Winter in the northern tier of states has a hardy breed of outdoor recreationalist called the ice fisherman.
The upper Midwest, namely Minnesota, may be the ice fishing capital of North America — hundreds of shanties are pulled out onto local lakes for a three-month period.
While Arizona does not have the harsh winters, it does have thousands of northerners who migrate here for the sunny weather.
A growing number of these transplants have realized they can still enjoy their old winter pastime by traveling to the Rim or the White Mountains to a few accessible high-elevation lakes that have a safe, thick coating of ice. These trout lakes need to be at least at the 7,000-foot level to be considered safe for an ice angling adventure.
The closest for Payson residents is Willow Springs Lake, which is only a quarter of a mile off the busy 260 Highway and approximately 33 miles from town. This is predominantly a trout lake, but also has a healthy population of bass and even a few crappies that can be caught through the ice during a daily outing.
The back side of the lake which is closest to the highway has a couple of narrow coves that freeze early in the season and provide safe ice for the diehards who want to try their luck on a winter excursion. It is only a short hike, but the depth of the snow will certainly determine how much energy has to be expended to get to the lake.
Safety precautions are paramount, which means go with a friend or two and always have a rope readily available for any unexpected emergency. At least 6 inches of blue or hard ice is a must before venturing out onto the frozen lake and drilling a hole or two for fishing.
An ice auger or ax is a must, because in most cases, at this time of year there will be much more than six inches of frozen water. If you are lucky, maybe you will find a hole that has been used by someone on a previous trip, which means only a little chipping will be necessary to reopen it.
Make sure you dress warm, with multiple layers of clothing because the 2,500-foot difference in elevation from the Payson area will create extreme winter conditions. Standing on the ice can get very cold and tiring, so a lightweight stool is important as required equipment. A pair of sunglasses, with UV protection, and sunscreen are also must-have items with all the glare that will be encountered when that southern exposure winter sun is shining.
A short, ultralight fishing rod in the 5-foot range is the easiest to handle because of the small diameter of the hole in the ice, that is, unless you have a specially designed outfit for ice fishing. The typical summertime baits will work well in the winter, such as power bait, corn, salmon eggs and worms.
The fish are very lethargic in the winter, so the bite is very light and oftentimes hard to detect, which will dictate using light line, small split shots, and size 10 or smaller hooks. Remember, they are a cold-blooded creature and not as aggressive at this time of year. Fish seldom travel far in the winter, so if one hole has no action it might be best to drill another a short distance away and move the bait. The winter window for ice fishing in Arizona is very short, so now is the time to give it a try. Always take all of the precautions for a safe and enjoyable ice fishing adventure and maybe a few trout can be caught for a delicious fresh fish dinner with friends.
This weekend enjoy God’s creation in the winter Rim Country.