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Original Issue


It began as an ice skating trip to a high lake in the Cascades in southern Oregon. But before I had even parked the car, I noticed the ice fishermen, and on the way to the skate-rental shed I stopped to see how they were doing. "Go on and get started," I said to the two friends who were with me. "I'll be along in a while."

"If you stop to watch, you'll never get skating," one of them answered.

"Sure I will. I don't even have any tackle in the car."

"You'll figure something out."

"Go on," I said. "I'll be along in a minute or two. Five or 10 anyway."

Of course, they were right. It had been 15 years since I had last skated, so another day certainly wouldn't matter. And I saw at once that the ice fishermen were doing very well. There were about a dozen of them, in an area less than half the size of a basketball court. Six-inch holes had been chopped through the ice, and numerous kokanee salmon and brook trout lay scattered about them. The kokanee were eight-to 10-inch fish, dark and thin, apparently close to spawning, but the brook trout were fat and beautifully marked, some of them as large as 16 inches.

I wandered around, looked at the fish, asked a few questions. Everyone was using bait—worms, marshmallows, cheese, salmon eggs—and everyone agreed that it was possible to catch the limit of 10 fish within 45 minutes or an hour.

A quick search of the car's trunk produced all that I would need—some scraps of leader ranging from four-pound test to eight, which, when I knotted them together, gave me a few yards of line, a tire iron and three old but still fishable steelhead flies, a Skunk, a Golden Demon and a Thor.

After about five minutes a middle-aged man in a down jacket and cowboy hat limited out and relinquished his spot. As he started toward the parking lot, he did a double take.

"You gonna fish with that stuff?" he asked.

"Sure. Why not?"

"Some line and a tire iron?"

"There's no need to cast here."

"But there ain't any flies hatching now, in January."

"Well, there aren't any marshmallows hatching now, either."

He shook his head and walked away.

My spot was in the middle of the other fishermen, and the first thing I did was use the tire iron to enlarge the hole in the three-inch-thick ice. With the diameter of the hole increased to more than a foot, I could see the rocky lake bottom six feet down where the fish cruised by in plain sight, usually about a foot above the rocks. My hands were shaking—not with cold, but with excitement—as I lowered the Golden Demon to them.

All the fish ignored the Golden Demon when I held it still, even when they passed within inches of it, but when I jigged the fly, each passing fish struck at it viciously. I didn't hook them all, but I hooked most of them. In fact, I was landing at least as many fish as all the bait anglers combined.

My catching fish didn't seem to bother the bait anglers as much as my releasing them did. After just a few minutes the elderly fellow nearest me came out with it: "How come you're letting the damn things go?"

"It's more fun that way. Besides, I'm too lazy to clean them."

"Well then give 'em to us," demanded the cold-looking, bored-looking wife of a fisherman stationed behind me.

It was at just about this point that the fat man made a good day perfect for me. He was one of several dozen skaters who were sprinting, gliding or struggling by, often no more than 20 yards from the area we were fishing. Ankles wobbling, arms waving in desperate attempts to maintain his balance, he crashed to the ice at least once every five minutes, flat on his huge backside.

He was skating a short, irregular circle that never took him more than 50 yards away, and I noticed that each time he sat down, all the fish I could see through my hole in the ice streaked toward deeper water, apparently frightened by the vibrations sent through the lake by the fat man's bottom. Once, a large brook trout had turned and was about to inhale my jigging fly when the skater hit the ice, and the trout stopped in mid-strike, hesitated for a moment, then disappeared in a panicky flash. After each of these pratfalls there was a lull of about a minute before anyone hooked another fish.

When I noticed this correlation, I began to use it to my own advantage or, more accurately, to the disadvantage of the bait fishermen surrounding me.

I was kneeling on the ice as I jigged my Golden Demon, and during periods when there were no fish in the immediate vicinity of the fly I would hit the ice fairly hard with one of my knees every eight or 10 seconds, hoping to frighten fish away from everyone else. Of course I couldn't pound the ice with as much force as the fat man but I was much closer than he was, right on top of things, and anyway, all I wanted was a muted version of the waterquakes he was creating. The trick worked. No one noticed what I was doing, and very few fish were caught while I banged away at the ice. Whenever a fish came into my view, I stopped the banging and jigged the fly, and nearly always had a quick strike. So I caught as many fish as ever, while everyone else caught less. In little more than an hour I had landed and released dozens of kokanee and at least 15 sizable brook trout.

Not long after the fat man quit skating, I quit fishing. My knees were sore, and I was cold. It had been well worth it, though. There is no way to prove it, but I'd be willing to bet a lot that all the bait fishermen at the lake that day gave at least passing thought to learning to fish with flies.

In any case, the fat man was responsible. It was his ample end that suggested the means.