By David Reese, Montana Living
It’s late morning, and the snowplows have yet to hit Marias Pass.
The night’s blizzard has left four inches of windblown snow in patches along U.S. Highway 2 and it’s white-knuckle driving from Essex to Summit. Our truck crawls down the east side of the pass toward Browning, and strong winds push our truck at will, but on this day we won’t be deterred from a weekend of watching Fish TV.
There’s a great outdoors show that puts you close to the action, and you don’t even have to leave your house to watch it. Ok, well you don’t have to leave your “ice” house.
We call it Fish TV, and the “show” airs several weekends during the winter in our ice house at Duck Lake, a large spring-fed lake about 30 miles north of Browning on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation.
We punch our way through four-foot drifts, trying to get to our friend’s cabin along the northwest shore of the lake. After building a fire in the cabin to get it warm, we set out onto the lake for a day of ice fishing for big rainbow trout that swim the waters of Duck Lake.
With temperatures right around zero, there are only a few hardy souls out on the lake this day. We tie our ice house to the truck, and drive out on to the lake, looking for a stick that a friend said he’d left in the ice the week before, where he’d had good luck. We use our hand-powered ice auger to slowly chip away at 20 inches of rock hard ice, then drag the ice house over the holes and get ready for the action.
With the doors closed on the ice house, we’re safe from the elements, and the darkness inside allows us to see to the bottom of the lake, where our brightly colored jigs dance.
Not long after we get our lures down, we see fish: two big rainbows, about four pounds each, swim quickly up to the lure, circle around them, then dart away. Seconds later one of the fish — or at least one that resembles it — comes slamming into the jig, and my partner is quick to set the hook.
With two adults and two kids crammed into an ice house, you don’t have a lot of room to maneuver. Still, John is able to finagle the fish’s large head through the 10-inch hole and onto the ice.
Things can get pretty crazy in a hurry. A half hour later the fish is frozen solid outside the door of the ice house, along with three other nice-sized rainbows we’ve caught.
With Fish TV, it’s hit or miss, yet you don’t want to miss a second of the action. We leave the house only for calls of nature, or to tie on new flies inside our warm pickup truck nearby. We strain our necks peering down into the green holes and talk about ways we could build headrests for more relaxing fishing; or, perhaps, the massage table approach would work, where we could lie supine in the house, faces over the ice holes, rods in hand. (As you can see it’s easy getting bored in the ice house when fish aren’t biting.)
The sun sets low in the horizon, casting an orange glow on nearby Chief Mountain and the Rocky Mountain Front. Outside the ice house you can hear people driving past us on snowmobiles and four-wheelers, calling it a day. It’s time to pull the ice house off the lake, and go cook up the fish in our warm cabin. Without a bite in a couple of hours, my two young sons don’t seem to be too bummed out about this.
That night, at our friend’s cabin on the lake, near-record, 80 mile-an-hour winds pouring off the east slope of the Continental Divide, shake the house.
The windows creak and groan under the pressure and we sit around at 3 a.m. wondering if the house is going to explode. The next morning as we set out for another day of fishing, we notice one of our plywood ice houses is gone. Although the house had been attached to a truck with strong webbing, the wind snapped the webbing and tumbled the ice house 1/4 mile across Duck Lake, shredding the roof. We limp it back and leave it on the shore.
With one solid ice house left in our arsenal, we set out across the lake to drill new holes in the ice. The night’s cold has left our previous holes frozen solid, and only a few splatters of blood from yesterday’s fish let us know these were our holes from the previous day. We set the ice house into position, close the door, rub the crinks in our necks and get ready for another day of quality viewing on Fish TV.
A lone ice house on Duck Lake near Browning, Montana. (David Reese photo)
IF YOU GO:
Duck Lake is on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation; a special fishing license is required for non-tribal members.
WHAT TO USE:
We had good luck using beadhead nymphs (from our fly fishing tackle) baited with maggots. A heavier nymph, like a woolly bugger, tied on below that fly helps get the beadhead down faster, and also helps attract fish.