Freeze frame 

Ice fishing a Montana lake snags memories–and trout–in a flash

The year is 1978 and the ancient woodstove crackles away in my old ghost town cabin while day fades softly to twilight. Deep snow almost buries the tiny abode in late winter as my comrades and I, all in our 20s, dig through ice-fishing supplies in preparation for a nighttime pilgrimage to Georgetown Lake. The goal is simple, and there are few secrets to winter fishing on the lake. Use a hand auger to cut holes in the thick ice and drop down tiny hooks that glow when exposed to light. Baited with canned corn and maggots, the thin monofilament line attaches to the tiniest of bobbers so we can detect the most delicate bites of fat brook trout, shining silver salmon, and iridescent rainbow trout.

Knowing there are some very large fish in these dark depths, we double- check the knots and sharpen our hooks so the big ones don't get away. Then we load all our gear into an old pickup and head for the lake, hoping, if the fish gods are with us, that we'll bring back a bucket of beauties to feed ourselves and our friends. And maybe, just maybe, if the orange-fleshed silver salmon are really biting, there'll be enough to can with barbecue sauce, jalapeño peppers, garlic and onions to make the much loved "belly burners."

click to enlarge CHAD HARDER

Winter nights are cold in Montana at 7,000 feet, but we're a lucky group of ice fishermen. Swathed in the best mountaineering gear of the 1970s, courtesy of the sponsors of our recent Alaskan climbing expeditions, our outerwear includes thick Polarguard parkas with fur ruffs on the hoods and bright orange expedition pants that zip into half-bags for high-altitude bivouacs. A specially modified North Face tent with a half-moon zippered hole in the bottom allows two people to sit in cozy, windproof comfort while hauling up fish from the deep.

click to enlarge CHAD HARDER

Toss in a Coleman lantern for light, warmth and lighting up the glow hooks, and a night on the frozen, wind-swept lake suddenly seems downright comfy. So comfy, in fact, that it's not unusual for us to occasionally toss in sleeping bags and pads and spend the entire night on the ice in silence, solitude and beauty. Sometimes we even bring a small camp stove and frying pan to cook the wriggling catch as soon it comes up through the holes.

Jump forward now more than 30 years—to 2009. The old cabin still stands, although most of the rest of the ghost town has been bulldozed into oblivion. The young visitors who frequent the cabin these days call it the Wayback Machine, because it's filled with photos, vinyl records and various regalia from about the time they were born.

Here, next to the same old woodstove, still crackling merrily, I am now the old ice fisherman, peering through reading glasses and showing the ropes to my two younger friends. New line is wound onto classic old rods whose handles are made from the antlers of long-dead deer. Our new, high-tech models go through the pre-fishing ritual, too, as glow hooks are carefully attached and knots tested. Even the blade of the old ice auger gets a gentle tune-up to remove any rust and ensure it'll cut through the thick spring ice now covering the lake.

Amazingly, and as a testament to the longevity of good equipment, the same old expedition parka and pants are once again heading for a night of ice fishing on Georgetown Lake. Likewise, the patched but still functional North Face Oval Intention tent is going, just in case the night turns bitter cold or the winds begin to howl. How many fish has that old tent seen come through the ice? Hard to say for sure, but hundreds wouldn't be out of the question—which probably contributes to the decidedly funky smell the nylon has taken on over the ensuing decades. But, hey, the last thing ice fishermen worry about is smelling like fish.

Gone are the old pickups in favor of the ubiquitous Subaru station wagons. Gone, too, is the old gas-fired Coleman lantern. Nowadays, through the wonder of light-emitting diodes, tiny, super-lightweight headlamps shine brightly and burn through the night on small batteries.

"The boys" and I load up and head down to the lake to see if, more than a quarter century later, the night-bite on Georgetown is still happening.

