Dave Graybill - 2/12/2012
There is an abundance of choice in Eastern Washington when the prospect of ice fishing is considered. There are lakes near and far. Some offer trout, others spiny ray and still others that offer burbot (freshwater ling), but they all offer the same thing: angling during a season that often offers limited options to the ardent angler. You know the type. They just gotta go fishing, and the heck with the conditions outside.
I am known as a hard case around my work place. If I’m not there everyone knows, or can pretty well assume where I am. Out fishing somewhere. They know that my “native guide” Eileen and I spend all the time we can manage either trolling lakes aboard the Smoker Craft or fly-fishing streams. But when we mention that we had spent the day ice fishing, we get some strange looks. Hey, we don’t mind. These people don’t know what they’re missing.
I introduced Eileen to ice fishing at Fish Lake, and every year at this time we start making regular phone calls to Scott and Nadine at the Cove Resort to find out if the lake has formed a solid cap. This is a lake I would put in the “near” category, as we live in Leavenworth and it’s a quick trip. It isn’t such a bad jaunt for Seattle anglers either. Lots of families make a day trip to Fish Lake each season for their ice fishing fix.
Calling ahead and checking on conditions is important. Not just for convenience, but for safety’s sake. I’m not going to talk about ice fishing without first stressing how important it is to pay attention to ice thickness and condition. We don’t have the kind of winters here that they do where power augers are required. We don’t get “feet” of ice, just inches, and knowing how many inches of ice, exists on a lake can mean the difference in a great experience or a disaster. Last year two young boys lost their lives playing on the ice at Roses Lake near Manson, and not to give some detail on ice safety would be irresponsible on my part.
Anglers should be aware that rock-solid blue ice should be at least three-and-a-half inches thick to support a single angler. Add another inch and small groups—spread apart can fish in safety. Most people wait until there is more like seven to nine inches of ice, enough to support a snowmobile, before venturing out on the ice. I should also mention that these guidelines are for solid, blue ice. This is something that is rare here in Eastern Washington. More often ice forms, snow falls, and the ice melts a bit. More ice forms, but there will be a gap in between the original cap and this new ice. I have drilled a hole and had the auger plunge through and bring up water, only to have my weight stop eight or nine inches down as it hits the original ice layer. This kind of layering is common on Eastern Washington lakes, so anglers should double the numbers mentioned above to be certain they have enough ice for safety. Always call ahead and get a frank appraisal of ice conditions before you plan a trip.
When the people at the Cove or Cascade Hideaway give the go-ahead, I’ll head for Fish Lake. Like I said, it’s an easy jaunt, and when the trout are hungry, a limit in less than an hour is not unusual. Fish Lake is also a destination for those who like perch. I have always been after trout here, so I’ll give you a quick thumbnail sketch of how I have had success here.
I have usually fished on the Cascade Hideaway side (west) of the lake, because there are some easy to spot landmarks here. There are some steel rods flagged with bright tape that mark boating hazards that are clearly visible off the shore. These also mark pretty good spots to find trout when fishing through the ice. I just scrape away any snow or slush and drill my hole.
It’s not too complicated from here. I just put a few spit shot on the end of my line and add a hook with about a foot of leader three feet above this. Some anglers use two hooks, and this is recommended to start with. I like to use two hooks initially to find out what the trout are hitting. After I have made a bait selection it isn’t that important. Sure, catching two trout at once is a thrill, but the tangle they can create takes the fun out of it.
I like to use a stiff leader. This helps separate your leader from your main line. When using a floating bait, such as Power Bait or an egg and mallow or egg and worm combination, your bait will float straight up and tend to lay against your main line. The bait will sometimes wind around your main line and cause tangles, and also frustrate trout that are trying to get a clean shot at your bait. The same is true if your bait is heavy enough to float straight down. Leader material made from a line such as Maxima gets nice and stiff in the cold and helps keep your bait away from the main line.
The baits I have just mentioned just happen to be the favorites at Fish Lake. Power Bait in a variety of flavors is used with great success here. Other favorites are a mallow and egg or mallow and worm combination. Sometimes a simple, white marshmallow (the little ones) will work just fine, but most anglers like to experiment with the colored and flavored mallows you can find at your local tackle shop. Some anglers also find a kernel or two of corn—with or without the mallow—an effective bait, and some even like to fish jigs like the ones you would use for bluegill or crappie.
One thing to note about fishing bait for trout or perch at Fish Lake—keep your bait at least two feet above the bottom. This is one reason why I put my sinker at the end of my line. I want to know the distance from the bottom to my bait. Why? Because Fish Lake is full of bullheads or sculpin. These little guys can drive you crazy taking your bait if you fish right on the bottom.
The perch fishing at Fish Lake probably draws more anglers than the trout fishing. The lake supports a strong population of small perch, and most of the fishing for this species takes place on the Cove (east) side of the lake. Any weekend after safe ice is formed you will see a good group of anglers huddling over their holes pulling perch through the ice. Most of the perch that I’ve seen taken through the ice are about nine-inchers, with very few larger fish taken. Worms are far and above the favorite bait, but some anglers are catching onto the appeal of grubs or maggots to perch. These baits can be found in a variety of colors now, and when fished on a small jig or micro spoon can be deadly.
