Walking on Water

Why ice fishing is so cool

By Bill Kamps/for Montana Living. Photos by Dave Reese/Montana Living

It's true that winter winds, cold temperatures and frozen lakes keep some people huddled indoors all winter.

But there's another clan of outdoors folks that just grins and bears it and puts on another layer of clothing. These are the ice anglers. Montana is known for great fishing all spring, summer and fall.

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Early morning fishing can be the best time to catch kokanee on Bitterroot Lake near Marion, Montana. (David Reese photo/Montana Living)

But if a person is hardy enough they soon learn that fishing in Montana doesn't end when the last leaves of fall hit the ground. And, though some lakes are accessible only by boat in the summer, ice fishing is available in nearly every corner of the state and it makes these lakes accessible.

Here's a breakdown of what you'll need to know to go ice fishing in Montana.


While ice fishing to some seems to rank lower on the scale than the sport of fly fishing, it's no less a sport and can be just as exciting.

One nice thing about ice fishing, too, is that it is a sport that doesn't require a great deal of gear or expense to get started. In fact, if you want you can use the same rod you use during the summer. It's simply a matter of matching your tackle to the type of fish you plan to fish for. Most lakes that harbor rainbow trout, brown trout, brook trout or kokanee salmon can be fished with light to medium rods and six- to eight-pound test line.

If you're heading for lakes known for small fish, stick to six-pound line. The smaller the fish the lighter the line you should use. The difference about ice-fishing rods is that they are shorter, so you can stand closer to the hole.

But that's the only advantage. Sensitivity is the name of the game for light-biting trout. Drilling a hole is most always a necessity when "cold footing" it for fish. Ice augers can be purchased from $75 for a manual auger to $300 for a gas auger, and now cordless electric augers are all the rage.

best lure for catching kokanee salmon bitterroot lake, montana ice fishing, winter activities, montana living magazine

A silver and blue Kokanator lure, used as a flasher, with a drop fly such as a Copper John or chronomid beneath it. (David Reese photos/Montana Living)

frying fish, kokanee salmon bitterroot lake, montana ice fishing, winter activities, montana living magazine

These tiny flies, hung below a flasher like a Kokanator, Z Ray or Swedish Pimple, work well for kokanee. Tip the fly with a maggot, either red or white.


Lure selection is, as always, quite important and varies greatly on the species of fish targeted, the lake that you're fishing, time of day and other. There are basics that you can start with, however, and be successful. As you gain a little experience you'll be able to fine-tune your tackle.

If you're going after those smaller rainbows or browns, there are untold numbers of lures available. Remember that the presentation of the lure to the fish will be entirely vertical so attraction will be by color and a fluttery motion. Color is important and bright colors like chartreuse, yellow, orange or white often produce the best results. At other times a subtle black or brown might put fish on the ice.

The plastic twister tails on small jigs are universal in their appeal to fish. They should be threaded on 1/32- to 1/8-ounce jig heads. Another good choice are the lead heads that come tied with chenille bodies and a feather tail. Marabou feathers are often used for bodies, too, and both of these come in myriad colors. Small, flashy ice lures made of shiny metals that are brightly painted can also work well. Your choices are many.

Kokanee salmon require slightly different lures. In most lakes these fish run fairly small and kokanee are plankton eaters. They will most readily take a very small lure like a Glo-Hook or a Ratfinkee, which are both tiny jig-like lures that work best in hot pink, bright red and chartreuse.

Tie them on a light leader and hang them below a flashy attractor like a Swedish Pimple or a Z Ray. Whether you're out for trout or salmon, tip your offering with some maggots. Like in any other kind of fishing, presentation of your lure to the fish should vary until you find what works. From a vigorous, highly animated movement to a slow, almost imperceptible motion, they all work at times.

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A Clam ice house offers roomy comfort for a couple of people and gear. (David Reese photo/Montana Living) 


Aside from the kind of tackle you're going to use, one of the biggest considerations is how you'll keep warm on the ice. With today's new fabrics it's not too difficult and the key layering. Polypropylene long underwear should be worn next to the skin. Over this you should wear one or more layers of breathable material, topped with a wind-resistant coat.

Where to Go

Now that you're geared up and dressed for the ice fishing adventure, where do you think you should go and what do you think you should fish for? In many areas of Montana, kokanee salmon get more attention from ice anglers than any other species.

They can be easy to catch, they can provide lots of action, and they are good to eat. In northwest Montana, Ashley Lake, Bitterroot Lake and Lake Mary Ronan receive the most ice fishing pressure. while the Thompson chain of lakes and Lake Koocanusa are right behind.

Georgetown Lake, near Anaconda and Philipsburg, is always a good bet for kokanee as is Hauser Lake near Helena. This lake holds some of the bigger salmon in the state with some of them topping out over several pounds. Northwest Montana is sprinkled with rainbow trout lakes and some of these are the good kokanee salmon lakes too.

ice fishing montana bitterroot lake, kevin bailey, david reese, montana living magazine

A mess of kokanee on the ice, above, and in the frying pan, below. (David Reese photos/Montana Living)

frying fish, kokanee salmon bitterroot lake, montana ice fishing, winter activities, montana living magazine 

Ashley and Bitterroot Lakes are two of these. Anglers have caught rainbows to six pounds from Ashley and 14 pounds from Bitterroot. Some of the best rainbow fishing that the west has to offer is just east of the Continental Divide near Browning. This Blackfeet Indian Reservation is spotted with prairie pothole lakes and many of them are teeming with large numbers of three- to six-pound. Duck Lake near Browning, Montana, would be your best bet for large fish while Kipp, Mitten and Goose lakes have lots of smaller fish.

As you can see, Montana recreationists need not sit home and stare at the walls through those winter months. There are fish to catch and game to hunt. Get out and try it for yourself.

Hunting Roundup

If you are a hunter there are still seasons open that can get you out into the winter weather. Waterfowl hunters will continue to chase ducks and geese into January all across the state and results can be outstanding. Hunting will center around rivers as most stillwater lakes will be frozen.

Waterfowl/upland birds If you are new to the state or considering widening your outdoor recreation horizons, you might look to some of these areas. The Yellowstone River from Livingston to Billings, portions of Canyon Ferry north of Townsend, the Missouri River in the Great Falls area and the Flathead River system in northwest Montana are some areas that hold good numbers of ducks and geese. There are many other creeks and rivers across the state and one of them could be just down the road from you. Big Game Big-game hunters have not hung up their rifles if they drew a late-season permit to hunt elk in the southwest part of the state.

Each year a drawing is conducted by the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks. Successful applicants are awarded permits to hunt elk migrating out of Yellowstone Park. These hunts are for a specified time slot and are in the Gardiner and Ennis areas. Permits must be applied for by early June and hunts begin in the second week of January. Success rates are generally high but weather has a strong influence on this. Outfitters and guides are available if one chooses to use them. If you're a nonresident and planning to hunt big game in Montana next fall, it's time to start planning now.

Log on to fwp.mt.gov to learn more about hunting and fishing in Montana.


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