We arrive as dusk falls, leaving the snow-capped peaks of the Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness shining in alpenglow. Due to a recent warm spell, thick, mushy snow covers the frozen lake, leaving our deep footprints filling with meltwater behind us. We intended to locate a once-secret underwater spring hundreds of yards out from shore, but trudging through the heavy snow soon convinces us that maybe we ought to forget the old spring and try our hand at the numerous upwellings closer in. And besides, the landmarks that were once used to triangulate the hidden spring—ancient dead trees, for the most part—have disappeared, fallen victims to the passage of time.

There are other changes, too. Unlike days of yore, before the advent of the power auger, the lake now looks like Swiss cheese from all the holes drilled in the ice. We have the old hand auger, of course, but we really don't need it; there are freshly-used holes everywhere we look. Nonetheless, my friend John Adams, being young and strong, and perhaps motivated by the tradition of it all, decides to hand drill yet another hole.


After he laboriously chews his way through nearly two feet of ice, a friendly local fisherman and his son, the last two people on the lake, wander over to offer to drill holes for us with their power auger. They're done fishing for the day and have had good luck using hand-tied nymphs in the shallow waters above the dozens of springs that boil up near the shore, providing oxygen and an abundance of food for winter-hungry trout. Things being what they are among the brotherhood of ice anglers, they willingly offer us some of their flies in hopes that we, too, might walk off the lake with a bucketful of trout.

But we are here for night fishing—and for fishing at night, glow hooks are hard to beat. Their tiny gleam, deep in the dark water, draws the eye of the trout and then the tasty corn and maggots on the hook give the fish a meal. If we're quick, we'll get a meal, too.

The night is calm and mild, so there's no real need to put up the old tent for shelter. That said, it seems a shame to drag it out onto the lake and not let the faithful old domicile grace the ice once more with its beautiful geometric curves. The fishing is slow, to put it mildly, so a little time spent putting up the tent instead of staring at an unmoving bobber is no big deal.

Our ace photographer for the trip decides to light up the tent from the inside with his powerful commercial flash, and conscripts me for the job. On the count of three, I pop the flash, he hits the shutter button on his digital camera, and if all works like it's supposed to, we get a great picture of a glowing yellow tent against the natural backdrop of the night.

After a couple shots, I decide to put my glow hooks under the flash and see what happens. Well, what happens is that the faintly glowing hooks charge up and suddenly look as if they're running on 120 volts. They are bright—brighter than any I've ever seen—and I can't wait to drop them down the hole and see if they'll draw the fish.

Sure enough, no sooner do the brightly beaming bits of plastic go down the hole than the bobber begins jumping and we start pulling rainbows and brookies up through the ice. The action is fast and furious as Adams hauls a fat, pound-and-a-half, slab-sided brook trout into the night air. It's incredibly beautiful in the pale light of our headlamps, but due to a change in regulations, brook trout, once abundant and highly prized, are now catch-and-release only. I almost have tears in my eyes, recalling the old days and the sweet taste of their winter-firm, bright-orange flesh, but after admiring it briefly, we put the big fish back down the hole, where it disappears with a splash from its huge square tail.

The flash keeps popping over the glow hooks while Adams and I are popping cans of Kettlehouse beer we barely have time to sip before the bobbers start dancing again. Soon enough, we catch our limit of shining rainbow trout and begin to pack up, all the while laughing at how it must have looked to anyone driving by: three crazed fishermen alone on a lake in winter, illuminated by a flashing strobe light.

Hauling our gear and a bucket of beautiful trout, we slog through the snow to the car and head back up to the warm and cozy little cabin for a midnight fish fry. The wood cook stove crackles away as the fresh fish curl and pop in a big cast-iron frying pan, turning slowly but surely into a golden feast. The years seem to disappear as the old and scratchy vinyl records spin out ancient tunes from the Woodstock generation while we dig into the delicious fish. So much is the same that the intervening decades might not have passed. But one new lesson has been learned and will not be forgotten. For ice fishing at night, you can't beat the flash-bright light.

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