Biting Cold

With the country–and the world–locked down with the emergence of the COVID-19 virus, I caught myself thinking back to simpler times earlier this year. It was just a few months ago that I found myself with an extra day on a multi-sport trip to Alaska, when the local ski resort was closed due to bitter cold (in this case, 30 below).

Searching for something to do in those temps, ice fishing met a lot of my adventure criteria: I’d never done it, I didn’t know much about it, and it was a new twist on a familiar sport (it’s always fun when I can add a totally unknown element to something I’ve done before). Ice fishing is also an activity where the weather doesn’t really matter–because the whole thing happens indoors (well, more or less).

A 30 minute drive from Fairbanks took me to Rod’s Alaskan Guide Service‘s ice fishing hut at Chena Lakes Recreation Area. I’d booked an afternoon outing…although perhaps it shouldn’t be called an outing if it happens indoors?

When I got to the hut, I met up with our guide and joined a few other folks from out of state (well, I’m from out of state, too…or from “Outside,” as Alaskans call the rest of us). So here I was, someone from Outside sitting inside alongside new friends and trying to bring some fish topside (please resist the urge to strike me broadside).

Over the next few hours, there was enough action to keep things interesting (I could’ve said there was a lot of upside, but I wanted you to keep reading). Our guide, Aaron, was excellent, explaining the right way to jig (small upward tugs every second or two) and coaching the first timers (like me). We all caught on quickly, as did the fish–and we had a ton of bites and dozens of fish over the next few hours, using tiny shrimp for bait.

In some ways, fishing is the same no matter the season…but there were certainly differences. For instance:

  • Watch your step: Holes are everywhere, so be careful where you walk…and watch your gloves, and your phone, and anything else that you want to keep off of the lake bottom. The only thing coming up from one of those holes is a fish.
  • Catching up: Since you aren’t moving around looking for the best spot, ice fishing feels like you’re sitting at the bar with friends. In between jigs, there’s plenty of time to explore heady topics, like where your new buddy got that ‘My Little Pony’ iphone case (really).
  • Endless summer: It was 30 below outside, and 70 above inside. A 100 degree temperature swing might fog your glasses, but it makes for a shiver-free day.
  • A perfect cast: Each cast involves nothing more than letting the bait drop and sink to the bottom and then giving the reel a few turns. So there’s no more catching your line in tree limbs after a bad cast–and if your friend hits you with an errant hook, you know he did it on purpose.
  • If fish could talk: Imagine swimming around in 33-degree water, getting jerked into somebody’s toasty warm living room, being passed around for some photos, and then heading back into the deep—like the trout equivalent of a Kardashian marriage. Now that’s a fish with a story.

While there are clearly seasonal differences to fishing, one thing that’s the same is that fresh fish tastes very good. We kept a few (king salmon, char, and trout), and Aaron cooked them up to perfection in tin foil with butter and lemon pepper on top of the wood stove. His recipe was simple, easy, and delicious.

If you’ve not gone ice fishing, I highly recommend it. If you’ve gone before, you should do it again. It’s a tiny bit adventurous, a super bit social, and it ends in a terrific meal.

My afternoon at Chena Lakes is a great memory that has me thinking ahead to the promise of simpler times again. Next winter, if I’m staying inside and worrying about catching something, let’s hope it’s a fish.