By Steve Meyer, for the Redoubt Reporter
The opening day of the annual Trustworthy Ice Fishing Derby found us trudging through the deep snow that has covered Hidden Lake. This after attempting to drive out and realizing that was going to end in a really long day of shoveling our way back.
Being used to snowshoeing to backcountry lakes, it wasn’t really that big of deal to pull a sled load of equipment out. A bigger deal was the uncertainty of the ice. We had spoken with another fellow who was headed to a much closer spot and claimed he had been where we were going and had found the ice to be only 2 inches thick. Now, intellectually, I understand that once the water is over your head, it really doesn’t matter how deep it is if you break through. Two inches of ice over 15 feet of water would not have bothered me a bit, but 2 inches of ice over 120 feet seemed terrifying. Nevertheless, off we went and started drilling test holes as we progressed to our spot. Within about 700 yards of reaching the spot, we started hitting overflow.
Overflow is common to Alaska lakes when there is heavy snow cover. The surrounding land mass has springs that flow all winter, and when the snow is deep enough to provide an insulating cover, that water flows out over the lake in varying depths. There is normally a crust of moisture-filled snow above the overflow, and the first time you break through is a bit daunting, for the millisecond it takes to hit the solid ice below. On this day it provided a level of excitement that was disproportionate to the endeavor at hand. When your feet go through ice over 120 feet of water it just scares the hell out of you.
We drilled a hole immediately after this happened and found 8 inches of ice, plenty thick. Making your way across this overflow, busting through with every step, is a tiring and time-consuming process. It was going to take another 45 minutes to cover 700 yards. Shortly after, we came across an open hole in the ice with the overflow draining into it. We drilled another test hole and found 4 inches of ice. Time to retreat.
Many a time we have fished over 4 inches of ice in the spring when there is no snow load or overflow on the lakes. But when there is 6 inches of overflow and 18 inches of snow, 4 inches just isn’t enough. So retreat we did, back to an area that we had caught lake trout in the past, just not far enough away from the typical gathering of ice fishermen on the lake this time of year. On this day, with these conditions, there was no one around and it was evident there had been very few anglers out at all. So we set up in this less-desirable spot, my partner in her Eskimo shanty and me in the open air.
It wasn’t long before we were hooking kokanee, the lake trout food of choice. Of course, where there are baitfish, there are usually predator fish lurking in the nearby depths. My partner hollered, “Laker!” A short time later and a rush to assist found her bringing a rather smallish laker in the 2-pound class to the surface.
Unless the fish is abnormally small and hooked in such a manner that its survival seems assured, we do not practice catch and release. We fish for the table first, and if the resource is so minimal that catch and release is required, then it seems inexcusable to fish at all.
An hour or so later, I, too, caught a laker, slightly smaller than the first, and the day’s laker fishing was done. Lake trout are, at least in my opinion, the very best eating of the trout species and they are always a treat, so we look forward to having them for dinner.
But this outing really confirmed what we had been feeling for some time. The lake trout on Hidden Lake are being overfished. There has been virtually no pressure from ice fishing this year and yet the fish are very small compared to years past. The winter of 2011 was nearly as bad with the average fish coming in a bit over 3 pounds. The 2010 season saw an average of about 4 pounds, and 2009 about 5 pounds.
We spend a lot of time fishing for lakers on Hidden Lake. We love the area and the fish seem somehow more wild and aggressive than other freshwater species. Our success rate over the years has been about 80 percent. From what I hear and see that is a very high percentage. The point being that what we observe has validity, and sad as we are to say it, it may be time to restrict this lake even more than it already is. Perhaps make the limit one or two lakers for the season.
Hidden Lake is rampantly poached. Anyone who fishes this lake regularly knows it, and some even know who is doing it. There are poachers who set tip-ups out at night and run the lake at intervals throughout the night checking and collecting fish. They use live bait, which is, of course, illegal and which lakers cannot resist.
Catching them or stopping them is another story. The remote location, the relative few who fish it and the equally few enforcement personnel available to enforce regulations make this area ripe for poaching. It is sad given the unique qualities of this once-spectacular lake trout area.
In any event, if you fish Hidden this year, use the utmost of caution out on the ice, particularly farther out. I would imagine going through the ice out there would ruin an otherwise great outing.
Steve Meyer has been a central peninsula resident since 1971 and is an avid hunter, fisherman and trapper. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.