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.

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