SALMON LAKE – The start of 2016 put all of Montana’s winter tricks on display Friday, from hoar frost in the trees to fresh perch on the frozen lakes.
“I caught one hammer-handle,” Missoula ice fisherman Wyatt Blevins said, referring to an immature pike. “It went right back in the lake.”
Blevins and buddies Adam Krantz, Brad Hall and Curtis Engelstad were just one of several parties spread across the north end of Salmon Lake, angling for a New Year’s supper. While the rods weren’t bending much, the men had everything from Tom Waits tunes on a portable stereo to chicken a la king on the portable camp stove to pass the time.
“Georgetown Lake’s been slow, Salmon’s been slow, and we usually don’t fish Placid Lake until the end of February,” said Krantz, who brought most of the gear for the outing. “You just never know if it’s a day of catching fish, or a day of drinking beer with friends.”
While the temperature struggled to get above 15 degrees, the sun broke free of the clouds shortly after noon and oversaw a fully blue-sky afternoon. Lack of wind made the cold bearable.
Up at Placid Lake, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks park manager Ryan Sokoloski was leading a First Day tour.
“Take in that silence,” he advised as he scanned for tracks across the perfectly flat surface of the ice. “The snow is a great sound absorber. But there are some wonderful wildlife opportunities at this time of year.”
Placid residents David and Karen Castle backed up Sokoloski’s advice. From their lakeshore cabin, they’ve been seeing a variety of action on the lake.
“We usually go cross-country skiing, but each got snowshoes for Christmas,” David Castle said. “There’s been lots of wildlife out. We had a mountain lion take a deer right out our picture window. And I think some hockey team has rented one of the cabins on the lake. We see them out playing pond-hockey on the lake for practice.”
A few people were snowmobiling in the hills above Salmon Lake, while cross-country ski trails headed up several hillsides around Placid. Snow in many places was about a foot deep – still beginning by northern Montana standards but enough for it to feel like actual winter.
“Cabin fever is a real thing,” Sokoloski said. “Its symptoms are irritability, anger, and feeling overwhelmed by insignificant obstacles. The best thing for it is getting outside.”