By Steve Meyer, for the Redoubt Reporter
The fish hit my jigging spoon midway through the downstroke, doubled my rod and was gone in an instant. No matter, after 2 ½ hours of snowshoeing into the lake I had never fished before, I knew the effort was going to pay off.
Fishing has always taken second place to hunting for me. For the most part it is something to do outdoors when there isn’t anything to hunt. Except backcountry ice fishing. It so resembles hunting, it’s practically like hunting with a fishing pole.
Backcountry ice fishing requires snowshoes, a backpack or sled, good cold-weather gear, an ice auger, normal ice-fishing gear, a map and at least a compass or GPS. Picking the lake is perhaps the most difficult part. There are a wealth of lakes on the Kenai Peninsula that are not accessible by road, and a fair number of them contain rainbow trout or Arctic char, if not both. Mountain lakes may also have grayling, burbot and lake trout.
A good way to “scout” these lakes is via the Internet. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Web sites have a wealth of information about many of the lakes on the Kenai Peninsula, including maps showing lake depths and formations, as well as what species can be found in them.
There are some backcountry lakes that have trails leading to them, but many do not. Those with trails will sometimes evidence other people fishing, sometimes not. The farther off the road, the less likely to run into others. When fishing a lake right off the road system, or even driving out onto the lake, it is fairly easy to see where the fishing is good. Old ice holes, remnants of campfires, snow stained with Pro-Cure, fish eggs and blood all evidence where the fish are. Not so in the backcountry. That’s one of the reasons it reminds me of hunting.
Once you find the lake, you then have to find the fish, and that takes a combination of fish knowledge, hard work and a bit of luck. I had studied maps and decided this lake would produce some big rainbows and possibly big Arctic char. But it took two tries to get to it. I figured 3 ½ miles in from the road is normally a couple hours breaking trail on snowshoes with a backpack. I was wrong.
I got a late start the first time I tried to find it and spent four hours going through terrain much rougher then I had anticipated. By the time I was close it was nearly dark, and having never had much luck for trout in the dark, I turned back. The next attempt I took a different route that was much less daunting and arrived at the lakeshore in 2 ½ hours. A fresh blanket of snow covered the lake with no evidence of another person in sight.
The sun was out and while my hike in started at a bit below zero, by the time I was at the lake it had warmed up and felt like a spring day. The sun reflecting off the snow makes this time of year one of the best to be outdoors, especially in areas where there is no other noise or intrusion, except for the occasional raven squawking overhead. Having looked at the lake on a map, I knew where I would start the hunt for fish. A point jutting out from the north shore, with fairly thick tree cover and deadfalls, suggested there may be some structure, like submerged logs.
The search started as it almost always does, with drilling three 6-inch holes, the first fairly close to shore, perhaps 15 yards out, the next at about 25 yards, and the third at around 40 yards. There are two reasons for this. One is to find the drop-off point offshore, if there is one, and to allow the area of the first hole to calm while drilling the next two.
I set my folding chair (yes, I pack a chair and it is always worth the effort) next to the first hole and ran my jig all the way down to the bottom, about 12 feet. I bounced the jig, a 1-ounce spoon, a couple times on bottom and then one crank and started the jigging motion. A medium upswing followed by a rapid falling is usually the best starting method. After about 10 strokes, another crank up and the same, repeated all the way to the surface. Nothing the first round, so repeat.
The reason for the bottom-to-top jigging is finding the water column in which the fish are holding. Depending on the day, the time of day, water temperature, wind and barometric pressure, fish may hold at any level.
A move to the second hole showed 20 feet of water depth but a repeat of the top-to-bottom jigging produced no result. The third hole was 35 feet and anytime there is a drop-off like that, if there are actually fish in the lake, there will be some around this type of structure, so I was hopeful. Running the lure all the way down in a free-fall manner that imitates a wounded baitfish, it hit bottom. I cranked the reel and started thumping the bottom. On the second downstroke the big fish hit, my rod doubled over and then it was gone. I quickly reeled up the line, set the rod down and grabbed the auger, marching up the lake and around the point about 50 yards and drilling another hole.
I suppose moving after getting a strike like that would seem ludicrous. However, it has been my experience when fishing for these big trout, once they hit and you miss them, you are better off leaving them alone for about 20 minutes and then trying again, this time perhaps more prepared.
The hole 50 yards away quickly produced a beautiful 18-inch rainbow. These natural fish, caught in the winter, have the most vibrant colors one could imagine. They glisten and sparkle gold, bronze, silver and crimson, a beauty that cannot be captured by the taxidermist. You have to be there to appreciate how gorgeous these fish are.
And they fight hard, so much so that it is worth using a better grade of tackle when going after them. I use an Ambassador 6500 on an Eagle Claw medium-heavy ice pole, 36 inches long with 10-pound test Trilene Micro Ice line. Some would suggest that is overkill, and perhaps it is, but good equipment that doesn’t malfunction is worth its weight in gold in remote areas. The level wind feature also allows one to gauge depth much better than with a spinning reel.
Back to hole number three. It took three strokes off the bottom before the big fish hit, but I was ready and this time I set the hook solid before he could spit it out and the fight was on. Line peeled off the reel as the fish made its first big run. Steady pressure and slight pumping brought him back a bit before another run.
I knew I had to let the fish tire before attempting to land it through the 6-inch hole. Without help it is a common occurrence to get one right to the top and have them twist right off the hook. After about 10 minutes of playing the fish, it seemed tired and ready to land. I had seen it go across the hole under the water and it looked huge, so big it seemed doubtful it would fit through the 6-inch hole. But it did, and in this case the hole size was perfect.
The fish, once coming up the 30-inch ice column, filled the hole and didn’t have any leverage to twist much. As it came up my heart was pounding out my chest and it was with huge relief when I was able to reach down and grab the jig and pull it free and out on the ice.
Twenty-four inches and 5 pounds of glistening rainbow striped muscle lay thrashing on the ice. The sun, cold breeze and snow-white blanket covering everything makes these times among the best to be had, and when there is no noise except that of the wind and your fish scuffling on the ice, it makes all the hard work to arrive there worth it.
Yes, I kept the fish. Beyond childhood, I quit playing with my food. I was there for the experience and for dinner. In this day, both were about as good as they get.
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.