By Ryan Krogh
Let's face it: Winters in northern New Mexico can be brutal.
Foot upon foot of snow. Seemingly endless cold. Bone-chilling wind. For most people, the preferred method of coping is on the slopes, as there are few better ways to shake the winter doldrums than carving a clean line in fresh powder.
But for a few hardy souls, there's another winter pastime that inspires similar passion: ice fishing. It's not a large contingent, mind you, but as soon as the state's alpine lakes freeze over, usually by the end of December, there is a steady stream of people making their way onto the ice with ice augers and fishing poles. And despite the occasional 5-degree wind chills, they are out there most of the day, sitting over a hole in the ice. Here's why you should join them:
It's something completely different.
Most people don't even know that New Mexico has ice fishing. It's easy to overlook: Only a few of the state's lakes are high enough to freeze over every winter, but the half dozen or so that do—including Heron, Fenton, Eagle Nest and the lakes in the Jicarilla Apache Reservation—are phenomenal winter fisheries.
Eagle Nest Lake gets the most attention and deservedly so. The 2,400-acre lake in Moreno Valley is only a 15-minute drive from Angel Fire Resort (two hours from Santa Fe) and offers some of the best winter perch and rainbow trout fishing in the state. Every year in January, Mark Stewart of Dos Amigos Anglers in Eagle Nest and the local Chamber of Commerce organize an ice fishing derby on the lake over Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. weekend. Entrance fees are $15 and many of the contestants—last year there were 76—are first-time ice fishers.
"We get a lot of people who are up here skiing and just want something different to do for the day," Stewart says. "This gives them the chance to try it for the first time when there are a lot of people on the ice. They can talk with other fisherman and see how things are going."
It's a novelty. Honestly, how many people have been ice fishing in New Mexico? Not many, which is a mistake, as the fishing can be spectacular. In the wintertime, many species of fish, especially perch, school up. This means that once you find the fish, there can be nonstop action all day long. On lakes like Eagle Nest, which has a fishing limit of 30 perch and five rainbow, many people will fill their stringer after a few hours on the water.
The early ice phase—right after the lake freezes over—usually offers the best fishing, but it also offers the most precarious ice conditions. Check with state park officials or the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish before venturing out on the bigger lakes, as they monitor the ice and won't allow fishermen on it until it's at least nine inches thick. But once the ice is safe and there's a line in the water, few fishing experiences can compare to pulling a two-pound rainbow through an eight-inch hole in the ice.
"You can't see the fish and you never know what's there," Stewart says. "It's just something new, something different. That's the main allure."
It's a social sport. Mention ice fishing to most people and they picture the cast of Grumpy Old Men sitting alone in an ice shanty drinking Schlitz over a hole in the floor. The reality, at least in New Mexico, is that ice fishers are grumpy middle-aged men—sometimes with their families, sometimes with their friends—sitting on five-gallon buckets over holes in the ice (beer optional). However, being outside an ice house and open to the
elements also means everyone is open to conversation—usually. Most fishermen commiserate with each other as they freeze their asses off together and share—sometimes begrudgingly—their fishing secrets. That's why fishing is best done in groups and with a warm drink in hand: There are conversations and spirits to keep you warm.
"You generally catch fish," Sue Finley, manager of Eagle Nest Marina, which rents ice-fishing equipment for use on the lake, says. "And if you've got a good bunch around you, you have a lot of fun along with catching fish."
It's cheaper than skiing. A one-day pass at Ski Santa Fe is $58. Ski rentals will set you back another $22. But a day on the ice—with the rental of an auger, rod and skimmer, plus the cost of bait and tackle—only costs around $30. (An annual resident fishing license is $25.) And after a day on the slopes, there's no fish fry at night. "Most of the ice fisherman don't like catch and release," Finley says. "We love eating the perch."
It's not as cold as it looks. OK, it is as cold as it looks, but not always. A sunny, windless day on the ice can be downright pleasant.
"We can have days that will reach into the upper 30s, maybe even the low 40s, when there is no wind," Stewart says. "Those days are very comfortable. And then we have some days that are pretty darn nasty too."
To survive both conditions, dress in layers. Neoprene gloves will keep your hands dry while handling fish and waterproof boots will shed the slush that inevitably gathers around the hole. And bring an old piece of carpet or plywood to stand on, thus insulating your feet from the ice—it will go a long way toward keeping your entire body warm. The wind is the real enemy in the alpine valleys, so a good wind-breaking jacket or a portable shelter is a good idea. But sometimes, it's best just to pay attention to the weather and skip a day that's going to be cold and windy. Frostbite can set in fast, even if you're catching fish.
It's all about the fish. At least it's all about catching the fish. And to get them biting, everyone has their favorite lure or bait: salmon eggs, corn, PowerBait, jigs, spoons, worms, etc. The list goes on and on. But Finley offers one surefire method of catching fish.
"We generally holler down the hole, 'Buckaroo!' to get them to start biting," she says.
And let's face it: Is there a better reason to sit over a hole in the ice than trying that?