You have to work for your fish at this frozen lake — but it’s worth the effort

How to survive falling through ice

Fishing columnist Jordan Rodriguez talks with the Statesman's Chadd Cripe about what to do if you break through ice on a frozen lake, pond, or other bodies of water.
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Fishing columnist Jordan Rodriguez talks with the Statesman's Chadd Cripe about what to do if you break through ice on a frozen lake, pond, or other bodies of water.

There’s nothing like the excitement of fishing somewhere new — especially in an outdoor adventure mecca like Big Sky Country.

What species will we catch? How big will they be? What new secrets might we unlock? I recently had the opportunity to answer these mysteries during a winter excursion to Quake Lake.

As its name would suggest, the lake was formed by an earthquake that struck southwestern Montana in 1959. The resulting landslide turned a six-mile stretch of the Madison River into Quake Lake. Evidence of the seismic event is still visible where the Madison flows out of the lake, which is exactly where I was headed with my longtime fishing partner Skyler.

Like much of the Northwest, the Yellowstone area is absolutely buried in snow. Our most difficult task was finding a path to the lake, which ended up being a steep, quarter-mile hike through chest-high snow. Montana doesn’t give up its secrets easily!

Exhausted but undeterred, we arrived at our destination. It was spooky seeing open, running water — complete with a river otter on the prowl — less than 50 yards from where we drilled our holes, but we felt reassured when our auger measured a solid 12 inches of ice.

It didn’t take long for us to set up. Montana only allows two rods per angler, so we had all of our lines in the water in no time.

My rod was the first to bounce, but I lost a small fish right at the hole. Then, one of Skyler’s rods started to wiggle. The bite was barely detectable, but Sky set the hook at just the right moment. Fish on!

After a spirited fight, I helped scoop a beautiful 20-inch brown trout onto the ice. Our victory whoop echoed through the canyon as we admired the first catch of the day.

For the next hour, Skyler barely could keep his line in the water. The hole that produced the big brown continued to give up fish at an unbelievable rate. At one point, when Sky had to re-tie a broken line, I dropped my jig down the honey hole. Sure enough, I hooked a feisty rainbow. It came unhooked at the surface again, but I plunged my gloved hand in and secured my first catch of the day.

With temperatures hovering close to zero, Skyler looked at me like I was crazy.

“I didn’t come all the way to Montana to get skunked!” I grinned. “Plus, I brought extra gloves.”

I gave Skyler his hole back, but we drilled three new ones closer to the action. The move paid off, as all four rods started bobbing with regularity.

The bites were so soft it took some patience and skill to set the hook. But with practice, we were soon hauling fish after fish to the surface. Beautiful browns, rainbows and cutthroats all joined the party as we landed more than two-dozen trout.

I rallied back from my slow start, thanks largely to my latest ice fishing investment — a rod with a built-in spring bobber that detects even the faintest nibbles. Skyler still won our friendly competition, but there were no losers at Quake Lake. With fast action, breathtaking surroundings and the company of one of my oldest and dearest friends, this Big Sky adventure was one of the best fishing days I can remember.

Until next time, Montana. Tight lines!

Jordan Rodriguez has been fishing Idaho waters since he was a teen. Share your fish stories, adventures, tips and tricks with him at

Chadd Cripe has worked at the Idaho Statesman for 23 years and is the assistant editor. His duties include overseeing the Sports department.