Fort Peck–Some Lessons Learned (by Brad Smudzinski)
By angelamontana

What can the fascination be?

Freezing cold temperatures, howling wind, few hours of daylight. Walking long distances dragging a top heavy sled across a slippery surface.
Well there is this. Silence, crisp fresh air, a sense of being alone in nature. Just a man, an auger, and some hooks against the elements and against all odds.

Getting up way before day-break the rig is all ready to roll. The gear is all set and the thermos is full. The next challenge (after getting out of bed) is getting the car cleared of ice and snow and making the short trip to the reservoir. Ah, yes reservoir. You know what that means? Well… Unless you are dropping in on one of the boat ramps you can expect a long haul from your rig followed by a steep cliff to get down onto the ice. Water levels are down in the winter and there is no place on Fort Peck Lake where you can simply drive up to the edge of the ice and slide your sled across the smooth flat ice. If you are on a snowmobile or side by side you must put in at the authorized sites, most all of which are boat ramps.

For me, and other financially challenged guys like me, it is a per-foot pursuit, this ice fishing thing.

That means lots and lots of walking and dragging. My first year on the reservoir I decided before ice season arrived to purchase one of those flip over insulated shelters. I thought that if I was going to spend each weekend from dawn to dusk and even later on the ice then I should at least do so in something which offered the chance to get warm. The shelter was great! Warm and comfortable even a comfy seat with a back rest. It blocked the wind and helped hold in the heat from the propane heater. But there were issues… First, getting it from the trunk of the car down to the ice. This meant unloading all the gear (auger, flasher, rods, heater, food, bait, and tackle) out from inside the sled and then on to the ground with it. Then load it up again. Now, the fun! Drag over mud, snow, rocks, or ice down the steep embankment and onto the ice. Then the real fun begins! I believe the shelter in the sled alone weighed well over 80 pounds. Toss in all the aforementioned gear and you are at 150 easy. So, the pulling, sweating, panting, and groaning can begin! Did I mention groaning?

The points to fish are not right on the shore line for the most part and it can be a haul out to the “hot spots” Main lake points, submerged islands, and areas with steep drops and weeds are preferred. Spots that were fished in the summer for pike, walleye, lake trout, and bass are once again targeted. I use the same unit on open water as I use on the ice and my waypoints are loaded on the navionics card all ready. I pull the sled with my Lowrance unit turned on and in the navigation mode. It takes some skill as you are looking back at the unit and walking forward and things are ass backwards as they are shown on the unit. I have yet to figure out a way to pull a sled and have the unit in front of me…

Once on the waypoint it is time to get the auger fired up.

I have traditionally had very bad luck with small gas motors. I have killed nearly every weed eater and chain saw I have ever owned. Thus I opted for a propane fired model. There are several advantages to me. One is that there is no gas motor I can break with the wrong fuel mixture. There is no fuel to mix and thus the car does not stink and neither do your hands as you fill the thing or use it. Bait fish on a hook with a gassy smell catch few fish. And carrying extra fuel is easier as there is no gas can to lug around. A second propane cylinder takes almost no room and weighs nothing. I never had a day on the ice where I ran out of fuel. To give an estimate of how many holes it can go would be a wild guess but 100 holes in a day is not an issue. I use a 10 inch auger and it was never under powered and the only issues I ever experienced where when the ice was so deep that it bottomed out. Even leaving the auger in the car overnight in -20 degrees did not affect it. It would start up the next day after a few pulls. As a side note I must mention that while I am very happy with the propane choice I am not too sure about the brand- Eskimo. About every bit of plastic on the thing is broken. All the guards, and such made of plastic are broken. Releasing the pull cord simply allows it to smash back onto the unit and shatters all in its way. The unit still functions as it should but it looks as though it took a tumble on the ice from a snow machine doing 50 mph. The blades lasted one season and were replaced in the first few weeks of the new season- cheaply enough thanks to Amazon…

I have a much different style of fishing than my buddy. I like to drill two holes in the shelter and then drill out another 6 or 8 somewhere where I can see them from the tent. My plan is always to jig one rod and have a dead rod next to it in the shelter with a minnow on it, and then have 4 tip-ups or jaw-jackers in my line of sight. Thus I am actively fishing 6 baits.

