ROCKPORT RESERVOIR — Eight-year-old Conner Davis sat in a folding chair, distracted from the day’s objective by a handheld video game.
A few yards away, his short ice-fishing rod sat propped over a hole in the ice, as still as can be. Davis and his grandpa Ben had arisen before dawn on a recent Saturday to try their luck at catching tagged trout to redeem for prizes as part of an ongoing contest at Rockport.
While grandpa had caught a couple of small rainbows that morning and let his grandson pull them through the ice, Conner wanted to hook one on his own pole. However, it was nearly lunchtime, and he hadn’t so much as a bite despite trying different jigs, baits and depths.
“Grandpa says you have to be patient, so I’m trying not to be bored,” he said. “It’s hard when you can’t catch any fish, but I’m not giving up yet.”
It wasn’t more than about five minutes later when the little silver alarm bell attached to the tip of his rod chimed slightly but unmistakably and the tip started to wiggle.
“Grab it! Grab it!” an excited Ben urged Conner, who sprang up from his video game, seized the rod, and reeled in a 10-inch, purple-hued rainbow. Not a monster by any standard, but perfect eating size — which is exactly what Conner said he would do with it.
“My mom knows how to cook them real good, " he said.
It’s been an unusual winter in Utah, with a dearth of snow and unseasonably warm temperatures that made for a mixed bag when it comes to ice fishing. The ice on some lower elevation waters like Willard Bay hasn’t been safe or stable all winter.
The solution has been for ice anglers to head for higher ground. Reports of hot fishing have been coming from the Mirror Lakes region of the Uinta Mountains, and old reliables like Strawberry Reservoir have been fishing fast as usual.
“In my opinion, Utah has some of the best ice fishing in the country,” says Drew Cushing, warm water sport fisheries coordinator for the Division of Wildlife Resources and an avid ice angler who has fished through the ice in states across the country.
“Utah provides a wider variety of fish to catch than any place I know of,” he says. “And many of these opportunities are probably close to your home.”
For example, he said, Utah County residents can fish for white bass at Utah Lake in the morning, then head up the canyon and over to Strawberry to pursue trophy-sized cutthroat trout.
Depending on what species you’re after he said Top of Utah waters are also some of the state’s best. Pineview is a top fishery for perch, crappie and tiger muskie, Causey and Porcupine reservoirs are the best spots to pursue kokanee salmon.
Part of the attraction of ice fishing is its simplicity and affordability. Fly fishing rods and equipment tend to run into the thousands of dollars, whereas ice fishing only requires a short rod and reel, fishing line and some hooks, and bait such as mealworms or waxworms. Small lures such as jigs or ice flies are also effective at many spots.
Fish tend to become lethargic when ice covers their home and the water cools, so Cushing said it’s important to move around to different spots when not catching fish. Fish of the same species also tend to stay suspended at about the same depth throughout the ice season, so finding the right depth is just as crucial, he said.
“Remember that fish that are under the ice aren’t willing to expend a lot of energy to catch their food,” he said. “If you move your bait or lure too much or too fast, the fish might decide it’s not worth their effort to catch what you’re offering them.”
Sunfish like perch and walleye tend to stay near the bottom of the lake, while trout can typically be found at a variety of depths.
There are some who see those “crazy” people out freezing on the ice and vow they will never find themselves there. But those in the know are aware of its advantage, and look forward all year to sitting out on a frozen lake with a simple setup, a hot beverage, and hopefully a whole mess of fish.
Cushing said ice is the “great equalizer” because anglers can fish any part of a lake or reservoir they desire without the need for a boat or float tube. You just have to be willing to walk, he said.
“Winter can be the most fun, the most productive and the least expensive time of the year to fish.”