By J.C. Knaub
Hebgen Lake, dead of winter, ice fishing. Best trout day of my life.
It started much like any ice-fishing trip. You commit, gear up, and head south to the Hebgen Dam. The weather that day was tolerable. It’s all about the wind, but for the most part, it’s the therapy you seek. The isolation. The motivation to hang out at one of the coldest locales in the country.
We counted 120 bull elk off the highway on the way down. Blowing past the Happy Hour Bar, we arrived at the Hebgen Dam parking lot at the crack of dawn. A quick survey: Four rigs with Idaho plates; 5 below zero; slight southwest breeze. Game on.
In the flat light we trundled to some old ice holes. Lucky for me, my old fishing pals Terry and Lance brought the motorized ice auger and bored eight fresh holes in the two-foot-thick ice. We got to work.
Thirty minutes passed. Nada. Then, a legal nibble. My two poles were propped up just right. I passed the time scooping the small circular space with my aluminum dipper. I carved a snow berm with my avalanche shovel, pulled my line to clean ice off the tippet, and checked the mealworm on my ice tick.
Just then, divine intervention showed me the black, rubber-legged shrimp imitator nestled beneath the split shot in my trusty tackle box. With frozen fingers and chattering teeth I finished the knot. My lurewas through the ice and going down when – Bam! A lurking lunker nailed my bait. The fight was on. Giddy with anticipation I reeled what felt like a 3-pound rainbow to the bottom of the ice hole.
Ice chunks flew off the leader as I got the slippery beast to the surface. Then I committed the cardinal sin: I looked the fish in the eye. He rolled and spun the hook sideways and was gone. Bo Terry always said, “Don’t look him in the eye!” Not to be deterred, I reloaded and as I dropped my line, pole No. 2 went down hard. Bam! Hook set, 20-inch rainbow on ice. Pole two dives again: 18-inch rainbow on ice.
Then, out of nowhere, a rare “double.” Both rods bounced with fish as long as my arm. Nothing in this world compares to a double when you’re ice fishing in the dead of winter.
I would limit-out 15 minutes later. In an hour and a half I landed a total of 25 big trout, releasing 20. It was the trout version of a legend all-you-can-eat buffet. As the fish were flopping, the Idaho potato farmers snuck closer to the action, eager to claim my spot.
When it slowed, my partners and I concluded that a large school had settled under my two lucky auger holes, coupled with the black rubberlegs lure and the sun and moon, to produce this stellar morning on the frozen high-mountain lake.
In an hour I was in the tram line at Big Sky Resort, the sweet smell of fish guts wafting in the breeze.
J.C. Knaub is a 43-year resident of Big Sky and an avid outdoorsman who cherishes the Greater Yellowstone culture.
This story was first published in the winter 2016 issue of Mountain Outlaw magazine.