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Ice ice baby: Anglers brave the cold to chase big fish in Grand County

Opting to go without a fishing hut Michael Lewis of Craig, CO, tries his luck at the Three Lakes Ice Fishing Contest on Lake Granby in January, 2023
Rae Solomon
Opting to go without a fishing hut Michael Lewis of Craig, CO, tries his luck at the Three Lakes Ice Fishing Contest on Lake Granby in January, 2023

The sun is rising over Lake Granby on a frigid day in late January, but Colt Wing has already been up for hours. His wife, Cheree Seader, and his mother-in-law, Cindy Seader, have been up, too. They packed up food and pulled on their sub-zero boots long before first light. They wanted to get an early start for a full day of ice fishing.

Rae Solomon
/
KUNC
Colt Wing packs up his sleds in the early morning of the second day of the Three Lakes Ice Fishing Contest in Grand County, in January, 2023.

In the dark at the edge of the frozen lake, the three anglers arranged all their gear – and there is a lot of it – in long, narrow black sleds. They worked by the light of snowmobile headlamps.

When all the tarps were readied and the buckles buckled, they mounted snowmobiles, and raced off onto the frozen lake surface, blanketed insnow and slush.
About a mile in from the shore, Wing stopped his vehicle. “About 100 yards that way, the water is over 100 foot deep,” he said, describing the world beneath the ice. “We're sitting in 40 feet here.” That was exactly where he wanted to be.

The group of three worked efficiently. It only took a few minutes for them to unpack their bright red ice fishing hut – basically an insulated tent without a floor - and pop it upright on the ice.

Colt Wing and Cheree Sedar's ice fishing hut on Lake Granby
Rae Solomon
/
KUNC
Colt Wing and Cheree Seader's ice fishing hut on Lake Granby on the second day of the 35th annual Three Lakes Ice Fishing Contest in January, 2023. Other groups of ice anglers are visible in the background

Wing, Seader and her mother were just three of more than 1,500 ice anglers out for the 35th annual Three Lakes Ice Fishing Contest. For three cold days, anglers of all ages compete to catch the most prized fish in Lake Granby, Grand Lake and Shadow Mountain Reservoir. Prizes range from $50 for 7th place, up to $1,200 for the top grand slam prize - that's a category for ambitious anglers who catch one of each featured species: Mackinaw, Rainbow Trout, Brown Trout and Kokanee)

First, the hole

If you want to go fishing on a frozen mountain lake in the middle of winter, first you need to make a hole.

Colt Wing’s weapon of choice for the job: a bright green electric auger. No exhaust, just efficiency. Wing rapidly drilled 8 holes around the edges of the hut.

“Ain't nothing to it,” Wing said of ice fishing. “Drill a hole, crack open a bottle of bubbly, and wait.”

Wing and Seader are both lifelong anglers, although Seader has been ice fishing for longer —some 30 years. She has a picture from an early ice fishing trip. In the photo, she’s 5 years old: a happy, dark-haired girl outside on a simple upturned bucket with a fishing rod.

Rae Solomon
/
KUNC
Colt Wing watches the sonar-powered fish finder inside of his insulated fishing hut. The sonar shows when fish are swimming in the area. But it doesn't help Wing tempt the fish into taking a bite.

“Back in the day, we just waited for the bobber to go under. And that's when you knew,” Seader said.

Rae Solomon
/
KUNC
Colt Wing and Cindy Seader patiently wait for the fish to bite.

Now they have all the gear: the double-wide hut, along with folding chairs, a propane-fueled heater, and sonar fish finders that take the mystery out of what’s going on beneath the ice.

Wing can see all the fish activity, and where his fishing line is in relation to it. “I’m sitting about a foot off the bottom,” he said, of his line, “just kind of varying back and forth, seeing if I could coax [the fish] into taking something because they're all over the place.”

Catching those fish is nice, but there’s never a guarantee of success. “I think most people actually come up here for the camaraderie,” Seader said. “Sometimes you do get sleepy out here. It gets too warm and a little boring.“

Cheree Sedar, of Palisade, Colorado, ice fishing on Lake Granby at the 35th annual Three Lakes Ice Fishing Contest in Grand County in January, 2023
Rae Solomon
/
KUNC
Cheree Seader, of Palisade, Colorado, ice fishing on Lake Granby at the 35th annual Three Lakes Ice Fishing Contest in Grand County in January, 2023

Skill and luck

Nearby, Michael Lewis, of Craig, Colorado, sat outside in a little circle of slush. For the moment, he was keeping things simple - relatively, at least. Just a hole in the ice, his sonar fish finder and the fishing rod.

