Spring ice fishing on the honey holes of Lake Dillon
March 25, 2017
The hazy sun had just started falling behind the Gore Range when Andrew Hoofman saw a slight tug on the line.
"There's one," said Hoofman, a guide with Big Ed's Fishing Ventures of Dillon who was off-duty that spring afternoon but couldn't say no to time on the ice at Dillon Marina. The group that day was small — just two clients, Scotland natives Graeme Porteous and Martin Rodgers, with on-duty guide Christian McBrien — but the fishing was good. Since 1 p.m., the two had caught a pair of rainbow trout and already made plans for dinner: trout filet with toasted almonds and garlic butter, done up proper by Rodgers, who's a professional chef back home in Scotland.
But two filets weren't going to cut it for the meal. They needed at least one more before the end of the day and that final fish was now on the line.
"I've got it, I've got it," Porteous said through a thick Scottish accent as he took the miniature rod from its holder on the ice and started reeling in the catch. This circular hole was one of 25 or 30 Hoofman had drilled the previous week, all in preparation for the final week or two of guided ice fishing on Lake Dillon. The season usually lasts until April, but thanks to above-freezing temperatures for most of March, the season will be cut short. Like all sports in Summit County, ice fishing is at Mother Nature's whim.
"I can see him now," said McBrien, who knelt by the hole as soon as Porteous took the line. Just minutes earlier the group had been talking about the unspokens of ice fishing: Do people ever fall through? Have the guides lost stuff in a hole? A tackle box? A pole? A kid?
"In 20 years I've never once lost a pole," said Hoofman, a native of Minnesota who grew up ice fishing with his family and, after 148 charters since December, is finishing his first season as a Summit County ice guide. He's never lost a pole, but he's lost plenty of ice scoops — the metal ladle he uses to clear the holes of ice and slush — and he wasn't going to start losing gear today.
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Porteous kept a firm grip on the pole, taking his time to bring the sluggish fish to the surface. Unlike aggressive bass in warmer waters, the Arctic char, rainbow trout, kokanee salmon and brown trout at Lake Dillon are lethargic in the winter, even with the unusually warm temperatures. They rarely put up a fight and that makes them easy to miss: they give only a small tug, and so Hoofman learned as a kid to stand back and watch seven or eight holes and poles at a time, his gaze fixed on the colored rod tips for a twitch or twerk.
Want more from Lake Dillon in winter? Get the full experience with 360 video from the shores on a bluebird day.
"That tug is my drug, man," Hoofman said, and then laughed. "The worst is when it's a far hole and you've got to run 30 yards to go catch the fish, sliding into home."
Porteous reeled once, then twice, then once more before the fish appeared in the blackish-blue hole. It was no Arctic char — Lake Dillon is the only body of water in the lower 48 states where the fish spawns — but it was still a beauty.
"Oy, there he is!" Porteous said as the small, bright, shimmering fish broke the slushy surface of the lake. In ice-fishing lingo, a prime location is known as a "honey hole," and this honey hole between rental docks at the marina was living up to its reputation. All Porteous had to do was remain patient and slowly, slowly bring the fish out of the water.
The air above the pockmarked ice turned electric as Porteous pulled the trout up and out. McBrien took it from the line, brought it to the ice, gilled it with pliers and then laid it with the other two in a plastic bag. He does the same thing come summertime across Summit County, where he leads fly-fishing and charter excursions for Big Ed's with owner Nate Crawford and other guides. There were high fives all around.
This one was a small fish — no more than 9 or 10 inches — but a catch is a catch, especially when dinner is on the line. And not just any dinner, but a birthday dinner: Porteous and Rodgers share a birthday, March 13, and the two celebrated by ice fishing for the very first time.
"Did you get another one?" Rodgers said in an even thicker accent when he returned from the shore, leaving two-inch-deep footprints on the sloppy surface of the ice. He'd missed the third catch of the day, but the chef didn't mind. His dinner plans were coming together just fine.
"There is no way two guys from Scotland end up ice fishing in Colorado together, for their joint birthday," Rodgers said as he and Porteous posed with their catches — Porteous wearing slacks, Rodgers wearing shorts with a floral print. The scene nearly felt like a beach: docks on all sides, hibernating sailboats under tarps, warm sun slowly fading, Coors Light in a silvery box next to folding chairs and fishing poles.
The season might be coming to a close, but for the guides and their clients, these last few days are worth it.
"You can't beat the office view," Hoofman said as he pointed to the clear, towering summits of Peak One, Buffalo Mountain and Red Peak. "Out here, when you're on the water, you get some of the best scenery you'll get fishing anywhere."
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