Turquoise and Ice

by Richard M. Romney

Associate Editor

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    It’s slightly crazy to get up at 4 A.M. in the dead of winter. Unless, of course, the cisco are running.

    During the summer, Bear Lake rests like a turquoise gem set in a ring of brown and green northern Utah hills. Seen from a distance, the water is swimming pool blue—so intensely blue you’d swear the lake bottom is paved with aquamarine tile.

    But in winter the lake takes on another color: white. Ice starts forming on the edges about the same time as the first thorough frost. It expands, spreads, and thickens with each additional storm until by midwinter it seems transformed into 18-inch concrete. That’s when the hills are blue, an almost purple hue, as though they’ve been standing in the cold too long. The lake stretches below in a broad, frozen plain.

    No one knows exactly when fishermen realized they could safely walk on Bear Lake’s thick ice, cut holes in it to find the turquoise water once again, then drop lures and hooks deep into the blue to bring out trout and whitefish or use dip nets to capture silvery cisco. But the fishermen come, every winter.

    Max McDonald and the Aaronic Priesthood boys in his Scout troop from Hooper, Utah, know about the strong ice, about the water and the fish beneath. They know that in the depths, down in the realms where the mythical Bear Lake monster roams, the cisco congregate all winter. But during the January thaw the small fish pull in close to shore and spawn. The cisco run lasts one week, maybe two. Then the fish retreat deep into the turquoise once again.

    Now it was the last week of January, and the cisco were coming in.

    Chris, 12, and Kevin Chase, 13, of the Hooper First Ward, Hooper Utah Stake, cracked open the front door of their parents’ home and headed for the chapel. Their breath puffed up white around them, lingering, then mingling in the gray air. There was still sleep in their eyes, but the biting chill was enough to make them alert. So was the walking. Chris pulled his orange hat down tighter so it met the collar of his blue parka.

    It was 4 A.M. It was cold. It was a crazy time to leave a warm bed and go outside. It was an adventure.

    Max, the Scoutmaster, and Kent Summers, a fisheries biologist who serves as the ward Scouting coordinator, had already endured the morning ritual of scraping windshields, shivering under the blast of cold air before the car heater warmed up, unbending their frozen fingers from around the steering wheel, and maintaining calm as the boys loaded into their station wagons. Kevin and Chris arrived just in time to make the passenger list complete.

    They nodded to friends inside the car: David Kite, 14, and Shawn Park, Jon Housley, and John Summers, all 13 years old. Max’s sons, Travis, 9, and Cordell, 8, love to fish, and the night before they had begged to tag along. Max loves to fish almost as much as they do. And he loves to spend time with his sons even more. So his boys had claim on the back seat.

    On the freeway, headlights stabbed through the darkness. The heater purred. Static on the radio interrupted agricultural news of soy bean prices and pork belly futures. The Scouts started out joking and teasing each other. Some talked about the weather, about the awful fog that had been trapped in the valley for weeks now. Some found a few doughnuts to munch on. But it wasn’t long before everyone but the drivers fell asleep.

    It seemed only minutes later when the boys sat up to a startling sensation. It was bright. The fog—the dingy gray curtain hanging over Salt Lake and Ogden—was gone. Climbing through the mountains, they had risen above the temperature inversions. A clear, clean day full of light was dawning with not a cloud in sight. “It made me feel like shouting hurray,” said John. “We’d been in the fog so long, every day for weeks and weeks. I’d forgotten what it was like to see the sun.”

    The cars pulled through a deep canyon, out onto the flat around the shore, and turned off the highway. Already dozens of fishermen were out on the ice, silhouetted in the rising sun.

    The cars turned off the beach road and onto some gravel, then stopped. The Scouts were instantly alive. Within five minutes the cars were empty. Fishing poles, tackle boxes, blankets, folding chairs, firewood, food, and hatchets were all stacked on the shore or carried out on the ice. Kelly Lucas, 14, even strapped on ice skates and raced back and forth, helping speed up the transportation of equipment.

