Experienced ice fisherman John Lindsay with a nice stringer of Rainbow trout. Photo by Brian Baxter, The Montanian

Lots of opportunity for ice fishing tourney’s this February

By Brian Baxter


Traditionally, the second month of the year is a great time to ice fish. Folks in the northwest corner of Big Sky Country fish through the ice for a variety of reasons. Many enjoy the solitude of sitting quietly alone on a frozen lake. That quietness only occasionally interrupted by a songbird, a woodpecker drumming on a tree trunk, a subtle far off crack of deep ice, or the bubbling gulp of the lake itself. Others find inspiration on a blue sky day with a few good friends or family, laughing and joking.

All enjoy the excitement of battling fish they cannot see, but can definitely feel. When that silver flash appears near a hole bored through the ice, their hearts race and keep pounding as they slide it out across the frozen surface.

Ice fishing is a healthy pursuit, and provides a tasty meal. Some of the best fisherman enjoy competitions with opportunities to win cash and prizes. If you’re interested in joining in, and the weather cooperates, there are plenty of tournaments coming up this month.

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks offers their annual (Yellow) Perch Pounder tournaments on Region 1 waters from Feb. 1 through 29 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., or Feb. 15 to 22 for the Thompson Chain of lakes.

Yellow perch generally feed on insects and small fish. Some perch may be found in shallow water, but larger fish can be found at 30 feet or deeper. Experienced perch fishermen recommend using jigs under a flasher or small lead-head jigs. Yellow and chartreuse (a brilliant yellow-green) are good colors. Bait with maggots, wax-worms which are caterpillar larvae of wax moths, perch eyeballs or belly strips, or earthworms. Give small jigging actions, or just kind of make it shiver.

At this time, the Fisher River Valley Fire/ Rescue Auxiliary Winter Ice Fishing Derby is scheduled for Saturday, Feb. 8, from 7 a.m. until 5 p.m. and Sunday, Feb. 9, from 7 a.m. until 3 p.m. It will be held on the Thompson Chain of Lakes, including Upper, Middle, and Lower Thompson lakes, and also includes Crystal and Loon lakes. The contest is sponsored by Happy’s Roadhouse Inn, the Kicking Horse Saloon, Snappy Sport Senter, and Libby Sports.

Thompson Lakes State Park is about 3,000 acres and spans approximately 20 miles along Highway 2. From Libby, take Highway 2 East to Happy’s Inn, where adjacent Loon and Crystal lakes are located at about 40 miles out, then continue another seven miles to Logan State Park on Middle Thompson Lake. It is recommended to call the contact person Carol Swimley at 293-3389 or 406-253-6255, or one of the sponsors to check on safe ice conditions and updated scheduling. The derby will focus on Kokanee salmon, Yellow perch, Rainbow trout, and Northern pike.

Since Kokanee salmon generally feed on tiny zooplankton, one may find them 15 to 30 feet down over deeper waters. They use glow hooks or jigs under a flasher. Many jig every few seconds with a short six to eight inch snap. Folks say they usually only get one bump, so set the hook immediately. Bait with maggots or wax-worms. Red is a preferred color for lures and flashers, but chartreuse or orange will work.

Common techniques and tackle for Rainbow trout fishing through the ice include fishing just six inches to a foot above bottom. Other times though, fish are found five to fifteen feet above bottom. Experiment to find where they’re feeding that day. Rainbow’s like insects, crustaceans, fish eggs, and earthworms, and older adult fish eat other fish including other trout. Small metal jigs alone or with flashers work well. Popular colors include red, pink and white, orange and yellow, or green and yellow. The brighter the better. Usually 1/8 oz. or 1/4 oz. lures should do it. Tip them with earthworms, maggots, wax-worms, shrimp, power bait, or salmon eggs. Textbook jig action is every 20 to 30 seconds.

Another derby is scheduled for Feb. 8 from 8 a.m. until 2:30 p.m. It is called the Ryan Wagner Memorial Ice Fishing Derby on Murphy Lake near Fortine, Mont. From Libby, take highway 37 north to Eureka, then head south on highway 93 another 15 miles to the lake.

For this one, species focus includes Large and Small mouth bass; Yellow perch; Northern pike; Sunfish; Rainbow, Cutthroat, and Brook trout. For more info contact Michael Sartoni at 406-882-6018, or Tim Their at 406-882-4694.

On Saturday Feb. 15, from 6 a.m. until 5 p.m., and Sunday, Feb. 16 from 6 a.m. until 3 p.m., the Lodge at McGregor Lake will host their 2020 Fishing Derby. From Libby, take U.S. Highway 2 East approximately 60 miles to McGregor Lake.

This tournament’s species focus is Rainbow trout and Lake trout. Carolyn Feldman is the contact and can be reached at 406-858-2253.

Lake trout fishing is a different experience. They are carnivorous fish eaters, so fish just off the bottom in 20-150 or more feet of water. Color coded line can help keep track of depth. Use a jigging spoon or use a 1/4  to 1/2 oz. leadhead with a three inch Mr. Twister. Tip with cut bait, and jig frequently with two to three foot sweeps. Be ready for a workout for your arms hauling the bigger ones in from the depths.

If your after Northern Pike, check out the Bull Lake Pike Strike on Feb. 22 and 23 from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. This tournament is sponsored by the Halfway House Bar & Grill. From Libby, take highway 2 west about 15 miles to the intersection of highway 56 south, and continue approx. 12 miles south to Bull Lake. Contact is Jason Williams at 295-4358.

Northern pike generally eat small fish. Fish just outside of weed lines in 10-12 feet of water. Fish smelt with a double hook on a quick strike jig, or jig a 1/4 to 1/2 oz. lead-head with a three inch white Mr. Twister with cut bait.

Whatever your choice, watch the ice conditions, and if solid grab a pole, drill a hole, and see what you might win while having fun at one or more of our local ice fishing derbies