PARK COUNTY - Nothing could deter Paul Sauer.
It was a big one struggling under the ice. And when the line snapped just as he had the pike’s head at ice level, he didn’t think twice. Despite an air temperature of minus 20, he plunged his arm into the icy unknown.
“I had to shove my arm all the way down up to my shoulder to get under his tail to get him in,” Sauer said.
This was not going to be the one that got away.
The catch earned him a nasty bite to his thumb — “their teeth are like razor blades,” Sauer said of pike. But it also earned him fourth place in the Colorado Classic Ice Fishing Tournament, held Jan.5 at Elevenmile State Park.
And it earned him a nice fish-fry dinner.
“They’re really good eating,” he said. “They’ve got a lot of bones though.”
Ice-fishing in Colorado grows more popular every winter. According to Colorado Parks and Wildlife, one in four anglers goes fishing from December through February.
Better toys, including on-ice tents and huts, gas-powered augers and electronic fish-finders, have brought more comfort and ease to the sport. The days of sitting on a bucket in the cold open air, blindly dangling a line through a hole in the ice, are over.
“It’s the whole experience,” Colorado Springs fisherman Eric Bowen said. “You’re in the outdoors, you’re freezing your butts off, you’re catching fish and you’re having fun. There’s always a chance to catch a monster.”
And when he does pull a “monster” fish from the icy depths, he is “shaking head to toe.” And not from the cold.
Larry Falk, owner of 11-Mile Sports, has been running the marina at the state park since 1994. He said that while the sport experiences bumps, such as when the film “Grumpy Old Men” featured an ice-fishing scene, and dips, such as when the reservoir was drawn down during the 2002 drought, growth has been steady.
“I think fishing in general draws people and they start jonesing because they can’t go fishing, or think they can’t go,” said Falk, who organizes the ice-fishing tournament and two more in February and March.
For first-timers, it can seem like a gear-intensive sport. Most of the hundreds of people ice-fishing on this Saturday had huts with heaters and other comforts.
“I’ve got everything. We’re about ready to cook some hot links on the ice. We’ll cook inside. We’ve got two heaters going,” said Frank Vigil, of Colorado Springs, leaving the comfort of his pop-up canvas hut to check his line. It all folds together neatly, with skis to push the rig onto the ice.
In frozen states such as Minnesota, it gets even more elaborate, as anglers use trucks to tow huge wooden shelters onto the ice and leave them there all winter.
But you don’t have to go all-out to get into the sport. Falk rents out the entire set, including shelter, auger, fishing pole and fish-finder, for $105 a day.
“I’m warm enough. I don’t need all that stuff,” said Sauer, of Aurora, who caught the pike and hours later was still sitting exposed in the cold.
Despite the cold factor, he said he prefers ice-fishing to warm-weather fishing.
“I don’t have a boat so I’m kind of limited (in summer),” he said. “But ice-fishing you can get out to where the fish are. The fish-finder takes it to a different level. It’s like playing a video game.”
Other anglers talked about the thrill of being in the pitch-dark fishing hut and being able to see the fish glimmering in the water under the ice. Maybe they’ll bite, maybe not. But it’s pretty neat.
“When you get in the shanty, you can look in the hole and you can see the bottom of the lake and you can see your lure,” said Monica Webb, of Pueblo.
And what about the thrill of pulling a fish out of the ice?
“Well, I wouldn’t know,” she said.
It had been that kind of day.
Until recently, it had been that kind of season on the ice, too. Thanks to a warm autumn and early winter, the reservoir didn’t freeze over until Dec. 9, a week later than normal. The winter of 2011-12 saw a similar late freeze, said state park ranger Mark Young. Some years, the ice is thick enough for safe fishing by Thanksgiving.
“It may just be a sign of the warming trend the entire world is seeing,” Young said. “Weather is weather. Who can figure that out?”
In early and late season, it’s up to individuals to decide if the ice is thick enough to be safe.
“We never tell people the ice is safe,” Young said. “The ice is inherently unsafe. We tell them to wear a life jacket, carry 50 feet of rope, drill test holes, don’t go alone.”
But most anglers don’t seem concerned that warmer temperatures pose a threat to the sport. Falk said most people don’t start coming out until after Christmas anyway. By the day of the tournament, the ice was a safe 13 to 18 inches thick.
“I’ve been ice-fishing here since 1979,” Falk said. “Twenty years ago, I saw this lake freeze a week before Thanksgiving. And I have seen this lake melt before March 15.”
For Monument angler Tony Kern, it was a long wait for the ice reports to reach his liking.
“I was waiting and checking off the dates of the calendar, so I’m not going to miss too many days from here on out,” said Kern, who learned the sport in his native Michigan, in the frigid Upper Peninsula.
He’s found it a good fit for Colorado.
“I like being outdoors, no matter what,” he said. “In the winter, a lot of people get out and go to the crowded places for skiing and all this stuff. Here, you come out to Elevenmile, even some of the smaller lakes, find a spot and it’s all yours.”
As long as there’s at least 5 inches of ice, he’ll be out.
“We wouldn’t quit ice-fishing in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan until one of the peoples’ trucks fell through the ice.”