    The best cisco fishing on Bear Lake is often along the east shore, about the same place where scuba divers practice in the summer. “That’s why we’re on this side,” Max said. “We’re next to the hills, and the sun won’t hit the water for a while. That makes the fish crowd around.”

    “Last Saturday is when you should have been here,” Brother Summers added. “That’s when they were really running.”

    The leaders checked each boy to make sure he had a fishing license. They warned them not to leave their poles unattended and cautioned them about accidentally stepping through old holes not yet frozen over, which are easy to spot by their color. Max talked a little about how to use a dip net close to shore for cisco and a rod and reel further out for trout and whitefish. They reminded everyone to stay in the same general area. And then they turned the group loose on the ice.

    A hatchet makes a strange sound when it hits ice, a kind of echoing “chunk.” It also sends up a spray of chips and splinters. Kevin soon had them all over his coat. But he had also opened up an old hole and was ready to fish.

    “You can only make a new hole with an auger,” Kevin explained. “It’s like a giant drill.”

    And Brother Summers just happened to have one along.

    Grunting with the effort, he and Max took turns drilling a new hole in a place where the ice was nearly two feet thick. They twisted the auger around and around and let some of the young men have a try. Eventually the blade cut through, and some water bubbled up, black like india ink. Then Brother Summers pumped the auger up and down in the hole for a minute to clean it out. The water melted the frost off the ice and turned it clear. Sure enough, there was the turquoise, deep underneath.

    “It’s an eerie thing to look down and realize you’re standing on something solid that’s made out of water,” said Roy Fowers, 12, “and then to look through it to the water underneath. It’s almost spooky. It feels so solid, but it looks fragile.”

    Max reassured him that even trucks have driven on the Bear Lake ice without going through.

    That was little comfort a minute later, however, when there was a groaning sound, followed by a quiet snap and a pop. Everyone looked around, then ran to find the crack and see how far it reached into the thickness of the ice.

    Then they laughed.

    “Hey Cordell,” Chris said. “Did you hear something?” And with theatrical fear and trembling, Chris put his hatchet down and said, “I’m not chopping anymore.”

    Those who had been ice fishing before knew that any patch of ice shifts and adjusts when sun hits it and temperatures change. But for newcomers and those with tender nerves, the occasional cracking sounds were a bit unsettling.

    And so was the cold.

    Dave kept complaining about the line freezing in the top of his pole. Jon looked a quarter mile out, where the trout fishermen were dropping lines through the ice.

    “The only thing they’re catching out there is a cold,” he said.

    Shawn was shivering. “Right now I’m just freezing,” he said. “I wish I was home!”

    “It’s only five miles to the other side of the lake,” Max replied. “Run over there and back. That’ll warm you up.”

    Then, all of a sudden, the fish arrived.

    It looked like catching cisco would be easy. The small fish were swimming in schools at shallow depths, close to shore. Dip nets are legal when fishing for cisco, so all that’s necessary is to sneak the net near them, move it quickly, then snatch them out of the water. Simple, right?

    Well, not quite. For one thing, the fish are wary, and they’re quick. They dart away when something else moves in the water. And the long pole of a dip net creates a lot of resistance when pushed or pulled through the water. Cisco will swim into the net and back out before they get lifted out of the water. It’s fair to say they have at least a fighting chance.

    Just the same, once the Scouts got used to the technique, they managed to catch a few fish at a time, until small piles of silver at their feet gave evidence of success.

    And toward the center of the lake, the trout fishermen were having their day, too.

    “Take a look at that one,” Roy said, pointing to a small, pale cutthroat he’d caught in a nearby hole. “Isn’t it beautiful? In the winter they aren’t quite as colorful as in the summer. Maybe they lose color when they get cold.”

    Actually, the fish was just above the limit for size. But Roy couldn’t have been prouder. And when the next one he caught was even bigger, that was all right, too.

    “Isn’t fishing great?” he said, untangling a lure in his tackle box. “And up here, we can do it in the middle of the winter.”