Something I rarely see here but is common in the mid-West are the use of “decoy” plugs, such as a Chubby Darter or sinking Rapala fished with hooks removed. A baited jig or darting spoon is fished below this larger (three- to four-inch) plugs with great success elsewhere. There are also some very specialized jigs and spoons used for perch in the mid-West. Nils, Kastmaster, and Rapala make some interesting models and I intend to try some this season.
Perch are one of the most sought after species with ice anglers. They can usually be found in good numbers when located under an ice cap, and they are very, very tasty. Perch are great eating fish, and perhaps this explains why some anglers go just a little crazy when they get into a good bite. I have heard stories of people taking eighty or more perch home after a day’s fishing. I don’t understand it, though. That’s more filleting than I would care to do in one sitting. I sincerely hope they don’t go to waste but I suspect that many do. I wouldn’t hesitate questioning an angler who displayed this kind of gluttony. It just seems obscene to me.
Since we’re on the subject of good tasting, I’ll jump right over to my next choice of a great ice fishing lake. This one definitely fits into the “far” rather than near category but offers more than just tasty perch. This one offers burbot, known as freshwater ling in these parts and “poor man’s lobster” to those who have savored these weird looking fish. Burbot look more like saltwater lingcod than something that lives in freshwater.
Palmer Lake is remote. Oroville is the closest town is about fifteen road miles away, and Oroville is just six miles south of the Canadian border. Bass anglers are familiar with Palmer. It is famous for very large smallmouth bass, and it is not uncommon to see boats from Seattle and Spokane here when the smallmouth are on the beds. In the winter, it’s the perch and ling that draw anglers here.
Ling exist is many lakes in Eastern Washington, but they reach sizes in Palmer that makes this lake unique. While anglers on Lake Chelan are happy with ling of 2 or 3 pounds, anglers are used to taking home ling weighing 10 pounds or more at Palmer. The state record for burbot was set here a couple of years ago at just over 17 pounds. They may not be pretty, but ling yield bright white fillets of delicious flavor.
There’s a process to follow to ling fishing here, though. First you need redsides for bait. Redsides, or peamouth chubs, are the favorite food of the ling, and they are plentiful in Palmer. Anglers will walk a short distance from shore, looking for thirty or forty feet of water and lower hooks baited with worms to catch their supply of redsides for bait. It has been said that ling eat three time their normal intake in January and February as they prepare for spawn. Anglers gather their redsides in the afternoon as the ling action begins just at dark.
Redside anglers are often distracted, though, when they find a school of Palmer Lake perch. These are prime specimens. Some as large as 13 inches, and there aren’t many anglers that can resist the chance of catching a mess of perch when it presents itself. The perch fishing here isn’t a complicated affair. There are anglers that target the perch, and apply similar techniques to those used at Fish Lake, but often those fishing for redsides encounter them. When perch are found—forget bait fishing for at least a while is the rule at Palmer Lake.
When a supply of redsides has been gathered and the time is right (near dark), anglers will move out to deeper water. Those who fish the lake for bass will know here there are drops to depths of fifty or more feet, and they have the advantage. Palmer is 85 feet deep and about 2,000 acres in size. Ling exist throughout the pond and anglers not familiar with the lake should just follow the crowds, and maybe borrow an unoccupied hole. It is not unusual to use an “old” hole when ice fishing. It saves time and is probably located in a productive area.
The most popular method of attracting ling bites is to bait the large treble hooks on large Crocodile spoons. These large spoons are thumped on the bottom to get the attention of the fish, and when they find their favorite food hanging on the hooks, they strike. Not all ling bite with authority, though, and anglers should set the hook even when they sense a “mushy” feeling to their spoon. A quick hook set will often result in a fat ling on the ice caught by one of the large trebles through the side of the head. They often hit the spoon on the fall.
A good tip is to have a small gaff along when fishing for ling of the size of those at Palmer Lake. These are very slimy fish, and getting them through the ice hole can be a chore. Getting a gaff through the underside of the jaw helps assure that the fish, and your lure, make it out of the hole and onto the ice. This may seem like overkill to those who haven’t fished ling at Palmer. But remember, fish over 10 pounds are not at all unusual.
Set lines with up to five hooks are still allowed at Palmer Lake, but most anglers are using the method I described above. The daily limit is five fish.
Whether you’ve looking for something close to home, or feel like traveling for something really special, there’s something for everyone waiting for anglers this winter in Eastern Washington. Anglers from Seattle can travel about 120 miles to enjoy the trout and perch fishing at Fish Lake, or double the distance to experience the big ling fishing at Palmer Lake.
It all depends on what it takes to really satisfy that urge to get that rod bouncing in the winter season. There is the promise of exciting action on cold winter days. Get out the warm clothes and heavy boots. Ignore those funny looks from your coworkers when you tell them your plans to go ice fishing. Heck, they don’t understand your needs. Just because its winter doesn’t mean fishing is out of the question. Ice fishing is the salvation for those ardent anglers that just gotta go.
By Dave Graybill