Mar 27, 2016

Inapropriate Wintertime Activities, or Just a Special Kind of Crazy?

     Call me crazy, but my favorite time of the year is winter. It's my natural habitat. Where most people see a frozen wasteland, I see endless ice fishing opportunities. I suppose arguments could be made in defense of the other seasons as well, but those arguments all have one fatal flaw... you can't ice fish in any of the other seasons!
Bonaparte Lake Ice Fishing
Sure your toes will go numb and your beard will freeze solid, but come on! Tell me that's not beautiful! Scenes like this are where it's at as far as I'm concerned.
As long as they're equipped with the proper insulation (and the occasional gummy worm), my kids are pretty into it too!
On a side note, this particular fish should have won me $500, but then it didn't... Don't ask... It's too painful...

     Events like those pictured above are pretty standard wintertime fare for me, and I'm usually content to leave it at that. For other wintertime escapades see also "Walkin on Water" and "Ol' Hank". However, this winter I became aware of a couple new species that I could check off with a little outside-the-box fishing. It was a little tough taking a hiatus from ice fishing, but it was worth it in the end.
     The first target was the Burbot (Lota lota), which I have previously attempted to catch in both Montana and Washington, to no avail. These freshwater cod are one of my favorite fish of all time. They're a critter that is both simple and complicated all at once. They are one of only two freshwater fish species with a circumpolar native range (Northern Pike being the other), meaning they are native to the northern latitudes of North America, Europe, and Asia. I won't wax too fish nerdy on you, but they're pretty cool fish! Plus it's just fun to say Lota lota. You try it!
Lake Roosevelt Burbot
Maybe I'm just more willing to accept them because they have beards...
     Burbot are largely ignored by anglers in most places, which is a mistake, because they're delicious! I became aware of a spot not too far from home where they can be caught from shore at night pretty regularly during the winter months. I love night fishing in the summer and in fact some of my biggest fish have been caught at night (for a couple other nighttime fishing stories, see also "A Bump in the Night" and "The Itty Bitty Kitty Committee"). Night fishing in the wintertime however, would be a new one for me. But, cold as it was sure to be, it had to be done (it's not like this was optional or anything), so as soon as December rolled around I picked out a free evening and loaded up the car. 
     It's a 2 hour drive to the fishing spot, and about 1/2 hour into it, the ominous clouds that had been threatening all day, decided to let loose. I considered turning back (and a more stable person definitely would have), but I was already committed at that point so I continued on. By the time I got to my spot it was 32 degrees and pouring down rain with a few snowflakes mixed in just for show. So there I sat in my lawn chair, putting my rain gear to the test and staring single-mindedly at my rod tips. All evening they only twitched once, but I made it count and added species number 105 to the list!
Lake Roosevelt Burbot
The mighty Burbot, complete with a face only a mother (or a biologist apparently...) could love!
     Was it worth sitting in pouring sleet for hours for just one bite? If your answer to that is no, you're probably one of the aforementioned stable people. But to me it certainly was worth it. And I would happily do it again! In fact I've been back several times since...

     The second fish that needed to be caught was the Lake Whitefish. These fish are not native to my particular neck of the woods, but, were stocked to be a food fish many years ago, and now they are surprisingly abundant in many nearby lakes and rivers. They are also a very underutilized resource since very few people target them. I've wanted one for years, but hadn't managed to get one. Then I ran across a couple YouTube videos (click here and here if you want to watch them) that pretty much laid out plain and simple when, where, and how to get it done on Banks Lake.
     I readied my gear, picked a calm day when the time was right, and got down to business. As I paddled across the near-freezing lake in my inflatable pontoon boat to my chosen spot, I considered the sanity of what I was doing. I was wearing a very good PFD, but still, a slip into that water that far out into the lake would make for a real bummer of a day at best... I'm pretty comfortable on my pontoon during warmer months when the consequences of a popped pontoon bladder would be some wet shorts and maybe a wet ego. But this was a little past that.
     Luckily I didn't have to stick it out TOO long, and at least one of the fish was cooperative. I tied on a Forage Minnow jigging spoon and about 30 minutes after I arrived at my spot (and frustratingly, about 29 minutes after my fish finder filled with dozens and dozens of Lake Whitefish; and 20 minutes after I lost feeling in my toes...), I got a solid hit and brought up species number 106!
Coregonus clupeiformis. Say that five times fast.
     Having broken the (figurative) ice, I decided to be content with toes that were merely numb, and attempt to forego actual frostbite. I paddled back to my car, turned the heater on, and added the tally to my list!

      After a successful December and adding two new species without even traveling too far, I had been talking about my new species with a few internet buddies (I think "internet buddies" sounds weirder than it actually is...), and one of them decided to come give it a shot! Some of you will probably recognize a guy by the name of Martini, but click here for more of his exploits. He is (to put it mildly) a fellow fish enthusiast who recently moved to Washington for grad school. As luck would have it, although his species list is much more extensive than mine (another serious understatement...),  he still needed to add the mighty Lota lota to his list. So we arranged a trip to try it. I told him we might catch a lot of Lota lota, or not a lot of Lota lota, we'd just have to try it and see...
      We set out with enough daylight left to stop at Omak Lake to catch some bonus Lahontan Cutthroat Trout, then continued on our way to the Burbot spot.
I'd post a picture of mine too but his fish was bigger than mine...
     The weather was much more conducive to human life this time since we had actually looked at the weather forecast beforehand. I had been back to my spot once since that first night, and caught four fish; so I was hopeful that our chances were good to at least get on the board. I was still nervous though, until while I was still setting up my second rod, Martini grabbed his and set the hook into his first Burbot! 
     I was just hoping for at least one Burbot to get him on the board, but for the next hour or two of lights out fishing we got bit every few minutes. Soon enough we had to quit because we both had our limit!
Luckily we caught a lot of Lota lota! That joke never gets old...
In the spirit of full disclosure... Martini caught the big one on the left.
     It was pretty awesome to finally fish with somebody who shares my particular fascination with catching new species, and it was pretty great to be able to help him add to his list!

     So all in all, although I ice fished much less this winter, I still stand by my statement that winter is the best season of them all!

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