PARK COUNTY - "My feet are kind of cold," I say, not at all in a complaining way. In fact, for the past 15 minutes I've kept it to myself as both big toes went tingly and then numb. This might be the fault of my circulation, which spends the bulk of its time in un-challenging scenarios, but could be due to the 2 inches of space between the tips of my double-socked toes and the loaner boots in which they're encased.
"Maybe there's a trapped cold bubble," I suggest, trying to be helpful and scientific. I was warned not to ignore potential signs of hypothermia.
Travis La Mere cuts me a quizzical look from the driver's seat of his Dodge RAM and reminds me we're not even out of the truck yet.
"It's gonna be colder out there," he says as we slither through snow-covered high country northwest of Lake George, La Mere driving like a man familiar with the route. My Honda would take one look at this road, wet itself and we'd be forced back to town for gas, but La Mere's been heading up to these parts with his dad since he was in short pants. Now a guide at Colorado Tackle Pro, he takes tenderfoot like me out into the pale for a living.
It's after 7 a.m. on a Friday in January, and we're on our way to Tarryall Reservoir for my first try at ice fishing, a sport that's grown so popular in Colorado that peak-season weekends at nearby Eleven Mile Reservoir can see up to 1,000 huts pitched across the ice.
"It's unbelievable how many people go out ice fishing. It's a sport that a lot of people want to try now," says La Mere, a year-round angler who likes the cold-weather variety, in part, because of the better odds of catching a larger fish using a modest, lightweight pole.
He also appreciates the sport's more egalitarian nature. In winter, underfished areas are no longer beyond the reach of the boatless and otherwise shorebound.
"It equals the playing field for everyone," he says.
Even if they're not skilled?
La Mere shrugs a shrug that says, "Guess you're about to find out."
Sport more accessible
I was invited to go ice fishing many years ago but declined on the grounds of physics. No bucolic slab of frozen water, however thick, could possibly support the weight of me plus the amount of beer it would take to get, and keep, me out there. Thanks to the wonders of technology - electronic fishfinders, watertight clothing proofed down to negative bazillion degrees and toasty warming tents that, counterintuitively, don't burn a hole through the ice - the sport is more accessible than ever to the cold-averse and sober.
"Back in the day when we did it, we had to go out there and drill with a hand auger and a chipper, sit on a bucket and fish with a rod," La Mere says. "We didn't have a gas-powered auger or these portable ice shelters and portable heaters. Everything's gotten a lot easier."
Even with the gadgets, a successful fishing excursion requires one dress appropriately, meaning "as though you're about to spend a day squatting on a block of ice."
"Think snowboarding but sitting still," La Mere counseled the day before. "And I can't stress enough: good boots."
Fail One. I also couldn't find a winter hat or gloves that fit. Thankfully, La Mere was able to supply all of the above, plus polarized sunglasses and heavy-duty canvas coveralls. Think Ralphie's little brother, all bundled up and trundling into the snow in "A Christmas Story," and you'll be close.
The conditions at Tarryall make it a good spot for beginners, says La Mere, citing the relatively calm, leeward location and good population of pike and rainbow trout. He expects we'll see temperatures around negative-15, which is balmy given the range to which he's accustomed.
"I'll be out there in negative-45, and I don't normally sit in the hut, " he says. "Of course, a hut is nice to have if there's ... four letter word, starts with w."
"You mean - ?"
La Mere shushes me. "We don't say that word when we come up here. That's my one rule."
Soft ice a concern
The reservoir opens up in a breadboard plane of white to our left, and La Mere pulls into a parking area with an outhouse and one other vehicle. He unloads his gear into a sled and then muscles through a deep drift, tugging the load behind him onto the frozen, snow-draped spread.
Visually, the glaring expanse feels like we're trekking across the surface of the sun; it takes my eyes a few, long moments to adjust, even with the polarized lenses. When they do, La Mere is handing me a spud bar - a long, heavy metal pole tipped with a chisel-blade - explaining I need to stab it, "really hard," a pace or two ahead as we walk to make sure the ice is safe.
Hard ice is chippier; soft ice cleaves like soap. And, "if the spud bar goes through, you probably shouldn't be walking out there," he says.
Soft ice is more of a concern early and late in the season, which runs roughly from December through March, but this safety precaution is part of the standard protocol.
"Everybody wants to be out on the ice in November," La Mere says, adding that safe ice season is when thicknesses have reached at least 4 inches. "There's some guys, if it holds them, they'll get out there. You want to be the first one out on the ice."
Even if you're the first one through the ice?
"It's happened to me a couple times," La Mere says.
Drilling and fishing
Our footsteps and the gouge of the laden sled carve strange punctuation in the seamless blanket of white. About 50 feet in, La Mere stops to drill a test hole with the auger, which looks like a giant wine bottle opener. He deems the water below too shallow, so we continue on and eventually set up maybe halfway across the reservoir, where depths are closer to 13 feet. La Mere stations the pop-up above a pair of 8-inch holes drilled in about 20 inches of ice. That's more than twice the depth of a regulation ice road trucking route, but it's hard to forget we're riding a temporary crust above an ecosystem of fish, weeds and being even colder.
By now, the numbness has begun to creep up my ankles so I'm relieved once we're zipped inside the hut and La Mere turns his attention to firing up the propane heater.
As my eyes adjust to the shadowy interior, I notice a weird glow emanating from the holes in the ice. It's due to the algae, La Mere says, crouching to sift out frozen floaters from the farther of the two holes, then lowering the transducer wand of his fishfinder, a battery-powered device that uses sound waves to identify features, depth and denizens below the ice.
He demonstrates how to bait the hook with a live mealworm and feeds the line into the water, encouraging me to keep an eye on the bright red jig as it descends to a depth of about 10 feet. La Mere hands me the 3-foot rod. Like that, I am ice fishing.
Listening to the ice
"He's checking you out," says La Mere, pointing to the circular screen of his fishfinder. A new red blip has appeared near the red blip of my bait, which begins to darken and expand.
"Quick jig," he says, meaning I should entice my piscine suitor by snapping the bait up and letting it slowly drop to mimic the movement of an underwater treat. I do so, and feel a gentle tug ...
"Now set!" La Mere says.
I jerk the pole up and the line goes taut, so I pull and reel, pull and reel. There's a frenzy in the air above the Gatorade hole as a 10-inch rainbow trout realizes that snack wasn't what he thought it was.
The fish is flying and flopping and yanking me in strange directions. I'm still pulling and reeling and occasionally forgetting how to reel, and suddenly La Mere is howling because the hook is stuck in his finger.
"Next time, put the rod down once the fish is out," he says, nursing the wound.
Lucky for his digits, my dismount improves. A few hours in, I've caught and released a half-dozen decent-sized trout. Not only can I feel my feet now, the heat is such that I've been forced to unpeel the top half of coveralls. I'm honestly surprised when four hours have passed and it's almost time to head back into the cold.
The hut smells like a fishy burp. Outside, temperatures have ratcheted down and the four-letter "w" word has begun to kick up. All around us, the ice emits strange bangs and snaps, the sound of glacial chiropractics as it readjusts atop the 175-acre reservoir.
Ice talks like this when expanding, La Mere explains, but to me it's an unnerving - and thrilling - reminder that, while it might be thicker than concrete, this terra is not at all firm.
Underneath there's a loud quake, like the popping of some geophysical mandible. I feel it as much as hear it and can tell by the look on his face that La Mere did too.
"We've been here awhile. No chance we're melting through?" I ask, but without real worry this time.
My guide laughs and I'm pretty sure he gets my point:
Predator, prey; there's no denying who the big boss is out here. She won't let you.