Winter Adventures

Enjoy the Calm of Ice Fishing in the Northwest

All you need is an auger, a short rod and reel, lures, and a bucket to sit on.

By Margaret Seiler Published in the Winter 2020/2021 issue of Portland Monthly

"Do you ever feel like a fish out of water?"

Image: Jack Dylan

This is not the land of semipermanent ice fishing shacks, those clustered day-drinking dens that can look like small cities in the northern plains and upper Midwest where ice fishing is close to religion, says Tyler Hicks, founder of the Washington Ice Fishing Facebook group. That actually makes the Northwest a perfect place for a first-time outing. Here, a “busy” lake might have only four or five people on it, and with less competition, other fishers are generally glad to help a newbie.

Tyler Hicks and a freshly caught tiger trout on Bonaparte Lake near Tonasket, Washington, just south of the Canadian border

Tyler Hicks and a freshly caught tiger trout on Bonaparte Lake near Tonasket, Washington, just south of the Canadian border

“What I like most about ice fishing is the simplicity of it,” says Hicks. “You’ll just go out on a lake, and you'll drill a single hole. I open-water fish, too, in a boat and kayak, and I’m always moving around, pursuing the fish. In ice fishing, you’re really letting the fish come to you. It’s a very different approach.” All you really need, Hicks says, is a way to cut through the ice, a short rod (with a long one, you might not feel a pull), any old reel, jig lures (add night crawlers to up your odds), and a bucket to sit on. To make the hole, invest in a simple manual ice auger. Hicks cautions that using a hatchet will make you sweat and then get chilled, and chain-saws “make you very wet because they blow a bunch of water back on you."

People who want to get serious can buy modern fish finders, which can add a video-game feel to fishing and help you learn the nuances. “I can actually look 100 feet in any direction underneath the ice and see fish coming, and this is in real time with directionality, so the technology is really moving forward,” Hicks says. “But what’s really cool is that even if you’re using some of the older-school technology that’s been around for 40, 50 years, which they call flashers, it just gives you little blips on a 360 degree screen, it gives you a read-out of what the depth of that mark is where that fish is. It’s still very interactive.... You’re chasing these little tiny blips on the screen. But you learn based on how that blip is moving up and down, how it’s responding to your lure, if you’re doing the right thing or doing the wrong thing, or what species that might be.”

fisher with a tiger trout

Another happy fisher with a tiger trout

While you might spot the occasional snowshoer poking a hole in the middle of the ice atop Trillium Lake on Mount Hood, you’ll find more options to the south and east in Oregon, including guided experiences at Diamond Lake and Lake of the Woods resorts, weather permitting. Or head north: Dog Lake, 50 miles west of Yakima, is day-trip distance from Portland. Fish Lake near Leavenworth is so packed with yellow perch, Hicks says, that a novice can feel like a pro, and northeastern Washington state is dotted with lakes likely to freeze by New Year’s. Check out or Hicks’s very welcoming Facebook group for more suggestions and condition reports, and remember a fishing license.