For anyone who is serious about fishing, Montana is at the top of the list as a dream destination. And while many anglers think of Big Sky Country as a place to fish during the warm season, our fish are here year-round. Ice fishing can be a perfect getaway and a true test of skill. Plus, it’s a time to kick back, relax and enjoy the stillness of winter.
Safety is an important consideration when ice fishing. Two things to remember: ice conditions can change almost as quickly as weather conditions and a cold day is even colder without any cover.
When ice fishing in Montana, it helps to have your bases covered.
- The essentials: Check the weather forecast. Be prepared for changing weather and bring along extra clothing, food/water, first aid kit and a compass. While you’re at it, bring a buddy.
- Tip-ups: Essentially, a tip-up is just a short stick that balances on a base. For ice fishing, it’s your “pole.”
- Tackle/Bait: You’ll need basic tackle such as hooks, sinkers and bobbers. Try lures in the basic colors of black, silver, gold, pink and orange. Popular bait choices include salmon eggs, worms, corn and even marshmallows, depending on where you’re fishing.
- Ice drill/auger: A good hand auger should be enough to handle most ice fishing situations for you. Most fold or disassemble for easy transport and are usually available in five to eight inch diameters.
- Ice skimmer: Once you’ve augured a hole, a skimmer will help you remove the slush, as well as keep new ice from forming.
- Clothing: Take care to dress extra warm. You’ll be exposed to the elements and you won’t be exerting a lot of energy to keep warm. Well-insulated boots are a must. Dress in layers, with a wind/water resistant outer layer.
- Shelter: While you certainly don’t need a hut or shelter to ice fish, many prefer it. You can find everything from fold up wind breaks to nylon dome tents to mini bunk houses.
To fish Montana’s waters, you must have a valid fishing license. For more information on rules and regulations visit Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks fishing regulations.
Number of Rod/Lines
Two rods and/or lines may be used to fish through ice on all lakes, reservoirs or ponds in the western and central districts of Montana.
Size of the Hold
The maximum size hole that may be cut for ice fishing is 144 square inches. There is no limit on the size of hole used for fishing with a spear or gig.
Special regulations apply to ice fishing shelters on Brown’s Lake near Ovando. Each shelter must be marked with the owner’s name, address and/or phone number, painted or permanently affixed to the shelter in legible letters not less than two inches in height, of contrasting color to the background and plainly visible at a distance of 100 feet.
Each shelter of closed type construction shall have a door readily opened from the outside for inspection by an office when the shelter is occupied. The door shall not be latched from the inside. Daily removal of the shelter is required.
Where to go
Much of conventional fishing wisdom applies for ice fishing. The best times to fish are early morning and late afternoon, the prime feeding times. Overcast days are often better than sunny days. And, noise will naturally scare away fish from even the most perfect hole. A key difference is that fish are more lethargic in the winter. Their metabolisms have slowed and they are generally more finicky about taking bait, adding to the challenge.
Glacier Country has a number of lakes that are fishing favorites in the winter months. South of Kalispell, Flathead Lake is the largest natural freshwater lake in the western United States. Although the lake usually doesn’t freeze completely due to its size, most bays freeze enough for excellent ice fishing. Whitefish and lake trout are the most caught, although yellow perch and cutthroat trout are also present.
Whitefish Lake also offers excellent ice fishing beginning in late December. Additional ice fishing locations in Glacier Country include Smith Lake (near Kila) and Bitterroot Lake (near Kalispell). The Seeley-Swan Valley is also home to numerous lakes, rivers and streams that offer prime ice fishing. Some to try: Salmon Lake, Holland Lake and Placid Lake.
Numerous lakes dot the Seeley Swan Valley and most feature excellent ice fishing. Salmon Lake, Holland Lake and Placid Lake are filled with bull trout, cutthroat trout, kokanee salmon and northern pike.