Jan 2011: New Year’s Day Ice Fishing Report by Bob Bartsch

Our family has for many years come to Island Park for the holidays and this season was no exception. Considering the amount of concern and discussion over the ice fishing season changes I felt that it might be helpful and important to have a past HLF Director as a first-hand observer.

I have done a small amount of ice fishing in Colorado in the past but really had no pre-conceived ideas of what I might see on Henrys that day. Some of my family had difficulty with car batteries, so I reached the Lake somewhat late, about 10:30 and met Damon at his house just after he did a 9AM angler count at and some interviews at Staley’s. We followed a protocol that the F&G established that called for an angler count at noon and then 4PM. We interviewed anglers before lunch and then from about 2PM until 4PM.

Carolyn and Damon provided a great lunch for the two enforcement men, Bill Schiess, a friend, and myself which allowed everyone to compare morning notes and observations.

1. How many fisherman were there? My estimate: somewhat over 300, maybe 325 maximum. Generally, they were in groups of 2-5, mostly men, but some women. I saw 3 families on the ice with children-most of the kids were playing, building snow forts and such. I suspect that the weather forecast discouraged the numbers of fishermen down from the larger crowd expected. The forecast for New Year’s morn was -26 degrees. At 6 PM on the 31st the temperature at my house was -6 already, but the skies clouded over and by 8PM the temperature had risen to +6 degrees. Most of Jan. 1 on the lake was clear with little wind until about 3PM. The temperature hovered from maybe -3 to +6 on the lake. When the wind started people left in droves. I was really surprised that folks were actually having fun and not freezing-as I was with my desert thermo-regulatory system. Then, again, Damon was perfectly comfortable at these temps also.

2. Where were they fishing? Maybe 3 groups could be seen through binoculars across the lake at the State campground and another 3 near the cliffs. These people must have gotten in via snowmobile as there was little road access available. The snow was up to 2 feet deep. The greatest congregation of fishermen was near the hatchery, followed by the County dock area, Wild Rose and finally Staleys. There were four groups fishing near Pin-tail point where the road to Staley’s is closest to the lake. I think these guys only caught and kept one fish; a 20″ brookie.

3. Where did they park their cars? Mostly they tried to get off the main roads into the hatchery lot or the County. We saw a few Sheriff citation stickers on windshields of cars parked on the main road at Staley’s and near the Hatchery but were not sure if they were only warnings. We spoke to a number of fishermen parked by Staley’s where there was a well-worn path over private property to the lake. Some of the men Damon warned about trespass moved on to the County. Parking and trespass may be an issue, but falls in the domain of the Sheriff.

4. Did I see any infractions of the fishing rules? Damon and I came upon three men who had four fish. When Damon asked who caught what, one man came forth and said something to the effect, “Oh, I caught two and I need to stop fishing don’t I?” He pulled his lines from the holes he had in the ice. Damon explained the infraction as a warning. This was the single infraction that we saw. Most fishermen had no fish and most groups only had one or two fish. The catch rate was very small. Everyone we talked with was friendly and cooperative. One or two mentioned that the enforcement was out in force that day. Several showed their licenses to Damon even though he had not asked to see them.

5. What were my impressions on the fish I saw harvested? A. The YCT I saw were nearly all 18 inches or larger. The average according to the measurements made was 19.2 inches and 20% were slightly larger than 20″. It was interesting that there were virtually no YCT caught or kept under 16″. I believe this was no anomaly of keeping larger fish and replacing smaller-earlier caught fish. People caught too few fish for this slight of hand to work. Most fishermen even in the summer do not catch many smaller fish for some reason. The important point here is that YCT generally do not live past their fourth year and, most that do live to four, die before the next summer. In the population of YCT there are only rare 5 year olds. Therefore, nearly all of the 172 harvested YCT would have died over the remainder of this winter and would not be available for fishermen to catch next season anyway. B. Few hybrids were in the creel-I was surprised how few we measured. C. There seemed to be a bias for brook trout in the creel-several mentioned that they felt they were better tasting. I saw no male brookies; only the females that represent the stocked sterile fish that the F&G plant. The largest I saw was a hair over 20″.

6. Could I characterize the fishermen? A. Most were very well equipped and pulled sleds out on the ice with their equipment. My impression was that these were confirmed ice fishers who enjoy a specialized fishing nitch. Maybe about 45-50% of the groups had tents on the ice. Many had heaters. Nearly everyone used those really short rods and most fishermen were using small meal worms or grubs that were on a hook just below a jig of some sort. They stood over the hole moving the rod up and down to impart action. Those with tents could see really well into the water and were able to see the take and set the hook in the upper lip of the fish. Only a handful were on snowmobiles or ATVs. The ice was very rough, wash boarded with drifts and even difficult to walk over. A snowmobile would have been a kidney-buster. How the two young men that were doing the enforcement survived their day on their snowmobiles, I do not know-had to be age related. B. It seemed that a few very knowledgeable ice fishers caught the lion’s share of the fish and most of these people released most or all of their catch. C. We saw very little abuse of alcohol and I saw no rubbish on the ice or in the parking areas. The exception was a man so drunk that when he emerged from his tent, he nearly fell on Damon to catch his balance.

Summary of the day on Henry’s. First, I believe this is a form of fishing that is exactly equal to the various other niche-types in the Yellowstone area seen in the summer: dry fly fishing on rivers or lakes, nymph fishing in rivers or lakes, spin casting, bait fishing, fishing from boats, tubes or rafts or wade fishing. The people we saw were well equipped by and large and really enjoyed their time on the ice. Killing fish was minor issue of those we saw on January 1; the release rate was 77.6%. People were having fun out on the lake that day. These are not folks from Arizona, California or other warm climes. They are mostly residents of Eastern Idaho who probably do a lot of ice fishing every winter-just like some people do across the upper mid-west.

Henry’s will come to represent for them a very special lake for ice fishing just as it has for many fishermen in the summer months. Most of the fish, the YCT, that were kept were at the end of their lives and would not be available to be caught next season. This fact negates any impact on the population of YCT in the lake.

Is it better to have ice fishermen harvest these fish or to allow them to die and decompose on the lake bottom? I asked a number of groups about their knowledge of HLF. Hardly anyone I talked to even knew there was a Henry’s Lake Foundation. They were impressed that we work with the F&G for the improvement of the watershed. These 300 some odd fishermen represent a population of possible HLF members. We need to have volunteers with membership forms out on the ice this coming fall and try to recruit these potential members.