little ice fishing in my life, but I’ve never been in a place where ice fishing derbies draw hundreds of people at a time.

So over Christmas break, although I was in Livingston, I set out on a frozen pond in search of fish and a better appreciation of the unique cultural phenomenon of lake regions known simply as ice fishing.

A.J. Wood with the winning fish, a 4.24-pound northern pike, at the 38th annual Smith Lake Ice Fishing Derby on Saturday. – photo courtesy of FWP

I needn’t get into details of how my friend Justin managed to form a hole in the ice without a good auger. All that needs to be said is he is in the construction business and is resourceful. He called me on Christmas morning and said, “I’ve already shot a rabbit and caught ten fish. What are you doing?” I was sleeping.

The next day I found myself staring into a little hole in the middle of a pond with my dad, Justin and another buddy, an Irishman named Sheamus who plays blues guitar. The fishing pole we used was made for ice fishing (and cost $5), so it was only about a foot and a half long. Though it had nothing to do with skill, we caught about 20 stocked cutthroats within the first half hour.

With ice fishing, you have to love the pursuit of fish enough to stand in below-freezing weather for hours in the hopes that a little cutthroat will tug on your line. I do. The heart of the experience for me over Christmas, however, was the social aspect, as it always has been. When sitting on a frozen pond in winter, chatting is a necessary distraction from the cold. That’s why you go with your family and friends.

Sheamus’s reflection in our ice fishing hole south of Livingston.

This is totally different than fly fishing, my foremost outdoor passion. Fly fishing is a decidedly solitary endeavor in which talking only distracts from both the means and the end. But ice fishing is built on socializing and, with my dad and buddies by my side, I think that’s a fine way to spend a winter day.