What seemed like dead of night was a pretty close description of the fairly deserted high country south of Steamboat where I stepped onto frozen water in complete darkness last night. Had I not made tracks in this same area during the daytime a couple of days ago I might have turned around and headed back to the ski hill for some much needed sleep. But I was there to meet up with Brady Wettlaufer owner of Steamboat Fishing Adventures
, a relatively new fishing guide in these parts. And heck, he just towed an eleven-hundred pound fish house out somewhere in this vastness so the ice couldn’t be too sketchy, right? Onward I trudged - 9:00pm, 34 degrees (above!), clouds threatening precipitation (rain???), inches of wet slush/snow, searching for a faint glow of lights coming from Brady’s setup.
A few years ago I started exploring fishing through holes in the ice. I hadn’t given it much thought since I froze my tail off at Jackson Lake in WY
when I lived in Jackson Hole one winter in 1995. Then I met a few guys from FishExplorer (FishDr, CovidienCowboy, Fish Seal, et. al.) at Sheldon Lake in Fort Collins 9 years ago. Step one.
Step two I began getting my own ice gear and meeting up with other folks who knew what they were doing. Had I tried ice fishing by myself, or with those unseasoned, I wouldn’t be telling this story now. The noise that “safe” ice makes can be alarming – cracks, pops, boings, and even shotgun blasts (this happened to me the other day, really thought someone shot a gun the ice popped so big.) I still can’t get used to that noise. I wear a PFD if I feel the least bit unsafe, carry ice picks with me always, and began looking for a “real” spud bar as my improvised wrecking bar is a lot to handle.
Step three I began ice fishing more, exploring more, taking my son and other newbies. And of course I continued to add to my arsenal of gear. Kids love this stuff, and it turns out my wife is interested too, enough to encourage me to get a hut and heater (OK yes dear). And now that I’ve been able to convert my Lowrance HDS into a pretty sweet ice unit thanks to the help of Dan Swanson, I am ready to take on the ice fishing world!
This family trip to Steamboat began last week. Great friends with open arms and rooms, great music from the MusicFest at Steamboat, snow for skiiers/ice for fishers, and an ice fishing tourney to boot (how convenient that was!) What began as a day of pre-fishing Stagecoach Reservoir
ended up being 5 straight days of time on the ice… more days than I fished all last winter.
So I met Brady a few weeks ago after the Stagecoach office spoke eagerly of his newly built Aluma Lite fish house he’d be pulling out on the ice for trips this winter. I had to catch up with him and find out the scoop.
Brady grew up in Orange County, CA (plenty of ice there?) and arrived at Steamboat by way of Gunnison and a family retreat in Brainerd, WI. Blue Mesa Reservoir
got him through college, and Brainerd froze hardwater fishing into his soul. He helped run the recent Stagecoach Ice Fishing Tournament, which raised nearly $3,000 for the Soroco Science Club. He has a strong desire to help children and get them to fishing. I listened to his fish stories, saw pics, and all of sudden I’m driving 131 south with headlights on.
That faint green light I thought I saw from the parking area manifested as I approached a half mile or so later. Then the outdoor floodlight switched on and I knew I was heading in the right direction. Who else would go through the effort of putting this northern staple (and Rockies dream house) onto this lake at this time? I popped open the door and there stood Brady and Dan.
3 minutes later I had rod in hand, sat on a padded chair, stripped off my heavy layers, and the banter and jigging began. 4 hours later I was in the same position and could’ve sworn I just walked in. I was locked into the flasher and the TV the entire time. The flasher was showing fish chasing my jig off the bottom so I developed a few new enticement techniques. The TV wasn’t showing anything that you might’ve watched at home - this was a broadcast of the camera in Brady’s hole and later mine.
Particulates and freshwater shrimp filled the screen skittering around dancing jigs and swiping trout. This is a whole new ballgame for me. I not only was entertained by the action, I was learning - how my jig and Brady’s spoon behaved underwater, how fish reacted to the baits, and how easy it is for fish to knock your presentation without much of a clue in feel or sight above the hole.
We caught several fish, maybe 30 or so, and missed maybe 50 or more. While the true giants didn’t grace our presence in the fish house this time, I am assured and convinced they often do for Brady. He’s got a pretty good grip on fishing Stagecoach. He’ll be running many more ice trips this winter and hitting new spots with ever-expanding access as the ice thickens, and he’ll be running trips on his new boat in the summer.
So am I ready for this kind of investment in my evolving ice addiction? I don’t think so. That’s what guys like Brady are for. I am pretty happy with my lowly pop-up hut, heater, electronics, meager ice tackle, and cheap rod combos. Am I ready to ice fish at night? Perhaps… if I go with other experienced anglers. For now, I am happy with day fishing until I cross paths with Brady again. I can't wait to bring my family, friends, and their kids out next time we’re all in Steamboat together, all of whom have very little if any ice fishing experience. I know they’ll get hooked on this ice fishing luxury, it’s hard not to, even if all you do is watch “TV”.