How To Fish Stillwaters
March 21st, 2005

Stillwaters, lakes, ponds and reservoirs are the most underutilized fisheries in the North America. Why? Because the average fly fisher doesn't know how to fish them, or where to start. Stay tuned, you too can master stillwaters! ~ LadyFisher

Ice-Out Strategies

By Gary LaFontaine

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):

Dolus Lake:
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 it go.

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 replied.

"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.

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).

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 of Montana.

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 or more;

    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 month.

    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

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