Fishing beneath the ice

January 29, 2004 12:00 am
Klayton Novak patiently waits for a fish to nibble his plastic fishing lure. He wore multiple layers of clothing to keep warm while fishing. (Baker City Herald/Kathy Orr).
Klayton Novak patiently waits for a fish to nibble his plastic fishing lure. He wore multiple layers of clothing to keep warm while fishing. (Baker City Herald/Kathy Orr).

By JAYSON JACOBY

Of the Baker City Herald

When Al Moeller's favorite fishing hole fails to teem with trout, he just drills a new one.

This simplicity is among ice-fishing's more tempting lures.

There is no boat trailer to maneuver down a steep, slippery ramp.

No cantankerous two-stroke motor to tinker with.

No splintery oars to yank.

You just stroll across the ice.

Drill a hole.

Bait a hook.

Then wait for the pole's tip to twitch.

Odds are you won't wait long this winter at Unity Reservoir, where Moeller has reeled in enough rainbow trout recently to fill his creel a few times over.

"I've been catching quite a few," said Moeller, who lives not far from the reservoir, which is about 55 miles southwest of Baker City via Highways 7 and 245.

The lone dilemma, he said, is that the trout, though plentiful, have been running on the puny side.

"They're the smallest fish I've seen there," Moeller said. "Sometimes you catch 20 little ones before you hook a keeper."

At least the ice is more stout than the trout.

The frozen layer is a foot thick in places, Moeller said — more than enough to support an army of anglers.

Weather this winter has been ideal for making ice, said Jerry Franke, who manages the Burnt River Irrigation District and lives just below Unity Dam.

"We've been as cold as minus 24, and we haven't been above freezing but a couple of times since Christmas," Franke said.

Last winter, by contrast, Moeller's fishing tackle attracted more closet dust than it did trout. Mild weather created a wretched combination of conditions: there was enough ice to render regular liquid angling impossible, but not enough ice to hold anglers.

Moeller said he fished through the ice on Unity Reservoir just once or twice last year, during a brief cold snap when the ice thickened sufficiently.

This winter, though, he's been out on the reservoir on half a dozen days.

And he wasn't alone.

"I've seen 18 to 20 other people on several occasions," Moeller said.

Such crowds have been common, especially during weekends, said Dennis Bradley, team leader at Clyde Holliday State Park near Mount Vernon.

Bradley's crew also manages the state park on the south shore of Unity Reservoir.

"Fishing's been really good," he said. "I've talked to some people who spent the entire weekend there."

The state park is closed during winter, as is the access road, Bradley said.

Officials left the road open during winters several years ago, he said, but ambitious vandals thwarted that experiment.

Many ice-anglers park instead at a turnout along Highway 245, Bradley said.

The bustle at Unity Reservoir is hardly unique.

Anglers have flocked to reservoirs across the region this winter, said Nadine Craft, who works at the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's La Grande office.

Craft said she found people fishing at Wolf Creek Reservoir near North Powder on both of her recent visits.

She's also heard reports of anglers doing well at nearby Pilcher Creek Reservoir.

But Craft recommends anglers avoid Thief Valley Reservoir, which in wetter times is among the more popular ice-fishing destinations.

The reservoir emptied last summer, so it's unlikely that many, if any, fish survived, Craft said.

"I wouldn't waste my time," she said.

Craft hasn't checked Phillips Reservoir, 16 miles southwest of Baker City along Highway 7, but the reservoir has earned a reputation for producing prodigious quantities of yellow perch.

And you can keep as many perch as you want (the limit on trout is five per day).

Bait-fishing is the preferred method for most ice anglers — the cold water of winter makes fish lethargic, and less apt to strike at a shiny metal lure.

Moeller said he has enticed Unity's trout with a variety of baits, including salmon and steelhead eggs (both bottled and fresh), Powerbait and that old standby: worms.

He said he usually drops his hook to just above the bottom, regardless of the water's depth.

Craft said anglers she talked with at Wolf Creek were catching most of their fish at depths of 10 to 15 feet.

Cold weather has heated up the cash register drawer at York's Park Grocery and Sporting Goods in Baker City.

Owner Dennis Dorrah said he has sold 12 to 15 ice augers this winter.

Last year the tools were about as popular as bikinis in February in Fairbanks.

"I didn't order any (augers, not bikinis) this year," Dorrah said Tuesday. "We're selling last year's stock."