By Jessianne Castle EBS ENVIRONMENTAL & OUTDOORS EDITOR
BOZEMAN – With winter heavy on the landscape in Montana, it can be daunting to find ways to spend time outdoors. But frigid temps mean frozen waters and the perfect time for ice fishing.
On Feb. 7, Montana’s Becoming an Outdoors Woman program hosted a course on ice fishing in Bozeman geared toward helping women spend time outside. Ranging in age from college students to retirees, approximately half of the BOW course’s 16 attendees had never been ice fishing. Some drove all the way from Great Falls to attend the classroom session at Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks’ Region 3 headquarters, and one woman flew in from Seattle to participate with her Livingston friend.
Dave Hagengruber, educator for MT FWP’s Hooked on Fishing program for school kids, and BOW coordinator Sara Smith who grew up ice fishing in her hometown of Sheridan, Montana, co-taught the class, covering topics like ice safety, how to fish, and the ins and outs of clothing and gear.
On Feb. 8, the class was scheduled to ice fish at Glen Lake Rotary Park, but heavy snow the night before and warm nighttime temps made the ice conditions unsafe—it was impossible to see holes previously drilled by ice fishermen. Typically drilled holes freeze overnight, but warm temps kept them open. Another ice fishing course scheduled the same weekend in Billings was also canceled due to poor ice conditions, and Smith said that with warm temps so far this winter, ice safety is top of mind.
While BOW participants didn’t get to wet a line, they did learn about ice safety, equipment and fish identification, thanks to the classroom session. Ice fishing is a popular winter activity that is relatively inexpensive, social and can yield great results, Hagengruber said, noting that it is often easier to catch more fish under the ice than on open water.
Ice is never 100 percent safe and must be a minimum of 4 inches thick to withstand the weight of one person, Hagengruber added. Groups should look for 8 or 9 inches. To check ice depth, he suggested drilling a hole with a hand-crank or electric-drill-powered auger and measuring the thickness at intervals as you move out onto the ice. Awareness of the ice conditions becomes increasingly precarious during warmer temperatures as the water-body thaws and refreezes.
Hagengruber said lake ice is safer than river ice, as river currents can erode and thin the ice. Signs that ice may not be safe include water pooling on the surface, unusual patterns in the ice, and visible open water. The best ice is either clear or black, while white ice means it has air and is less strong.
In addition to conditions awareness, safety equipment can help, Smith said. Cleats can provide traction on glazed ice, commercial ice picks can be used to self-rescue and pull yourself out of the water if you fall in, and some anglers use life jackets or invest in coats and bibs with built-in flotation.
Montana waters are home to a variety of fish species. Common fish caught during the winter include yellow perch, rainbow trout, kokanee salmon, smallmouth bass and northern pike.
Montana BOW, which is administered through MT FWP, is a part of national BOW network. In addition to ice fishing, Montana BOW teaches snowshoeing, archery, gun handling, Dutch oven cooking and kayaking, with courses are offered year-round throughout the state. Smith said MT FWP is working with REI in Bozeman to offer additional BOW programming this spring.
Visit fwp.mt.gov/education/bow for more information.