Ice Frontiers on the Fringe
December 31, 2019
The southern edge of the ice belt generally runs from Pennsylvania down and across the southern edge of Nebraska and up through Idaho to Washington. The cold belt extends about 200 miles south of that imaginary line crossing Indiana, Kansas, Colorado, Utah, and parts of northern Nevada and California. Higher elevation areas as far south as Bluewater Lake in New Mexico and some Sierra lakes in California push the southern limits of ice fishing most winters.
Like any frontier, the cold belt is not the land of fancy lodges and established ice roads. Most areas don’t allow vehicles or permanent shelters on the ice so pack light and prepare to walk. A spud bar is necessary most of the winter. You share your hotel with skiers, moose watchers, and businessmen that stare when you walk in with a Vexilar. Professional guides might be non-existent so bring your own equipment.
Don’t plan a trip for March. Unless the lake is high altitude (over 8,500 feet), fishable ice generally shows up over the holiday break and deteriorates at some point in February. One advantage is that 20°F is a cold day, so bibs and a sweatshirt might be all you need with a heavier jacket only for early morning or the walk out in the dark. A shelter exists more for sunscreen than protection from the cold.
Recently, the number of ice anglers in these fringe areas has swelled to the point where short seasons have nothing against devotion and ingenuity. Introduced by watching videos, lured by articles, and unaware of traditions, the growth of the sport relies on these new anglers to swell the call.
Fueling the Boom
Obtaining an ice auger in the cold belt used to be challenging. The population of serious ice anglers in these areas was so small that stores couldn’t always afford to stock high-dollar items for lakes that might not freeze that year. If they did, it was one model from one manufacturer. Eventually mail-order and then online options created a market, but the prohibitive cost of shipping a 20-pound auger and a 100-pound shelter slowed growth in the early 2000s.
People now take it for granted, but New Mexico didn’t have a large sporting goods store until Sportsman’s Warehouse opened in 2004. Cabela’s raced to expand west, opening their first Utah store in 2005, Denver in 2013, and Albuquerque in 2017. Somewhere in that growth, the idea of “ship to store” changed ice fishing in the cold belt. With a nearly infinite online catalog of rapidly improving ice-fishing gear and no shipping charges, the market flooded and the sport boomed.
Some companies were more effective at pushing their gear West than others. In many cases, one or two key anglers drove to Minnesota and brought back a shelter or auger. When ready to buy gear themselves, friends trusted gear they had seen in person versus going with another company. Early on, Colorado reservoirs were dominated by Shapell X2000 models. Eventually, Sportsman’s Warehouse brought Eskimo to the area. Clam’s pro staff system has led recently into southern Iowa and Washington. StrikeMaster had an early deal with Walmart so it was first to many of the Western markets. By 2010, most of the larger stores had one or two augers in stock, now they stock three or four models from an equal number of companies. Ice suits and ice-specific clothing remain absent.
Along with gear, ice-fishing knowledge also exploded. To learn about the sport in 2005, DVDs or books from the library were still common. The In-Fisherman classic book, Ice Fishing Secrets, had only been published a few years earlier in 1998. Magazine articles covered details but these were probably not distributed south of the Dakotas and rarely covered stocked trout, kokanee, or other western species. By 2010, tech-friendly anglers were regularly videoing their trips and showing where, when, and how they caught fish.
New Anglers in Big Groups
The cold belt crosses squarely between Des Moines, Iowa, and Kansas City, Missouri, and the ice-fishing boom met up with Clarinda, Iowa, resident Eric Gross in 2006. “I went ice fishing for the first time, caught a 5-inch bluegill, and was hooked,” he says. “During the summer, boats crowded together on the local 400- to 600-acre lakes but the ice was empty in the winter. Now Gross runs the 10,000-plus member Passion4Panfish Facebook page that ties together avid bluegill and crappie anglers across the country, and while the ice is not a place for solitude now, the change is welcome. “Running a boat in a crowd is different than ice fishing in a group,” he says.
“Most anglers from Des Moines head north to Clear Lake or Okoboji, but for our annual Passion4Panfish get-together, they drive west and south to Lake Anita or Viking,” Gross says. It’s a unique event as people who connect on Facebook on a weekly basis meet in person.
