Eugene Buchanan: Fishing without freezing on Stagecoach Reservoir
March 11, 2019
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — What happens in the fish house, stays in the fish house. So says Brady Wettlaufer, owner of Steamboat Fishing Adventures.
So far, I'm getting skunked while jigging my lure up and down through a hole on Stagecoach Reservoir. But at least I'm not sitting on a frigid five-gallon bucket, freezing my fanny off. Minnesota transplant Wettlaufer has made it luxurious through the use of three heated Aluma-Lite Fishhouses, the only ones of their kind in the state.
After snowmobiling us across the reservoir to a place they call Pikey Bay, I sit on a cushioned chair, listening to tunes as I jig. Adorning the walls is artwork of an Eskimo girl ice fishing, a 52-inch TV and a mural of the planets. Oddly resembling the planets, five 8-inch holes pierce the floor, leading to the void below.
We're after pike, but not doing a very good job. The way to catch the big ones, he said, is to lure them up with a decoy and then spear them. The state record was pulled out of Stagecoach in the winter, and the other day, a 35-pounder swam under the hut, he said. He knows that from the TV displaying live video from the underwater AcquaVU camera, aided by 100,000 LED lumens. Other electronic amenities he uses include a Vexilar sonar system and Hummingbird fish finder. Keeping us toasty inside is a 15,000 BTU heater.
"Technology has completely reshaped the sport,” Wettlaufer said. “You can ice fish now while having the comfort of your living room."
A living room, that is, with six holes in the floor: one for the camera, one for the lights, and four for fishing, including the rattle reel, or "Minnesota alarm clock," which rattles to life whenever a fish strikes.
But right now, there's no such clatter. The pesky pike aren't cooperating. The TV shows nothing but an ominous void and the lake bottom, which looks like the moon. So we pack up and snowmobile elsewhere. Now, we're going for rainbows, 12 feet down.
We drop our lures to the bottom, bring them up one reel and then jig them up and down, the motion much like flipping an egg. Then we watch the sonar and TV camera to see who's coming for dinner.
"You can actually see fish lurking in the shadows and watching you," Wettlaufer said.
With that, I sit. And jig. And jig. And jig. That's what it's all about. You shoot the breeze with your shackmates, cue up music playlists and jig. Sometimes, you find yourself jigging your rod tip to the beat of the music, say a bluegrass or reggae beat.
"You want it to flip down there in a little circle," Wettlaufer said, showing us his lure's perfect acrobatic move on the camera. I stare at the sonar circle as if it's a video game. Your lure's jig motion is illuminated by green. A red light means a fish is approaching, not to be confused with an air bubble.
"Believe me, you'll know when it's a fish," Wettlaufer said.
I also watch the TV screen, which is more fun. Usually, it displays just dark, eerie nothingness. It's like waiting for the creature from the “Black Lagoon” to appear. I half expect “Jaws” music to begin. Then we see a few shrimp fluttering around, an indicator of a good fishery, Wettlaufer said. Soon after, a giant, one-clawed crawfish ambers across the sandy lake bottom. It looks like Sebastian in the "Little Mermaid."
But no fish.
My neck gets sore from looking sideways and up at the TV screen — an embarrassing case of ice-fisher's neck. My wrist starts to ache from the jigging.
And then the fish come into the camera zone, swimming by one, two, three at a time. None take the lure, but one opens its mouth Godzilla-style right into the camera.
I feel like Jacques Cousteau searching for a sunken ship in his SP-350 submarine launched off the Calypso.
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Clients have asked if the screen is just a loop, Wettlaufer said, showing the same thing over and over again. But it's not. It's real time, showing something you always suspected: fish ignoring your lure. And so, you jig. And jig.
On average, Wettlaufer said, his groups catch about 10 fish per night, but he's also been skunked and "into the 30s." His ongoing narration is just part of the package.
"Ooh, come on, baby. Here you go. That one was camera shy. Ooh, there's one."
When darkness takes hold, Wettlaufer lowers a green light to attract baitfish, which attract bigger fish.
As with any ice fisher who's been at it a few hours, my mind naturally starts to wander. I think about how thick and safe the ice really is. It's 7 inches, Wettlaufer said, enough to support a passenger car. And his shacks actually float, which is comforting.
But it's not without its hazards. Wettlaufer has lost six iPhones to the drink so far, all through the holes.
"Sometimes, I forget not to keep it in my lap," he said. One time, he could see his phone flutter down to the bottom on the camera, lighting up with an incoming text on the way down. He's also improvised various ways to retrieve them.
Then the fish start biting.
Tim Bohlin, staring at the sonar, strikes first, pulling up a 14-incher. Then he pulls up another and another. I see fish swim right by my lure, but they either don’t take it, or I muff the set. Finally, I get one and then another, right when Bob Marley's “Redemption Song” blasts out of the speaker.
Before we know it, it's 10 p.m., way longer than we thought we'd be out. That happens all the time out here, he said. Clients don’t want to leave. And why would they? You're heckling friends, cranking tunes and fishing in the warmth of a shack in the middle of the night on a frozen lake.
And whatever happens there, stays there.
To reach Eugene Buchanan, call 970-871-4276 or email ebuchanan@SteamboatPilot.com.