Ice men chill with fishing, friends and fun
RUEDI RESERVOIR Over the whine of a distant snowmobile, the thick slab of ice covering Ruedi Reservoir creaks and groans like a herd of humpback whales conversing across the deep. And as temperatures warm with the morning light, ice fishermen build their own little villages for the day.The tracks on the ice and the groups of guys setting up camp in the distance should be reassuring, but there’s a moments hesitation at the ice edge – something primal (or practical) that tells me not to walk where man is meant to paddle a canoe.But stepping onto the slab offers a whole new perspective: A sea of white edged by the high ridges surrounding Ruedi, and the ice is as solid as concrete.As I approach a group of fisherman, I see the first catch of the day being pulled up through the ice.
“We catch ’em and cook ’em,” says Greg Stewart of Carbondale.Stewart and his friends, all originally from western Massachusetts, hit the ice on weekends for food, drinks and a bit of fishing.”Let’s get the grill going,” says Dean Miarecki, eyeing Stewart’s catch.”As long as they don’t fall through the cracks in the grill, we eat ’em,” Stewart jokes.But for this group, ice fishing is about more than just fishing.”It’s about hanging with your buddies and getting out on snowmobiles,” says Miarecki, who now lives in Las Vegas. “Ashley is the only girl out here.” (Ashley is Miarecki’s 14-year-old dog.)
The process for ice fishing is as simple as it might have been for early hunter-gatherers: Cut a hole in the ice, lure the fish with bait, hook ’em and cook ’em. Of course the modern ice fisherman employs a bit more technology, everything from slick snowmobiles to gas-powered ice augers can be found in his quiver.And what lures trout in frigid water at depths up to 50 feet? Chicken gizzards, sucker fish from the bait shop or shrimp – “We use anything that works,” says Miarecki.Many ice fishermen use triangular tip-ups, a short wooden rig that sits over the hole and hangs a line to the bottom of the lake. When a fish strikes, a flag goes up.”You can see your tip-ups from across the lake. And when you see it, you come running,” Miarecki explains.But the best way to catch fish is with a short jig rod, teasing a mixture of bait and lures up and down with the rod. Miarecki and his buddies imported the tradition from back home in Massachusetts, where they mostly used live minnows to attract fish.”Ice fishing in Colorado is the same, only you have to go a bit farther,” says Don Lyman of Carbondale. “I moved here for the cold and snow.”
For Lyman, a day on the ice is as much about being with friends and having a few beers than about fishing. Of course, “out here, the fish are always good,” adds Lyman, as another in his crew hooks a trout.”I just like to ice fish as a change of pace,” says Glenn Melus, after hauling in his catch. “It’s nice to have other outlets in the winter other than skiing and snowboarding.”Originally from Harvard, Mass., Melus has been a fly-fishing guide in the Roaring Fork Valley for eight years. And while he didn’t want to share too many secrets, he says lake trout in winter are hard to catch because they aren’t aggressive and strike in a “light take.”And while there are plenty of tactics for ice fishing, and you generally catch fewer but larger fish in the deep end of the reservoir, it really comes down to “just being in the right place at the right time,” notes Melus.
When asked how they know it’s safe to walk on the ice, Miarecki replies: “I don’t know. Good question.” And the whole group bursts out with laughter.”There is probably no such thing as safe ice,” says Randy Hampton, a public information officer with the Colorado Division of Wildlife (DOW). “There are some general rules of thumb, but there’s nothing that applies across the board.”All waters are different, Hampton says. And while there is a general rule that 6 inches of ice is safe for a person to walk on, Hampton stresses that is only a guideline, and that water conditions change where there are lake outlets or flowing water. “If you are not familiar with the conditions of the water, check with people that are local or with people who know the body of water,” Hampton says. “It always thins near the edges and with flowing water.”The DOW has no limits on fish size at Ruedi, but fisherman can only keep eight fish at once and the regulations vary with location and type of fish, according to Hampton. Fisherman are strictly prohibited from chumming, or casting bait in the water to attract fish, or using more than one pole without additional stamps in their fishing license. He recommends getting the lowdown on ice fishing from an area shop or going with someone who knows the area and its regulations.
“We used to bring our cars [on the ice] back East,” Miarecki says, but regulations at Ruedi prevent it. Instead, these fishermen travel by snowmobile.To learn what ice fishing at Ruedi is really about, photographer Jordan Curet and I have to take a spin. A twitch of my right thumb on the accelerator and the sled nearly slides out from under us; ice forms on my beard from freezing wind as the high ridges surrounding the reservoir roll by in a blur. We pull up to another ice-fishing camp and meet a group from South Africa.”Man is a hunter,” says Wouter Oliver, who now lives in Woody Creek. And ice fishing is like hunting underground. He and his two friends get out about once a year and bring just the basics: jig rods, bait and a hand ice auger.Using a hand auger isn’t easy. It takes a fair bit of grinding and pressing to break through 12- to 18-inches of ice to reach that satisfying gush of water at the bottom.”This is true ‘sustainable camping,'” Oliver says of their setup. You catch food to feed yourself and have all you need out on the ice, including a grill, a cooler and the sled to drag it all from the car.”We’re just friends hanging out having a good time,” Oliver says.At another camp in the middle of the lake, a lone ice fisherman throws a Frisbee to his dog.
“I usually ski,” says Joe Christensen of Basalt. “But it’s a great thing to do on a day when the skiing isn’t great.”Christensen drags a sled out on the ice – the same sled he uses to slog his gear into the backcountry for elk hunting – and his dog Oly (named for Olympic Bowl at Highlands) bounds along, wagging his tail and waiting for just one more throw of the floppy Frisbee.”I didn’t come to Colorado to stay inside,” says the upstate New York native. Christensen’s wife is a ski instructor and works weekends, so he took advantage of the opportunity to get out on the ice. A fly fisherman in the warmer months, he doesn’t worry about catching much through the ice; he only occasionally keeps a fish for the frying pan. But he enjoys the peace and quiet of a day out on the lake with his dog.”It’s just an alternative thing to do,” agrees Francis Krizmanich of Old Snowmass. A native of Pennsylvania, Krizmanich only goes out when the sun’s shining. “When it’s blowing and snowy, it’s kind of harsh out there.”While Ruedi is a good place to catch trout, Krizmanich says Harvey Gap near New Castle is home to perch, crappie and northern pike. And fishermen at nearby Rifle Gap host a tournament each winter.But Krizmanich likes to keep it simple. He goes out with his wife, Betsy, and carries only a basic set of gear.”Other guys use snowmobiles, but I’m a simple guy,” he says. “I like to fish … I’ll fish for just about anything in any way. The party is just an added benefit.”I might have a couple beers generally, but pretty much when we’re out doing the sporting thing, we’re doing the sporting thing.”
Judging by variations on the stocked bar at each camp – anything from durable plastic jugs of vodka to bota bags of wine and six-packs of American lager – having a few drinks to stay warm has as much to do with ice fishing as sucker bait.Lyman says that he and Miarecki usually compete for fish. On the day I saw them, the only thing they were competing for were beers downed – and Lyman already had the jump on Miarecki.But ice fishing isn’t “ice drinking.” And while there is a certain festive nature to the business, it didn’t seem like things got too out of hand (of course we were out there awful early).”I’m not a hard-alcohol drinker,” one fisherman told me. “But out here it’s OK. Don’t print that.”Charles Agar’s e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org
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