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The Risks of Fly Fishing Ice-Out

Taking chances and earning trophies at British Columbia's remote, big-trout lakes.

The Risks of Fly Fishing Ice-Out

In some lakes a window exists, just after the ice melts and before the lake turns over, when you can catch really big fish in relatively shallow water. (Al Hassal art)

This article was originally titled "Lake X" in the April-May 2019 issue of Fly Fisherman magazine and the 2020 Gear Guide special publication of Fly Fisherman magazine.

One spring I set off with friends for a remote lake we could only get to by flying in. The timing was a gamble, which at first we seemed to have lost. We had driven days to get to the floatplane launch point but were grounded by low clouds. The pilot informed us we likely couldn’t land at the lake anyway, because it was probably still iced in.

Through the murky window of the trailer that served as his base, we could see oily airplane parts strewn on the deck and scattered around the yard. I realized they were from floatplanes, and appeared to have been scavenged from wrecks. Newer parts spilled from boxes on the desk, where the battered coffeepot was percolating. The pilot poured himself another cup—his third—looked out at the ashen sky, and stroked his gray beard.

“There are old pilots and bold pilots, but no old, bold pilots,” he said, repeating a cliché as tired as he was. We’d been waiting all day for a weather window and still he didn’t see one.

I sighed. I looked at the beat-up old couch where he had been sleeping, peered down into my cup, filled with a corrosive substance passing for coffee, and wondered for a moment about giving up on the adventure. And then I thought about the long drive behind us. We couldn’t turn back now, not over those rutted dirt roads and even longer stretches of highway.

I hoped the weather was going to soften, that warmer winds would prevail. People were telling us they had never seen such a late spring. Never. They said it had to end soon.

But all I knew was that the clock was ticking, and each day we waited for the melt to begin, we got a day closer to going back to work.

I turned to my friend Dr. Harvey Thommasen, who had first tracked down the rumors of trophy fish in what we called Lake X; and to Nick, who had traveled all the way from Vancouver with me on the promise of catching big, big fish.

“I think we should still try it,” I said. They nodded. No need for discussion. We had come for big trout, and we were ready to fly in as soon as the weather let us. We were ignoring the graveyard of discarded aircraft parts, the ramshackle state of the pilot’s quarters, and the warning signal in my head that said a guy who can’t keep his coffeepot clean probably can’t keep his fuel filter clean either.

And then the clouds parted. Sunlight fell through a blue hole in the sky, and Nick walked outside with his arms spread. Finally the bush pilot said: “Well, we can go, and if there is too much ice we will just turn back.” At $500 each way that was a bit of a gamble, especially when we had awoken that morning to find the coffee left out on the deck had frozen overnight.

But Lake X was just over the horizon. Harvey said, “If we do get in, we’ll be the first this year.”

So we took the charter. We flew over a mountain to look at a lake that, according to a local chopper pilot who flew over it just a day earlier, was still frozen solid.


“If the floatplane can’t land, we can always find that chopper and go in that way,” Harvey suggested. “He could land us on the shoreline for $1,500, probably. Chop holes in the ice. Or fish the outlet. It’s bound to be open.”

We nodded as if this made sense. Then again, we had just committed to an expensive flight that was likely going to just circle back to where we started. So rational thought was gone. We had tipped over into crazy land in the pursuit of big trout and nothing was going to stop us now.

The Cessna took off, sluggish on the sticky, windless lake—ice-free because it was a thousand feet lower than our destination—and tilted on one wing to turn southeast.

The last road was left behind. I watched for moose or bear in the spaces flashing between trees. But nothing moved in the still forest. As the floatplane climbed over the ridge I saw the ice floes on the lake. It looked bad—shimmering white. But as we got closer the pilot said that leads were open at the far end, along the shoreline.

The Risks of Fly Fishing Ice-Out
(Al Hassal art)

“The water is a different color,” he said, pointing. “Kinda darker. Shiny.”

It all looked like ice to me, but he didn’t get old by being bold, so we went in, and 30 feet from the deck I saw the fracture he had seen: there was a long, narrow ribbon of black water close to shore, just wide enough for a plane to land.

After the floatplane left we wondered what would happen if it got cold for a few days and the lake froze solid again, or if a wind came up and shunted the ice pans together, closing off the only landing strip.

But that didn’t happen. Each day it got warmer. Each day the lake opened a little more. We could hear ice candles, long vertical crystals of ice that form as surface ice melts, falling late in the day, with a soft, slushy, tinkling sound. The water was cold and clear. At night there were wolves. We found moose tracks on the shore, emerging from winter snow.

And we found the trout, too—big rainbows, feeding hard after a long winter under thick ice. At first we weighed them—twelve pounds, fourteen pounds, eighteen pounds—but after a while we stopped. It didn’t matter how big they were or how many. But it began to matter how we caught them.

I gave up on the heavy, weighted leeches I had been catapulting out on a fast sink line, and switched to a dry line. My catch rate fell, until I drifted to a point where a mayfly nymph in the surface film provoked porpoise rolls from unbelievably big trout. In the distance, snowcapped mountains shone in the setting sun. The sky flared red. And near me, in the water that had been ice only days ago, the trout hunched their backs as they pulled the line down.

At one point I thought, “What did I do to deserve this?” Then I remembered: I drove a long way and took a risk both on spring and on a floatplane trip to a frozen lake. I could have stayed home.

When the pilot returned we didn’t say much. Just loaded the plane. I didn’t look back as the Cessna went over the ridge and dropped down into the valley. I wanted to remember the lake drifted with ice, so forbidding it took my breath away.

In B.C., way out on Canada’s western edge, we are still lucky enough to have remote lakes that are seldom fished. Some of them hold 18-pound trout that will stop your fly in the depths and threaten to pull you out of the boat. In those lakes a window exists, just after the ice melts and before the lake turns over, when you can catch really big fish in relatively shallow water—sometimes on a nymph fished on a dry line. But most of the popular lakes in B.C.—particularly those in the Kamloops region—are heavily fished, and 18-pound trout are now a rarity.

Lake X gave us a taste of the past and served as a reminder not just of what we have lost, but also of what we could have again.

This story is an excerpt from Mark Hume’s new book, written with Mo Bradley, Trout School: Lessons from a Fly Fishing Master (Greystone Books, 2019). The text is a part of Chapter 7 titled “Ice Out.”

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