“Dude, let’s go ice fishing.”
Joe was at it again. My friend Joe is a fishaholic, ready to have a go at any and every fishery Northern California has to offer. This winter he’d dialed in a good spot for trout through the ice. Yeah, you heard right: Ice fishing. In California. Yes, that California. More on that later. Anyway, Joe’d scored well up there, even limiting a couple of times.
Now you may have noticed that I don’t talk a lot about trout fishing. There’s a reason for that. I’ve had more than a few run-ins with what I call the Orvis Boys, fancy fly-fishermen with tons of gear and a visceral hatred of guys like me: Bait fishermen who — gasp! — actually eat the trout they catch. That put me off trout pretty well.
But the more I learned about both fly fishermen and the broader spectrum of trout anglers, the more I learned that while the Orvis Boys exist, there are plenty of anglers out there just looking for dinner like me.
So you will be seeing more about trout on this site in the coming months. NorCal is well known for spectacular trout fishing, and, well, I love pan-fried trout.
I happened to be mulling my spring fishing plans when Joe sent me the message about ice fishing. Sure, I said. Why not? I’d never been ice fishing in California. It was settled.
Early one morning a few days ago, Joe arrived at my doorstep bright and early. Into the truck and up into the mountains we went. It is in the mountains where the ice — and the trout — are located.
California is a wondrous place from an outdoorsman’s perspective. Don’t like the climate? Drive a few miles. It was going to be 75°F at my house that day, but were were driving into a different world.
Up and up we went, past Tahoe and higher. Finally we stopped at the shore of Caples Lake, a little lake that sits at 7800 feet above sea level. We got out of the truck and could immediately see our breath. It was cold. I put on my jacket and looked out over the lake. Cold yes, but gorgeous.
High peaks surrounded us and there was almost no sound… except for that of dripping water. Never a good sign when you are headed out onto a frozen lake. Joe hadn’t been to the lake in a week or so, but assured me that the ice would still be thick. We walked up to the bank and saw a small patch of open water. Not good.
“You go first,” I said to Joe. I promised to save his ass if he fell through. Carrying our ice auger, he gingerly took a step onto the ice. So far so good. We decided to drill a hole right near the bank to test the depth of the ice. After drilling 6 inches and still not getting through, we reckoned it’d be fine.
We were right. We walked out onto the frozen lake and soon found a few old ice holes. We cleared them with the auger, revealing that the ice underneath us was nearly two feet thick — after a week of warmth, in late March. I was amazed. We drilled out a few more holes and dropped our jigs down. Good thing the ice was thick, as we were in at least 10 feet of water not 100 feet from shore.
We hadn’t been fishing 15 minutes when Joe got a bite. Up came a teeny tiny mackinaw, probably 6 inches long at most. When they’re that small, macks look snakelike. Joe returned him to the water.
I joked about what sort of stories that mackinaw would tell his friends. “Man, I was totally abducted by aliens! It was so weird.” None of the other fish would believe him, but he would know. He’d been to The Other Side…
Ding, ding. DING!! My rod tip bent and I set the hook with a flick of my wrist. A fish! My first fish through the ice in nearly a decade! As soon as I saw it through the hole I knew it was not a mackinaw. It was a rainbow trout.
“Nice!” Joe was excited. I was a little less so, not knowing how big trout ought to be. Remember I grew up catching ocean fish, so a foot long trout was nothing to write mom about. But Joe assured me this was a decent enough fish, so I bonked him on the head and set him on the ice. At least we would not get skunked!
The sun crested the peaks and in an instant, the air warmed. Jackets came off, then sweaters. Fishing slowed. Joe caught another micro-mackinaw, then so did I.
Hours passed. Staring into a hole for hours can be an exercise in meditation. Mostly it was a mediation on how I was going to cook this little trout I had.
Finally we were down to our t-shirts. The weather had to be close to 70°F, even all the way up here, more than a mile high. We called it a day.
I later learned that quite the ice fishing community exists way up here in the mountains.
And let’s face it: Ice fishing in a t-shirt, through two feet of ice in the High Sierras is just about the coolest way to do it. Beers keep cold in the ice while you catch gorgeous trout — and a tan. California uber alles!
How to eat my trout? I am particularly fond of fried trout with peas. Peas are one of the first spring vegetables, and trout is one of the first fish of spring, so it seems right.
Pan Fried Trout with Peas
- 4 frying pan sized trout butterflied, fillets or whole
- About 3/4 cup flour
- 1/4 cup unsalted butter
- 1 1/2 cups peas, fresh or thawed
- 1 cup chicken stock
- Grated zest and juice of a lemon
- 3 tablespoons minced parsley
- Black pepper to taste
- Rinse the trout in cold water and pat it dry with paper towels. Salt it lightly on both sides, then dredge it in flour.
- Heat the butter in a large frying pan over medium-high heat. If you think you can get all the trout into the pan at once, you are good to go. If not, get individual plates ready and set your oven to 200°F.
- When the butter is hot, lay the trout skin side down in the hot butter. Fry for 2 minutes, then use a large spoon to baste the meat side of the trout with butter. Keep basting with the spoon for a minute or two, depending on how thick the trout is. In the trout above I only basted it for about 90 seconds. When the skin side of the trout is golden brown, use a spatula (or two) to gently remove the trout and flip it skin side up onto a plate. If you need to fry more trout, put the plate in the oven.
- When all the trout have been cooked, add the remaining ingredients to the pan and turn the heat to high. Boil furiously until the sauce reduces by half, then pour it over the trout. Serve at once with bread, rice or potatoes.