We meet at the Donut Mill in Woodland Park, a long-established landmark for outdoorsmen, skiers and other early-risers bound for the high country.
The aroma of black coffee and fresh donuts forever remind me of ice fishing. Last week, my lifelong friend Rick Hahn and I packed our gear and headed for frozen Eleven Mile Reservoir. Reports of hungry trout have always stirred the wild man in me. Rick is the same.
I prefer fly fishing, practicing the poetic movements of casting, "reading" the water and catching trout the way I imagine trout want to be caught.
But the ice always has held a certain mystery. Who-knows-what may be lurking below?
The hour-long drive to the reservoir is half the fun. We burn our tongues on hot coffee and begin our traditional discussions of politics, football and family matters. I've often said that these trips are my "church," but they've also provided pretty good therapy sessions during which I've discovered there are other people out there as weird as me.
Located on the eastern edge of South Park, Eleven Mile Reservoir fills more than 7,600 acres and is fed by the South Platte River. At an elevation of about 8,600 feet, its snowmelt waters are clear and cold. The reservoir itself is 90 feet deep in places, but it has many acres of shallow water where sunlight penetrates and creates a rich ecosystem.
The res is stocked periodically, and the trout grow fat and healthy. There are big fish in Eleven Mile Reservoir. Photos pinned to the walls of area tackle shops reveal broad-backed rainbow trout with large stomachs clutched in the arms of fishermen whose beer guts are also impressive.
Ice fishing is an exercise in tradition. Fishermen bundled in warm layers waddle expertly on slick ice to their favorite locations. Longtimers know the names of the campgrounds and bays as they know the chapters of great books: Cross Creek, Rocking Chair, Howbert Point and my favorite, Sucker Cove.
There is no sunrise like a South Park sunrise in the winter. The snowcapped Collegiate Peaks to the west cut like glass into an azure sky. The chatter of fishermen can be heard from a mile away on still mornings, but the growling South Park wind often ends fishing trips before they get started.
Better fishermen know where and when to fish. Rick and I use our internal "fish finders," making random guesses and sometimes guessing right. Most recently, we've tried to fish away from the crowds.
We were joined by another old friend, Nick Romero, who looked at a reservoir map (who does that?) and expertly chose a spot on the lake's vast white surface. There was shallow water — about 8 feet deep — that quickly dropped off to 30 feet. My fish finder insisted that shallower would be better, but after an hour with no action, I reluctantly punched two holes in 10 inches of ice and sat down above 22 feet of clear water.
Most ice fishermen are bait fishermen, and mealworms, little yellow critters with mushy insides, are the go-to bait. The mealworms are — and there is no nice way to say it — impaled on a hook that has a lead head, usually called a jig head. These can be colorful and fun, and I like green.
Peering into my ice hole, I let my line (4-pound test for my fellow fishing nerds) slip from my reel as the jig swims to the lake bottom. I retrieve a little line and begin "jigging" the jig — bouncing it with quick motions to mimic something a fish might like. It sounds dumb, but it's a skill I've perfected over many days of freezing my ass off and catching nothing.
Soon enough I felt a gentle tug and I set the hook. The trout bolted from side to side and pulled with extraordinary power. I release nearly all of the fish I catch, but I do keep one or two for the frying pan each winter. This one, a bright-sided 17-incher, sacrificed all and made for two wonderful fillets.
A day of ice fishing is a big day — and always leaves the wild man feeling satisfied.
But the mystery beneath the ice is attractive. And already I can sense the internal fish finder growing restless again.