Ice Fishing 101: What to know before you go

Bill Carter holds a pike caught on Stillwater Lake near Whitefish. Dave Reese photo



Growing up north of Cut Bank along Montana’s Hi-Line, Bob Poore knows about cold. And wind.

That’s why the cold, westerly breeze pouring off of Haskill Mountain and down on Smith Lake Wednesday didn’t seem to bother him. Wearing a baseball cap, overalls and no gloves, Poore sat on a bucket on the ice and worked his delicate three-pound test line through two holes in the lake’s frozen surface. He waited for a perch or pike to nibble at his bait, which dangled about a foot off the bottom in six feet of water.

Even the slightest movement of his smiley-faced yellow bobber drew his attention, and when it signaled a hit, he lifted the fish out of the hole and onto the ice.

Ice fishing, other than in tournaments, is mainly a solitary affair. Poore shared the ice at Smith Lake Wednesday with only two other fishermen, one of whom ambled up to Poore, dragging his ice auger and looking for tips.

“Havin’ any luck?” the angler asked Poore.

“Oh, I’m catchin’ a few,” Poore replied, in classic angler-ese.

Guenter Heinz, a fisherman from Eureka, says he can spend hours staring down into his ice hole, watching the watery world below. “It’s better than watching TV,” he said.

Poore has been ice fishing the shallow Smith Lake for 35 years, after moving to Kalispell from the tiny Canadian border town of Kevin, Mont. “I’ve just always ice fished,” he said. “I like the peace and quiet, and the fresh air.’

He prefers the solitude of ice fishing to fishing in the summer. “My fishing buddy was supposed to be here today, but he had some things to do,” said Poore, a mechanic who retired from Buffalo Hill Golf Club in Kalispell.


While some anglers opt for high-tech collapsible ice houses and four-wheelers to carry their gear, Poore uses a simple plastic sled, laden only with the basics: a strainer to filter out ice from the hole, two buckets to sit on (and to fill with fish), and a collapsible lawn chair in case anybody else shows up.

His most-modern gadgets are a gas-powered ice auger and two new bait-cast fishing reels on old-fashioned rods. He uses baited lead-head jigs, worked about a foot off the bottom in six to eight feet of water.

As the blue sky turned grey on Wednesday and snow began to fall lightly, Poore maintained his concentration on the two holes in the ice in front of him. His cold-weather jacket lay in a bundle in his sled, and he seemed unfazed by anything called “wind chill.”

“If it’s cold, I just put on more clothes,” he said. The chatter of Canada geese drifted from the brown reeds on the shoreline nearby as Poore slipped another brightly colored perch between his legs through a hole in the bucket, where it would join about half a dozen piscine brethren writhing in a black plastic bag.

“Just another little one,” he said.

Small as the perch may be, Poore knows how to finesse the tiny strips of white, tasty meat away from the bony yellow perch.

These would be dinner tonight for Poore and his wife. “Depends on what she’s got cooking, but I’ll fillet them,” he said. “I use an electric knife.”

 According to Chancy Jeschke at Snappy’s fishing department, many of the local lakes are still producing good fishing, although ice is starting to deteriorate.

The state record yellow perch was caught two weeks ago in lower Stillwater Lake. Josh Emmert broke Vernon Schmid’s long-standing state record with a 2.39-pound perch, beating Schmid’s record by only .07 pounds. Schmid’s record, caught in Ashley Lake, had stood since 1988.

Other local lakes:

WHITEFISH LAKE —With about five inches of ice left, it’s been one of the most productive lakes recently for mackinaw, Jeschke said. “The ice is probably getting iffy,” he said.

BITTERROOT LAKE: Anglers are doing well on kokanee salmon at the south end of the lake, in 80 to 250 feet of water.


LAKE MARY RONAN — Perch fishing has been good, with fish averaging over nine inches and up to 1 1/2 pounds.

MIDDLE THOMPSON LAKE — This lake west of Kalispell is putting out salmon in 60 feet of water, as well as some good perch, Jeschke said.

FLATHEAD LAKE — Leave your ice auger at home. There’s no ice. But boat anglers are enjoying one of the best times of year to fish Flathead Lake. Best spots are at the river delta and at Painted Rocks.





Warm weather has caused some of the local ice to soften up considerably. Smith Lake had about a half inch of slush on top of the ice Wednesday, after a heavy rain Tuesday.

With that in mind, anglers should be vigilant about the ice they venture out upon, says Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

FWP offers these safety tips for ice fishermen:

  • Check ice conditions before you go. Ask other anglers or local sources and take into account changes in the weather during the past 24 hours.
  • Before you go fishing, tell someone where you plan to fish and when you plan to return.
  • Carry a pair of long spikes on a heavy string around your neck. That way, if you break through the ice, you can use the spikes to grip the ice and pull yourself out of the water.
  • Blue ice is usually hard. Watch out for opaque, gray, dark or porous spots in the ice that could be weak, soft areas. Ice also tends to thin more quickly at the shorelines.
  • Watch for pressure ridges. These are areas of open water or thin ice where the ice has cracked and heaved due to expansion from freezing.
  • Test the ice ahead of you with an ice spud bar or an auger.
  • Take basic ice safety and rescue training and know the basics about hypothermia before venturing out on ice, especially if you plan to fish with youngsters.
  • Don’t leave children unsupervised on the ice.
  • Remember that lakes and ponds do not freeze at the same thickness all over.
  • Rivers, streams and springs have weaker ice. Avoid ice on rivers and streams, or where a river or stream enters a lake, pond or reservoir.

While the ice may be spotty, this is the time of year to catch bigger perch — even a state record. The spawners can weigh up to 1/4 pound more, with the added weight of the eggs.


Children with fish from Smith Lake near Kalispell.


Some perch-fishing basics, offered by Pablo angler Dick Zimmer:

  • Perch prefer a bait that is moving slowly on or very near the bottom.
  • They prefer a weedy bottom to an open bottom. Here you have the problem of working your bait through the weeds, but Zimmer says, it’s better to deal with the weeds than to bobber your presentation above the obstacles.

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