There is this really cool thing that happens in and around Watford City. A thing that I just experienced again for the umpteenth time. Something pops in my head, something I’m curious about, something I hear briefly mentioned and can’t stop thinking about. I get a little nosy and ask a few questions of people who I think might have a some info and bam, I’m down this little rabbit hole into something so completely foreign to me. This is the process that brought me to a Saturday morning out on Lake Sakakawea in -11 degree weather.
A few weeks ago I was driving home from Bismarck and passed some people ice fishing right off the highway on this little pond. I knew ice fishing was a thing but have never actually known someone who does it. All I wanted to do was pull the car over and venture out on the ice and ask a million questions but my kid was sleeping and I barely had a coat so I had to put my curiosity aside and just keep driving. Not long after, I reached out to Peggy Hellandsaas, the owner out at Tobacco Gardens Resort and Marina (the facilities on Lake Sakakawea, about 30 minutes from my place) on Facebook. I sent her a message saying I would like to learn about ice fishing and did she have any ideas of who I could talk to and she responded quick – they were having an ice fishing event out there the following weekend and she’d line people up to take me on the ice. Wahoo, I was stoked.
I showed up not really knowing what to expect, not sure exactly what to wear or what I would be doing. When I thought of ice fishing I pictured two guys in arctic weather sitting on overturned buckets around a hole in the ice holding their lines and spitting chew. Seemed fun for maybe 5 minutes or less to me, but I had to check it out.
I pulled in and Peggy was waiting for me with her two son-in-laws who would take me out on the ice. The two women there inspected my clothing, quizzed me on how many layers I was wearing and checked to make sure I was wearing cuddl duds. Ummm, cuddl duds, I asked? A warm thermal base layer I gathered. They approved of my clothing and sent me on my way.
I jumped in a side by side with Justin Johnsrud, Peggys son-in-law and a teacher/coach at the high school. Without hesitation he took off down the road and before I knew it we were driving right on the ice. Others were out, driving on the ice in their trucks so it didn’t seem like I needed to be nervous but it was a really strange feeling to be driving around on top of the water.
Ice houses dotted the lake, I believe they said they had 140ish teams participating in the day’s competition – Catch for the Cure, a Relay for Life Fundraiser.
Yep, all of this right on the lake.
Here’s the low down…. Most people fish in ice houses. Ice houses are basically RV’s or trailers parked wheels up straight on the ice. As you walk in the door you see what you would in many RV’s, a little kitchen, places to sit, maybe a table, but along the floor there are round cut outs. People pull off the round covers exposing the ice, drill a hole in that circle, and put a line right down into the water. Ice houses range from 2X4’s draped with a tarp to glammed out, accessorized resort level buildings.
On this day I saw everything from portable tent shelters
To this fancy ice castle
I did not, however, see any dudes on upside down buckets hanging out in the cold.
There were plenty of people who had shelters or ice houses set up and had also drilled holes outside of their shelters to try to find more successful spots. Some of them were standing outside and didn’t seem to notice the sub zero temperature.
This is Bud Bingham and Charles King, they kindly allowed me to snap their pictures as they searched for a better fishing spot.
Did I mention that it was -11 degrees that day? As I got out to take pictures, my iPhone kept shutting off because it was so cold!
I spent most of the morning in the Korslien’s ice house with Justin and his son Judd, Rex (Peggy’s other son-in-law) and two of their buddies. We didn’t see a lot of action as far as fish went but they gave me a really good peak into why ice fishing is appealing. They laughed and told stories and drank and genuinely enjoyed time away from their homes and weekday routine.
Winters here are long and stark and people have had to adapt to the elements and make North Dakota work for them. At the beginning of the season (around January) the ice is finally thick enough to bring an ice house down. They set it up and leave it there until around March, right before the ice starts to break up. So, to ice fish, they need only to dress warm, pick up food and drinks, maybe some bait and drive down to their ice house. There, they find their lines right where they left them. They sit down with friends, laugh and hang out and maybe catch a fish.
Justin and Rex said that they often bring their kids down and their kids will strap on their ice skates and make a little hockey rink, or draw on the snow covered ice with food coloring. Judd was more than excited for a chance to drive the side by side around for a minute.
A lot of people have satellite TV hooked up in their ice house and so football fans can enjoy the best of both worlds, watch their games and fish and get out of their house for the weekend.
Apparently back in the day no ice house was complete without a card table. Football fans had to stay at home to catch their games and those on the ice played a lot of cards. I can picture those guys, sitting around with thick smoke hovering over their table playing cards, stopping intermittently to pull up a fish on one of their lines. Today’s equipment might be quite a bit fancier but the atmosphere, the camaraderie, not much different.
Was it cold? Yeah of course it was. But, inside the ice house I forgot about being cold, there was a little heater it wasn’t too bad.
Like any sport, you can spend as much or as little money as you want getting equipped to ice fish. There are all sort of devices and accessories you could spend thousands of dollars on if you’re so inclined. I spent a good amount of time looking at the colors change on some kind of depth/pressure/fish sensor thing attached to the fishing line. It was weirdly mesmerizing.
Here’s your truly roughing it out in the cold.
As the morning wound down I made me way back to Tobacco Gardens Resort and Marina and enjoyed some hot food made in the restaurant and spent some more time with Peggy and her family. Their hospitality and obvious connection with each other was so heartening. My curiosity, as is commonly the case out here, was met with people so open, so friendly and willing to share their life style with me.
My ultimate synopsis? I’m not rushing out to buy an ice house but anyone who invites me out to spend a morning in theirs will probably get a yes. I will bring drinks and wear cuddl duds and make like a North Dakota’n and catch myself a fish.