The thick coating of ice that covers mountain lakes hides a secret. Though the water grows colder in the winter, and the frozen layers blot out even the brightest winter days, the world beneath is anything but dormant. The aquatic ecosystem below thrives on; as long as there is non-frozen water, there are trout to be found within it.
Ice fishing is heavily associated with the northern Midwest, and many are surprised to learn that it is a winter pastime in Jackson Hole as well. People conjure images of clustered shanties hunkered on frozen waterways all winter long, plush with amenities like heaters, grills and even televisions. Because so many of the best ice fishing locations around Jackson Hole are in the National Park or National Forest, rules around the sport are much stricter. You certainly won’t find any pickup trucks or satellite dishes on shanties around Slide or Jackson Lake, but on a sunny winter day, you’re bound to see at least a few ice fishermen.
This pilgrimage to the area’s lakes is one that my family has made countless times over the past decades. I recall, as a small child, simmering with resentment that I was not allowed to remove my skis or snowshoes while on the lake. I was small enough that had I accidentally stepped into a hole, I would have slipped right through. In those days, lacking the patience for fishing, I frequently abandoned the efforts in favor of sledding down the steep banks and jumping from exposed shoreline boulders into pristine powder.
Now, it’s an excursion that I look forward to. We gather up our ice fishing rods and tackle boxes full of custom jigs: handmade for exactly these lakes and to appeal to Cutthroat and Lake Trout. We load up the sled to tow the auger and gear along with us, stuff our hands into gloves, tuck in a few snacks and treats, and head for the lake.
Though some rely on snowmobile to reach their favorite spots on the ice, we’ve always done it the old-fashioned way. If the snow is especially fluffy and deep, snowshoes make traversing the path easier, but often aren’t needed. The sharp winter winds that race through the valley at night keep the layer of snow on the wide open lakes shallower than elsewhere.
With a location selected, it’s time to drill holes through the ice. Historically, these augers were hand-powered, and boring through fourteen inches of ice was no small task. These days, a gas-powered auger punches through with ease. The stark white of the lake’s expanse is punctuated by these holes: the sides glow in shades of unearthly teal and blue around the black depths below.
The darkness of ice-covered water makes brightly colored and glow in the dark jigs highly effective in catching a hungry trout’s eye. Attaching some bait fish makes for a tempting treat that a cruising trout simply can’t refuse.
The peace of sitting still on a smooth, frozen lake in winter is a world away from the energetic thrill of skiing or snowmobiling. It’s pristinely quiet, and inspires reflection on the world as it dozes through the cold of short days and bitter storms. Often, a fox or coyote will trot along the bank, curiously sniffing the air for a clue of what business you might have on the lake. Ravens circle above, occasionally landing to hop around an abandoned hole in the ice, hunting for forgotten bits of lunch or fish.
The natural world’s quiet is always shattered when one of us hooks a fish. With excitement, we gather around the hole, ready to scoop the flailing trout into the snow. Laughter and congratulations flow freely, especially if the trout is of respectable size.
But even when the trout aren’t biting, it’s always fun to relax and enjoy a unique slice of Wyoming winter. Sitting on the lake together is almost like gathering around a campfire. Stories and memories unfurl themselves. We remember the massive trout a visiting uncle caught on his first ice fishing trip. We reminisce about the fish that we almost landed, but somehow managed to fumble at the last moment. We recall days that we caught our limit, and hiked proudly back to the truck, making plans to fire up the grill as soon as we arrived home.
Whether we return to the warmth of home with the freshest trout to be had, or empty handed, we find ourselves eyeing the calendar and wondering when we can head out again.
If you want to add ice fishing to your lineup of wintertime adventure in Jackson Hole, you can get everything you need from the Fishing Supply Company. From handmade, custom rods to hand-tied jigs, these knowledgable locals have got you covered.
Images © Taylor Glenn