I attended the meeting in 2018 at Lake Anita and saw what happens when anglers start the sport in 2018. First, electric drills and auger plates outnumbered gas 5:1 and most shelters were the lightest versions for easy walking. The ice was over a foot thick and many of the people were on the move trusting a second battery to keep them drilling throughout the day.
The second example of subtle changes for growth of the sport along the Cold Belt is that multiple people had removed a sonar from their boat and either purchased a travel pack or rigged up a battery and transducer system. Dedicated Vexilar flashers still dotted some holes, but with an 8-week season, having a dual-purpose Lowrance or Humminbird system with GPS generates clear economic value. Many anglers had rod cases full of two or three setups, most with in-line reels ready to deploy for different purposes.
Don’t count these anglers out for being green, because new perspectives have their advantages. Blair, Nebraska, native Frank Wilkins developed the Ice Well Live Well, a nifty design that transfers fish from an extra hole in the ice to a classic 5-gallon bucket. Laz Castillo, with Uproot Baits, Lee Sharp with Brushpile Jigs, and Nic Haakenson with Slayer custom jigs have all started online hand-pour jig-and-plastic companies south of the ice belt in the past few years. Driven by easy marketing on Facebook and online stores, these efforts fill a niche while driving a trend toward bait-free panfishing.
Lake Anita doesn’t see anglers every day, and even some weekends go by without a hole being drilled. This results in uneducated fish, but you have to find them. The year before, the crappie bite had been excellent up the south creek arm in 16 feet of water, but last year people fished the area in early January without much success. Instead of declaring the lake “dead,” the Passion4Panfish group meeting also existed to help locate the crappies.
The rare fish here and there doesn’t fuel a sport’s growth, and beginner anglers struggle without leadership. Newcomers to the sport working alone would have packed up and left, but a group of 40 anglers working together, communicating, and spreading out eventually found crappies and bluegills in fish cribs, on deep points, and suspended in the deeper basin (plus a hot evening bite for bluegills on a roadbed).
More importantly for the sport, the area is now pulling in anglers from farther south. Last season, Kansas City and the rest of Missouri were locked in non-fishable (and non-boatable) ice for much of February and into March. Suddenly that two-hour drive north for a solid foot of ice seemed more appealing than towing a boat three hours south to Arkansas or Oklahoma.
The 637-acre Lake Wanahoo sits between Lincoln and Omaha. It filled in 2011 and opened to the public in 2014. A huge grove of timber was left standing, making boating interesting, but offering great habitat for exploring on ice. The new-lake panfish boom has hit the past few years and guide Dean Thielan has been there since day one. “Nebraska has a strong ice-fishing culture that has grown tremendously in the past 5 to 10 years. Technology and gear have made it easy and comfortable to be on the ice. Plus, the fishing has been excellent in eastern Nebraska.”
Omaha-area Prairie Queen recreation area opened in 2015, a mile south of Cabela’s on I-80. This new lake utilizes multiple design features to improve fish habitat including manmade underwater rockpiles, culvert tubes, and bottom structure. All of these areas are GPS-marked on a downloadable state-provided topo map. Across the highway is Wehrspann Lake, another Omaha ice attraction that provides easy access with good fishing. For both lakes, conservative rules on bait use and fish harvest have paid off with high numbers of panfish that help fuel the growth of ice fishing in the area.
New ice anglers learn quickly that keeping an auger, a Vexilar, and a few rods in the car means every drive home after work can include a short trip to the lake for a few fish. Timing work hours to coincide with evening bite takes foresight, but Omaha has so many small lakes like Glen Cunningham, Youngman, Walnut Creek, and Zorinsky that make it a fantastic metro area for ice anglers.
The 2001 Rifle Rap Ice Fishing Tournament was a turning point in Colorado ice fishing. Nathan Zelinsky had been guiding in Minnesota but returned to Colorado with an Aqua-Vu camera and Marcum flasher and used both during the event. No one else in the 300-person field had any electronics.
