HlTTING THE PERFECT ice-out—the day everything
breaks up — is one of those impossible dreams.
Like winning the lottery. Obviously, someone wins,
but it's never you. Or me. Well, actually it
was me once. But short of camping on a lake
for a month, there's no way to guarantee that
you'll be there at the exact moment.
For one thing the breakup doesn't last even a
day. The ice gets rotten, looking like a grungy
Swiss cheese, and suddenly the wind shatters
and disperses it. A large lake can clear in
fifteen minutes. One minute maybe half the lake
is open water; minutes later the only ice left
is chunks blown against the shore.
And when the ice disappears around the inlet
stream at the head of the lake, it is the
magic fly fishing moment. Not just when
there's some open water. That's good
— sometimes great — fly fishing, but it's not
magic. Magic happens when any fool who can
flip a fly fifteen feet catches the biggest
trout in the lake, cast after cast.
It's not all luck. My friend Bernie Samuelson
proves that. I asked him once how many times
he's been on a lake exactly at ice-out. "Maybe
two times a season, out of forty trips trying
to hit it," he said. "Multiply two times ten
years trekking the high country."
Here's the entry from my 1995 fishing log for
my one perfect day (June 15th):
Bernie's premature trips to frozen lakes aren't
even exploration. They're more acts of nervousness.
He can't stand the anticipation (sort of like the
way aquatic insects, not really ready to hatch,
rise to the surface buoyed by internal gases).
Peter Giffen and I hiked up to check out
lower Dolus. The purpose was as much to exercise
the dogs as anything. For all we knew the lake
might still be frozen. When we got there the
lower half of it was open. No fish were rising,
even though there were clouds of midges in the
air, but this has always been a good lake for
numbers of trout.
Zeb got a nickname. My Rottweiler puppy jumped
from shore onto a floating slab of ice. As soon as
he hit it the slab exploded under him. His paws
slapped air with panicked paddling (the breed is
not known for its swimming ability). "Icebreaker,"
Peter kept calling him.
Peter waded out to a boulder at the outlet, found
back-casting room, and began retrieving a small
nymph. He started hooking fish —8-to 13-inch
rainbows and cutthroats—right away. He laughed,
stopping only to admire each trout before letting
Two hours later he left the open water to walk
up and check out the inlet stream. I was no more
than fifteen minutes behind him—as a matter of
fact, I saw him stop at the inlet, look out over
the ice, and keep going around the lake.
I was a hundred yards from the inlet when the
wind came up the lake. The ice started hissing,
a soft noise, and then it broke into small
chunks. The current of the little inlet stream,
Rock Creek, cleared out fifty yards of open water.
Trout were rolling all over the surface — not
jumping, but rolling.
I remembered what Bernie had told me, "If you
ever hit breakup, use a streamer."
"Cutthroats aren't really fish eaters," I had
"Just try it."
I waded through a bog to the mouth of the stream
and threw out a size-10 Green Plain Jane. The fly
didn't make it far — it never made it far. The
first fish was a 16-inch cutthroat. The next ones
were 14 inches, 20 inches (a rainbow), 17 inches,
15 inches, and 17 inches. There didn't seem to
be a single small trout at the inlet.
Dolus is right above Deer Lodge, a fairly easy two
and one-half mile hike and I've fished it five to
ten times a year for almost twenty years. The trout
in this lake run 10 to 12 inches on average. A 15-inch
fish is a bragging specimen. I get maybe one or two
that size a season. My best ever (before today)
was 17 inches.
There I was, hollering and waving to get Peter
to come back, and catching more big fish — big
for this lake—than I ever thought existed here.
I wondered how long it was going to last; and
where these trout have been hiding all these years.
Then I realized that they haven't been hiding.
They've just been spread out over a lot of water,
mixed in with a lot of quick, eager small trout.
Then, for a brief moment, they concentrate in one
spot, apparently with no small ones around to
compete for the fly.
For years he has kept detailed records of his
treks to hundreds of lakes. He doesn't go into
the mountains just to fish lakes. On every hike
well into the summer he's trying to hit ice-out.
Once he finds the first lake right at ice-out,
he can predict when other lakes will break up.
He is uncanny for the rest of the summer. He
has the sequence for breakups charted: if Dolus
Lake (in the Flint Creek Range) ices out on June
1, then Bass Lake (in the Bitterroot Range) will
clear two weeks later. It doesn't matter if these
lakes are in different mountain ranges, separated
by hundreds of miles, because the same winter
weather patterns usually affect the entire state
Last summer I went on fourteen hikes with Bernie
and his goat, Rufus — there were no trips to
frozen lakes. We had wonderful high-mountain
lake fishing twelve times. Bad spring weather
knocked us out two times. We caught more fish
in the early season than we did at midseason,
but the real reason for hunting ice-out was
that we caught big trout and grayling — trophy
specimens — on every single lake.
During the early season Bernie only fishes
lakes that have spring spawners — cutthroats,
goldens, and rainbows. Also, he only hikes to
lakes that have inlet streams. The inlet
streams may be too small for actual spawning.
They may even be temporary spring snowmelt.
Bernie doesn't care. He just wants fish
concentrated at an inlet.
There are three stages of ice-out:
1) Partial clearing — good to great fishing lasts a week
2) Breakup — almost always happens in the afternoon;
spectacular fishing (Bernie has never seen anything
else); lasts a few hours;
3) Post-breakup — good to great fishing; lasts up to a
The easiest way to understand early season
strategies is to study how fish act during
each phase of ice-out. ~ GL
To be continued, next time: THE PARTIALLY CLEARED LAKE