THE PARTIALLY CLEARED LAKE
There are a lot of reasons one part of a
lake thaws before the rest of it. Springs
create open holes; internal lake currents
weaken ice cover; a prevalent wind frees
selected areas. Typically, the northwest
corner of a lake gets the early season sun,
but in rugged mountains heavy shade can mess
up the natural progression of the melt.
Lakes formed in soft, fissured sedimentary rock,
such as limestone or dolomite, usually have
spring holes. Most high-mountain lakes, at least
in Montana, don't have spring holes, because
they are formed in areas with hard rock, basic
igneous and metamorphic rock. There are exceptions.
Two of my favorite spring-fed, high-mountain lakes
are Rat Lake up Squaw Creek in the Gallatin River
drainage (made famous by John Gierach in his classic,
A View from Rat Lake), and Rainbow
Lake up Gold Creek in the Clark Fork River drainage.
Naturally, because they have springs, they are rich
Springs are important at ice-out because trout try
to spawn around them. The best approach for spring
areas is one of the most basic stillwater techniques,
the count-down method. Cast and let your fly sink,
counting off the seconds. With each cast, keep
counting longer and longer before you start retrieving,
until your fly snags weeds, and then back up the count
by one or two seconds. The best patterns include the
Woolly Bugger, of course, but if there are springs
with rich, alkaline water you'll find scuds, and a
good scud imitation may be the most consistent fly.
How do you locate springs? Look for steam coming
off the water on a frosty morning. Or look down
in the water for areas that green up earlier and
heavier than the rest of the lake.
Natural Lakes, without dams, usually have
a broad, shallow lip at the outlet. At
ice-out these outlets fish better than
outlets in man-made lakes. The shallow
shelf, where the current picks up speed,
provides good spawning habitat. On lakes
with too small or blocked-up tributary inlets,
the outlet is often the only spawning area.
On lakes with good tributary inlets, the
outlet shelf is second choice. It gets
numbers of trout, but not the biggest ones.
It would seem that the best fly for spawners
at the inlet would also be the best fly for
spawners at the outlet. Nothing could be
further than the truth. A streamer, the best
fly at the inlet, is a lousy choice at the
outlet — and this includes the generic Woolly
Bugger. No pattern comes close to the
dead-drifted egg imitation at the outlet.
It's easy to spot the spawning redds, lighter
patches of gravel in the algae-rich outlet
bottom, and with good light it's even easy
to see the mating pairs of trout. The best
casting angle is upstream, not across stream.
Hang your egg pattern under a yarn or dry-fly
indicator and let it drift drag free just off
I've seen the egg work many times, including
the trip to the Little Blackfoot detailed in
this log entry:
Steve Gayken and I stayed high on the bank,
spotting and kibitzing, and Justin Baker
covered the mating pair precisely. He put a
Woolly Worm, Hare's Ear nymph, and a scud
imitation within inches of the male rainbow's
nose, both with retrieves and dead drifts, and
that fish never even nodded acknowledgement.
Justin tied on an Orange Glo Bug and on the
first drift the male bolted two feet ahead
to grab it.
There's an obvious reason for the difference
in response between the outlet fish and the
inlet fish. At the outlet the trout are
actually spawning, and while they're not
actively feeding they'll still instinctively
snatch eggs. At the inlet the trout are not
spawning yet. They're staging to run up the
creek. Not only are they feeding hungrily,
they're aggressively fighting each other.
The ice shelf on a partially thawed lake,
and how trout orient to it, fascinated me
so much that we horse-packed scuba diving
equipment into Hamby Lake, a 3 5-acre pond
at 8,000 feet in the Big Hole drainage.
Bernie called me, "The ice is one-quarter
off the lake, and with this nasty weather
it won't clear for a week."
We rushed up the next day and prepared to
answer two questions:
Jenny Koenig did the scuba diving. Bernie was
calling her the Blonde Ice Maiden until she
splashed him. She submerged and the rest of
us strung up fly rods. Bernie, Ken Mira, and
I cast weighted Woolly Worms fifteen feet back
onto the ice and dragged them steadily towards
I hooked a 15-inch cutt-bow hybrid as soon as
my fly plopped into the lake. It wasn't a surprise.
It happens too often to be random luck. Jenny
bobbed up in open water and confirmed it, "Your
fish tracked that fly for the last five feet,
and I'm not sure but I think he came up from
the bottom when it hit the ice."
So question number one was answered — fish are
aware of a fly moving towards the edge of the ice.
To get their attention, use a heavy, large fly
that makes an impression as it rasps across the
ice. Even put a split shot or a second fly
eighteen inches above the tail fly to increase
Jenny continued to swim along the rim of the ice,
staying deep and moving slowly to keep from scaring
fish. After twenty minutes she was chilled in spite
of the heavy dry suit and extra insulation and came
into shore. She told us, "Some trout cruise long
stretches of the rim, moving back and forth. The
best concentration of fish are where the ice edge
is closest to the lake bottom, ten feet maximum.
Over there," she pointed to a large curve of open
water over the center bowl of the lake, "it's
So, the answer to question number two? Fish where the
ice edge is over the shallowest water.
FISHING A LAKE BEFORE REAL BREAKUP
Both trout and grayling stay at the inlet
mouth until the ice cover breaks up. They
linger there for as little as a few days
or as long as a month before migrating to
their spawning sites. What determines when
they go upstream? It's when the current
running from the lake slackens.
Bernie and I camped for six days on Cliff
Lake, a well-known big-fish water off the
Madison River. We hoped to hit breakup. The
rim of ice melted back a little bit each day,
but we never got a warm and breezy afternoon
that would have swept away the ice cover. We
worked the outlet and along the ice shelf and
caught nice cutthroats and rainbows steadily.
On the last day, when it was obvious we
weren't going to hit breakup, Bernie said,
"I'll show you a trick," and we pushed
through slush piles up to the Antelope
Bernie dropped a weighted bucktail into the
rushing stream and stripped off thirty feet
of line, letting the current take the fly
under the ice. As soon as he began retrieving
he hooked a large fish, so large that he couldn't
pull it in against the current and he lost it.
Who says you can't ice fish with a fly rod?
Anyone with any pride might have refused to
catch trout like this. There wasn't anyone
like that on this trip. We took turns, feeding
the bucktail under the ice and hooking a fish
on nearly every retrieve. Even with 3X leaders,
we could only land the smaller ones. ~ GL
To be continued, next time: FISHING A LAKE AFTER BREAKUP