A reporter noticed the difference and wrote an article for the Glenwood Springs newspaper. The focus for the work was the fairness of the electronics (both for the derby and for the sport in general). Zelinsky says, “It was a valid question back then. I also remember that most anglers had home-made ice rods utilizing the tip section of a broken summer rod glued to a reel seat. With the obvious experience and gear gap in the sport, I started focusing my efforts toward promoting ice fishing in Colorado.”
Ice fishing was still under-the-radar until 2008 when the financial downturn tightened recreation budgets and pushed people off the ski slopes. With lift ticket prices over $100 a day (they’ve since doubled) something had to give. In the years that followed, the iconic Georgetown Lake along I-70 west of Denver went from occasional fishermen to having a town of shelters every weekend.
The new rush of anglers turned to Zelinsky, whose Tightline Outdoors Guide Service started a weekend ice school a few years later. With four hours of classroom instruction as well as a four-hour on-the-ice guided trip, the trend was, “If you are from Minnesota you learn to ice fish from your parents, if you are from Colorado you learn to ice fish from Nathan Zelinsky.”
These ice schools for walleye, pike, kokanee, smallmouth bass, and rainbow trout led to growth in the sport. Zelinsky’s next step was to develop the Ice Addiction tournament series. This pre-drilled-hole set of derbies is nowhere near the size of the Jaycees Ice Fishing Extravaganza near Brainerd, Minnesota, but with an average of 700 people in each event last year, it furthered the maturity of the scene and showcased waters like Chatfield, Boyd Lake, Stagecoach, Wellington Lake, Grand Lake, and Blue Mesa.
When the Ice Addiction series added a Utah event in 2016, they ran into a similar ice culture-in-hiding. Another Tightline guide, Will Dykstra, explains: “We arrived a month before the event to start planning and promotions. On a Thursday morning at Deer Creek reservoir just outside of Salt Lake City, there was no parking left. The lake was full of stocked trout and obviously the anglers in the area were doing well. Our first Ice Addiction tournament in Utah attracted 150 entrants, but the next year the number grew to over 650.”
“Will would not have seen so many cars at the lake a decade ago,” says Utah local and Bass Pro Shops pro Jake Hammer. “When we compared notes, the Utah and Colorado stories were similar. Both had seen incredible growth since about 2008. The ability to buy reliable gear plus find information on the bite online snowballed the sport into the mainstream.” Strawberry Reservoir at 6,500-foot elevation and Jordanelle Reservoir at 6,300 feet have the most consistent season. Fish Lake in southern Utah has a great fishery for numbers of perch and occasional lake trout. Deer Creek Reservoir and Utah Lake freeze some winters and are closer to Salt Lake City.
More anglers means more licenses sold, more fish stocked, and improved winter facilities. Of course, the occasional filled-up parking lot and sharing a fishing spot with others happens as well but that beats chasing the fish alone.
Tourists benefit as well. Someone coming to ski at Park City, Utah, Winter Park, Colorado, or Angel Fire, New Mexico can now rely on local guides to provide gear and information for a fantastic day on the ice. Anglers see articles and advertisements on the ski-area pages as the resorts try to bring in a more diverse group of travelers. Serious anglers heading west for specific bites like Flaming Gorge, Utah, or Cascade, Idaho, find amenities like fishing-specific lodging, spare parts, bait, and tackle in areas where none existed a decade ago.
Deep within New Mexico’s Sangre de Cristo mountains lies Eagle Nest Lake State Park, one of the farthest south ice-fishing destinations in the country (technically Bluewater Lake west of Albuquerque has a lower latitude). Hardcore anglers have always flocked to this area for trout and salmon but recently the numbers of overall anglers has increased.
Eric Frey of the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish was one of those early anglers on the ice. “In the 1970s, we used chain saws and digging bars to cut a hole. By the 1990s, I was living in Raton and we mail-ordered a hand-crank auger which was a huge improvement. Now, I live in Santa Fe, and a short drive to Cabela’s or Sportsman’s Warehouse puts me in front of all the latest gear.”
The arrival of perch at Eagle Nest made it easier for a novice angler to show up with some decent equipment and catch a few fish. “The real sign of change is the families,” Frey says. “Groups of people spending hours on the ice catching fish makes for a fantastic day.” All of the hurdles (gear, clothing, access, guides, information, and fish) have been lowered in the past decade increasing the numbers of people who have participated at least once, and then the overall numbers of enthusiasts who come back day after day.
