During most winters in North Idaho, good ice is hard to find.
Having a solid sheet of ice on Panhandle lakes for a couple of months makes the region’s ice anglers giddy.
Swedish pimples, Tungsten Tubbies and Lady Slick jigs become common vernacular.
Crampons get sharpened.
Last year’s ice-fishing season unveiled such unequivocally good ice that Hayden Lake froze entirely, allowing anglers to jig for kokanee near Honeysuckle Beach, and venture to honey holes that ice anglers don’t usually hit.
“We haven’t been able to do that for years,” Jeff Smith said.
While weather forecasters call for an oncoming Panhandle deep freeze as early as next week, anglers like Smith, and his son, Jordan, who operates Fins and Feathers Tackle Shop and Guide Service, spend a bit of their time preparing — and preparing others — for what’s right about North Idaho in winter:
Ice fishing is near the top of the list.
“Last year was such a good ice year, and we had ice so long,” Jordan Smith said. “We don’t get that a lot.”
North Idaho lakes start to freeze usually around Christmas. By then, however, some of the smaller lakes such as Avondale, a 57-acre spot of water in Hayden that holds mostly panfish including crappies, bluegills, perch, some bass and any holdover trout from plantings the previous spring, already have ice.
Adjacent to the Avondale Golf Course in Hayden, the lake is accessed from Avondale Loop.
But just because a lake has ice doesn’t mean the frozen surface can hold an angler.
“Jeff thinks it’s OK when it’s 3 or 4 inches thick,” Jordan said. “I like 5 or 6 inches before I feel safe.”
Ice fishing can be a winter Valhalla for urban dwellers who want to get out of the house to hook fish and fill a bucket without driving too far.
The lake and river cities offer a bunch of ice fishing opportunity including panfish lakes like Hauser and Fernan, and bigger water like Hayden Lake where anglers can target pike.
It doesn’t take a ton of gear.
An ice auger and a slush scooper, short rods and small reels, a plastic sled to transport accoutrements, a couple 5-gallon buckets to sit on, are the basics. Crampons or other assorted claw devices to strap to the soles of boots make walking on ice easier.
“It can get slippery out there,” Jordan said. “Especially if it gets windy.”
Anglers usually start with baited jigs such as Swedish pimples with a maggot or meal worm skewered on the hook. Pike anglers often use tip-up rigs with the working end baited with dead stuff, like herring.
The north end of Hayden Lake at the fisherman’s access off Lancaster Road is a popular pike spot.
“That usually freezes good and it freezes out quite a ways,” Jordan said.
Venturing north and south, and along the eastern side of Lake Coeur d’Alene anglers will find a slew of popular ice fishing lakes. Spirit Lake and Lower Twin Lake hold kokanee and the state record pike — a 40 pounder — was caught in Lower Twin Lake. Round Lake State Park, and Cocolalla are popular winter trout and panfish lakes, and a variety of water holes near Sagle see ice angler action.
A strong ice year six years ago made the Chain Lakes of the Coeur d’Alene River everyone’s favorite pike hotspot. Thick, clear ice that formed in November held on through January prompting anglers to cut holes there for months.
Lakes including Killarney, Medicine, Cave and Rose offer good access and action.
“Those lakes are pretty good, people do a lot of pike fishing there,” Jordan said.
Ice is the most important thing about ice fishing. It has to be tested, and proven sound. The Idaho Department of Fish and Game issues annual warnings on the topic and Idaho Fish and Game’s website has a section on safe ice fishing.
The Smiths like to test the ice every 15 to 30 feet by using an auger to cut holes and visually inspect the ice for weakness — clear, solid ice is best, and white bubbles or slush ice can indicate weakness.
Some anglers carry life jackets just in case.
“Early and late season ice is the scariest,” Jordan said. “People tend to push the limits a little.”