    Over on the shore, Max had started a fire and called Kevin and Chris in to start frying some bacon. Within minutes they also had potatoes and onions, with just the right touch of pepper, steaming in a dutch oven. Undisturbed by the makeshift kitchen around them, Travis and Cordell sat together on the same folding chair. Huddled under an old sleeping bag, they propped their stocking feet on a log by the fire, thawing out slowly.

    The sun topped the hill. Its rays beat down, pure and hot, chasing the cisco and trout to deeper, colder water. One by one the fishermen meandered in to eat.

    The freshly caught cisco were cleaned and wrapped in foil, then buried deep in the coals.

    “We’ll save the trout to eat at home tonight,” Jon said. “But the cisco are best if you cook ‘em fresh out of the water.”

    In truth, though they have a troutlike flavor, cisco are quite bony. But half the fun of an adventure is bragging. And as far as the young men of the Hooper First Ward were concerned, at the moment there weren’t any better tasting fish in the world. Well fed and happy, the Scouts and their leaders took a moment to chat.

    “I love coming out on stuff like this,” Kevin said. “It’s fun. I get to be in a troop with my friends and share everything with my brother, too.”

    “It seems weird that a whole lake could freeze over,” Dave said. “Just imagine where we’d be, trying to fish from the same spot in the summer. You’d have to have a boat.”

    “I love to look down through the hole and see the trout,” Shawn said. “You can see them green against the rocks on the bottom.”

    He also talked about previous Scout activities, mostly camp-outs in the mountains. “This is my first time ice fishing,” he said.

    And Kelly remembered another activity, one that had been a lot of fun.

    “We played ice hockey at a place in Hooper, but only two of us knew how to skate very well, so the others took off their skates and played with shoes on.”

    And that was how the hockey game at Bear Lake got started. A couple of old coats served as goal markers, feet served as sticks, and a pop can became a puck. Up and down, up and down along the ice, the battle for points raced with a fury. No need to check opponents—the ice took care of that. As soon as anyone got running well enough to gain an advantage, he’d hit a slick spot and tumble, leaving the can behind. Conveniently, the score was tied when Shawn spotted deer on the slope above the lake, and suddenly nature became more important than hockey.

    “Look at them run!” John said, watching a buck zigzag from rock to rock. “There’s been a lot of snow. It’s forced them down low this year.”

    While they were all busy looking at the slope, Max took a minute to talk about his “boys.”

    “We’re real proud of them,” he said. “They’ve all progressed at least two ranks this year. But it isn’t the ranks that count. It’s the boys.” Then he told a story about one young man who’d had a problem with littering.

    “We were up here in the summer, and he threw a can in the lake after he’d promised not to. I made him wade out and bring it in. Later, we had a demonstration from the forest service about the effects of littering. People don’t usually think of littering as pollution, but it’s one of the most visible kinds.”

    Caring enough to go beyond just saying no, to help young men understand why they need to be responsible for their actions—that’s what Max is all about. But he shrugs off such praise lightly.

    “I just want to help them have some good experiences, to help them have some fun. If one of them ever got lost in the winter and needed food, maybe ice fishing would be one of many skills that could help him survive. If one of them needs to know he has some friends, he can always come join with us. And that might also help him to survive.”

    The deer eventually disappeared from sight. With a slight amount of prodding Kelly, Shawn, Dave, John, and the others returned to help gather up cooking gear and fishing equipment and load it back into the cars. Even though it was still early in the afternoon, it was time to head back to town.

    And even though that meant they would soon descend back into the haze and fog, the young men from Hooper were content. They had a good supply of fish for the days to come. Their spirits had been buoyed up by fresh air and bright light. They had enjoyed being together and learning from their leaders. They had stories to share with their mothers, fathers, brothers, and sisters. They had gazed deep into turquoise waters and walked on crystal ice. Without spending lots of money and without driving far, they had enjoyed their day in the sun.

    Photos by Richard M. Romney