He, on the other hand likes to hole-hop. He has no shelter and will get out on a point and drill 40 holes all at once. He will then jump from hole to hole after checking the graph for fish and noting the depth. Finding a hole interesting he will jig it for a bit and then lower in a tip up with a minnow. Off to the next hole. Jig, place tip up, and on and on. After a while he has 5 tip ups out and then it’s just jig from open hole to open hole.

Which strategy works better?

I cannot say that I caught more fish or that he did last season. But I can say that I am on my flags much quicker and I limit my holes to known spots and structure. His strategy of covering more water should mean more chances at finding fish and it has paid off in the past. The fact that I have almost 10 years on him also has something to do with it. There is a level of fitness needed for all this. Pulling the gear and drilling the holes is not as easy as it might sound. The auger does most of the work, but there is some effort needed to drive that thing through 16 inches or more of ice! And carrying a 40 pound auger, the graph, the rods, bait and tackle from hole to hole can drain you quick.

My Lowrance elite 7 hdi allows me to navigate to the waypoints using it in navionics chart mode. Once there I put it in split flasher and traditional down scan. So on the left side I have a flasher view which shows the water bottom, my jig, and marks fish as they enter the sonar cone- just as an ice fishing only flasher does. On the right side I have the traditional open water scrolling screen in down scan which shows the same information but in a view which I am much more familiar with. I can see my jig moving up and down as a zig zag line and the fish coming in to check it out as a half circle, just as in open water. I will often first “see” the fish on the flasher as a blip of color on the circular graph. I then try and work her in.

Here in eastern Montana you are able to leave your tip ups out overnight unattended. This is pretty handy. At the end of the day fishing I set up 6 rigs with a minnow on each and when I arrive the next morning it is always a thrill to see how many flags there are. I have had 0 but most times most of the flags are up. Landing 3 or 4 of these is often possible. There are other times when there are 2 blank hooks, 2 broken lines, and 2 complete spool-outs. You never know. There is no good way I know of to fish selectively. No matter what size hook, or bait, you cannot keep northern off. Lakers will come in to, and walleye are the rarest of the trio. Using steel is almost a necessity if you don’t want to keep re-rigging. I have used 40 pound power pro in an attempt to keep the northern teeth at bay, and it works most of the time. But there are times when the hook is swallowed too deep and that line comes in contact with the jaws and then it is over. Using steel leader seems like a sure way to limit walleye bites, so I just take the losses as they come and hope that it is the walleye which finds the bait first.

Leaving tip ups out overnight sounds great, but there is a down side.

When temperatures are in the teens and below you can find a good 4 inches of ice in your hole when you come out the next morning. Even using a 10 inch auger the holes refreeze quick and deep. My first year fishing on Peck I used thermal tip-ups. Those plastic coated things froze right into the hole and when that happens good luck chipping them out! I broke most all of them with the spud bar in the first days I had them. They did not keep the ice from forming under them either. My buddy simply used pieces of plywood with a slit cut out for the spool rod. These kept the snow off the hole and prevented a bit of freezing. But most importantly he could simply remove the plywood cover and chip out his hole. Much easier that me trying to perform surgery to extract my plastic junk. Another issue with leaving them out is finding them again! Wind is common, as is snow and if you did not mark your spots on a GPS, good luck. This is another reason I tend to place mine all in a row. I can find one and then locate the rest. I can place them all on a contour line and be o.k. There are many Apps which you can use to mark their location on your smart phone. Just don’t run out of battery. I am sure you all know how great cell phone batteries are in the cold… Seth on the other hand has his spread out across miles and plays search and rescue to locate his. Reflective tape on the flags helps, as do binos and a spot light.

The rewards of success lead to more work. Cleaning fish in the winter has its own unique challenges. Fish cleaning stations are closed of course meaning that this must be done at home. Those of us without heated garages must do this out in the elements. Not as easy as it sounds. If the fish freeze as they tend to do once out of the water you must first warm up the “logs”. Having them a bit frozen actually helps with the filleting, but rock hard is a no-go. All the excess must also be disposed of in the garbage as well. If you are a single guy you might be able to throw them in the sink until they warm up and then fillet them in the kitchen. Married guys might catch some hell for that I’d guess?

When all is said and done, it is all well worth it.

Instead of wasting away on the couch all winter getting fat the season was spent being active, out in nature. There is fish in the freezer and some memories of good times had along the way. You just need to wipe that other memory from your mind. That time you were out way too late, it was way too cold, pulling way too much gear to your outfit, which was way too far away. Never again you said! Until the next day of course.

(Written by Brad Smudzinksi)