In most instances, when you go ice fishing at 6:30 a.m. in January, only the serious fishermen will be on the ice to join you.
Then there is the winter trout-fishing opener on Courthouse Lake in Chaska.
The annual event, which this year occurred on Saturday, Jan. 17, allows winter anglers the opportunity to pull trout – in some cases, extremely large trout – through the ice. When my two friends and I visited the lake this year, we were amazed to see hundreds, literally hundreds of ice houses decorating that lake prior to 7 a.m., with the crack of dawn still an hour away. As we approached the lake that morning, the hum of motorized ice augers spun through the pleasantly-warm air. Well, pleasantly warm for Minnesota in January, that is.
Swarms of other fishermen continued to shuffle onto the ice while we stood on a steep bank looking down on the spectacle. It reminded me of a feeding frenzy featuring crazed hyenas, with scattered fishermen moving swiftly under the cover a fading crescent moon. Lanterns and headlamps lit the interior of tent-like ice shacks. People of all ages moved about with purpose. We saw a man slip on the very hill upon which we stood. His legs flailed about as he desperately clung to a bucket of ice rods and tip ups. We decided to enter the madness.
Typically, choosing the location to put your ice house on a frozen body of water involves gut instinct and perhaps knowledge of the lake’s depth and structure. When fishing Courthouse Lake on the trout opener, it is more like squeezing and sneaking in than it was seeking a honey hole. Finding a spot to set up our ice shack was like trying to fit an M & M onto a monster cookie already packed with candy and limited surface area to work with. Eventually, we found a snug spot on the ice, with fishermen literally within reaching distance on all sides.
The spring-fed, 10-acre, 57-foot-deep Courthouse Lake was formed as the result of man digging out a clay pit. Now, the pit is a fishing hole. A trout-fishing hole, to be exact. Each year, the Department of Natural Resources dumps several-thousand pounds of trout into Courthouse Lake, including an estimated 3,000 trout each winter prior to the opener. These trout range from browns to rainbows. The fish vary in size from 10-inch yearlings to trophy-sized males and brute females. It is the combination of edible-sized fish and rod-bending monsters that makes fishing Courthouse so appealing.
Legally speaking, the trout-fishing opener in Minnesota begins one hour prior to sunrise on the date selected. This particular Saturday, that meant approximately 6:45 a.m. And so it came as no surprise when some savage fisherman in the distance let out a ridiculous roar, indicating the start of the season. With commotion happening all around, we zipped the door to our ice house and dropped three lines in the water. The trout season was underway.
Ice fishing is a strange hobby, though it’s one I’ve been infatuated with for many years. The premise of the sport is very simple: try to stay warm however possible, drill a hole, set a line in the water and hope for the best. I’ve also attended these stocking and winter-angling events for many years and across several states,including Montana, Iowa and Minnesota. The fact these fish, most often trout, are stocked tends to keep stalwart fishermen at bay. And I’m fine with that. Anyone who encompasses too much of an ego to catch a stocked fish has gone beyond the point of fishing for fishing’s sake. They have entered the realm of elitist fishermen, known more commonly amongst everyday anglers as “pricks.”
Anyhow, I remain forever fascinated by pulling fish through the ice. During the opener on Courthouse Lake, we pulled a fine selection of rainbow trout from the frigid water. It took nothing more than perhaps perfect timing to do so, but we considered it skill. We were a part of the fishing community that morning, as opposed to being ‘apart’ from the fishing community.
Truth be told, after several hours of the circus act on Courthouse Lake, we packed our gear and headed east. Our destination was the clear waters of Square Lake, located north of Stillwater and not far from the St. Croix River. There, perhaps a dozen anglers joined us on top of the ice that Saturday afternoon. Over the next six hours we caught largemouth bass, northern pike and several perch. It was a complete day of ice fishing, with wind burn and numb fingers to boot.
If you’ve never been ice fishing, the trout-fishing opener on Courthouse Lake is a great place to start. It’s simple enough that you’re likely to head home with trout for dinner, and challenging enough that simply dropping a ball of pink goo (also known as Powerbait) isn’t likely to hook you a fish.
More importantly, it’s fishing in Minnesota in January. It gives one a reason to get off the sofa and onto the water, however frozen it may be. Next winter, I’ll see you there.
Photos by: Joe Friedrichs