The other change has been the length of the ice season. Frey says that when he started, the season was from mid-December to March but that has generally shortened to three to six weeks centered in January. In some ways, this compresses the activity, making the ice season less of a drawn-out affair, but will eventually reach a limit in participation. Only time will tell if these hot spots have become too hot.
The Far West
Most people think the recent coverage of perch fishing at Lake Cascade in Idaho as the Far West, but six hours further lies Spokane, Washington, a true frontier for ice fishing. “Anglers accustomed to trout and steelhead don’t easily switch to panfish, let alone ice fishing,” says local Clam pro Eric Magnuson. “I had a boat that wasn’t big enough to run the western Washington rivers in the winter and was tired of driving farther west to shore-fish winter salmon runs that were diminishing anyways.” He initially waded through the issues of closed lakes and a complete lack of gear to pioneer the scene.
“Over a decade ago I mined the TV listings for television shows on ice fishing,” he says. “Snow machines and fishing shacks captured my imagination. A Clam catalog on my doorstep finally answered some of the gear details. I met old timers on the ice who brought me up to speed. Some of those true pioneers are gone now and would have loved to have a few extra people sharing the experience.” Some areas attract larger crowds, but even now he only sees one or two other people in most places and generally feels like he has the area to himself.
“The coverage of Lake Cascade perch has helped fuel the fire,” Magnuson says. “Anglers have started to drive north from the Washington tri-cities area to ice fish around Spokane, when not committing to the longer (5.5-hour) drive to Cascade. I can only do so much, but introducing an adult, and especially a family, to a sport that took so much for me to learn is a real kick.” To validate these claims, two Facebook groups cover the area (Washington Ice Fishing and Eastern Washington Ice Fishing) and combined they have less than 1,000 members.
Don’t underestimate the challenge of putting together a bite in new environs. People struggle with the trees at Lake Wanahoo and even small reservoirs take time to decipher. Community spots don’t exist. Online forums and local guides are still rare in some places. The additional challenge of putting together lodging, access, and even researching ice conditions sweetens the thrill. None of the fisheries in this article pump out big fish or promise exceptional catching, but the experience is real and unique.
The newest gear being applied to new bodies of water and new bites equals the frontier of the sport. Driving south in search of adventure has its rewards with warmer weather and less fishing pressure, but don’t expect to have the best spots to yourself much longer.
*David Harrison, Lawrence, Kansas, is a frequent contributor to In-Fisherman publications.
Cold Belt Ice Options
|Southwest Iowa ||Lake Anita (panfish), Viking Lake (panfish) |
|Western Nebraska ||Lake Wanahoo (panfish, pike), |
Metro Omaha (panfish)
|Colorado ||Chatfield Reservoir & Boyd Lake (Ice Addiction Tournaments, walleye, perch, rainbow trout), Blue Mesa Reservoir (rainbow trout, kokanee, lake trout), Wellington Lake (rainbow trout) |
|New Mexico ||Eagle’s Nest Reservoir (perch, kokanee, trout, pike), Bluewater Reservoir (rainbow trout, tiger muskie) |
|Utah ||Fish Lake (perch, lake trout), Strawberry Reservoir (cutthroat trout), Jordanelle (rainbow trout), Flaming Gorge (lake trout, burbot) |
|Washington ||Curlew Lake (perch, rainbow trout, muskie), Eloika Lake (panfish), Moses Reservoir (panfish, walleye) |
Frank Wilkins, Ice Well Live Well, icewelllivewell.com
Laz Castillo, Uproot Baits (Facebook)
Lee Sharp, BrushPile Jigs, brushpilejig.com
Nic Haakenson, Slayer Custom Jigs, slayercustomjigs.com
Dean Thielen, DAB Fishing Guide Service, 402/981-0951, dabfishing.com
Nathan Zelinsky, Tightline Outdoors, 785/775-7770, tightlineoutdoors.com
Justin Harding, Utah Ice Fishing, 801/376-0626, utahicefishing.com