"If you know where the fish are, then you can go drill a hole and just jig and be just as happy. I've seen plenty of people do it," Lewis said.

Knowing where the fish are is key. According to Jon Ewert, an aquatic biologist with Colorado Parks and Wildlife, it's all about knowing "what types of habitat and what depths to find fish that are eating is a skill and knowledge based thing."

But even the knowledgeable anglers can only rely so much on that skill.
"Lake trout are finicky," Ewert conceded. "There are days when the very best lake trout anglers out there just are not getting into anything. They're just not eating."

As for Michael Lewis, it was his first time at this tournament, and he wasn't completely convinced about his spot. "Today's been slower," he said. "We're thinking about moving into some deeper water."

I reeled it in!

A couple hundred yards away, at the next hut over, some kids were kneeling in the snow around a fishing hole. Dressed from head to toe in snowsuits, the children busied themselves scooping ice out of a fishing hole, dropping it back in, scooping it out again, and repeat.

Ryan Dougherty, an attorney from Basalt, brought his 3 kids to the tournament. He’s been doing it every year for a decade.

“They get cold, bored,” he said of his kids. “But they fight through.”

Dougherty’s four-year-old, Jack, caught a fish the day before that was big enough to earn him a 5th place spot in the pre-school rankings.

Jack proudly described how he caught the trout. “I reeled it!” he said. Then, “it popped up,” out of the hole.

Dougherty helped his son tell the story. “And then you went and got on the snowmobile and ran over to the weigh-in station,” he said. “It was really exciting, right?”

Ryan Dougherty, of Basalt, Colorado, came with his kids and another family to the Three Lakes Ice Fishing Contest on Lake Granby
Rae Solomon
/
KUNC
Ryan Dougherty, of Basalt, Colorado, came with his kids and another family to the Three Lakes Ice Fishing Contest on Lake Granby. From left, Lily Dougherty, 6; Bristol Soucie, 7; Carson Stott, 11 (behind) ; Ryan Dougherty and Jack Dougherty, 4.

The weigh-in station


The weigh-in station was the last stop for these fish. Successful anglers lined up from morning to late afternoon to hand over the day’s catch to Dan Shannon, a fishing guide with a local outfitter who stepped into the weigh-station role for the contest. After he weighed and measured each fish,he had two assistants who wrote down the information on cards.
“This tournament is actually one of the management tools for the lake to help take some of the smaller population of fish out,” Shannon said. “It makes the fishery overall that much healthier.”

There are several species of trout in play, but the most common fish at this contest is lake trout, or Mackinaw. The goal is to catch the heaviest Mackinaw under 19 inches, which is a modest length for the species.

Dan Shannon weighs and measures the fish
Rae Solomon
/
KUNC
Dan Shannon weighs and measures the fish

According to Jon Ewert, the aquatic biologist with Colorado Parks and Wildlife, “Lake Granby's greatest asset is its lake trout.” They are by far the most abundant fish in the lake. They aren’t stocked, but they’re so successful because of the ample natural prey that lives there.

“There is a type of freshwater shrimp in Granby that's a very high-quality food source for small lake trout,” Ewert explained. Those Mysis shrimp allow the smaller lake trout – or Mackinaw – to flourish.

That’s why the contest encourages anglers to harvest those smaller fish – under 19 inches. “When lake trout get beyond that size, they switch to vertebrate prey. They become predators on other fish,” Ewert explained. “We can't have that many fish graduate to becoming predators on other fish because we don't have that much vertebrate prey in the lake.”

Lake trout waiting to be processed at the weigh-in station
Rae Solomon
/
KUNC
Lake trout waiting to be processed at the weigh-in station

With good money at stake every once in a while anglers try to cheat. “We caught a person this morning that tried to weigh a brown trout that had weights jammed in the belly. And we caught it with the metal detector,” Shannon said. He now scans every fish that comes in with a metal detector.

Most ice fishing enthusiasts are more sportsmanlike. Cheree and Cindy Seader and Colt Wing for instance, who remained patient, even though they never managed to reel in any contenders.

“I try to think like a fish,” Wing said. “I’m not very good at it.”

But fish or no fish, they spent their time outside, and they spent the day together. “It's still a good day,” Seader declared. “Just not a good fishing day.”

Rae Solomon
/
KUNC
Successful ice anglers line up with the day's catch at the weigh-in station to enter their fish as contenders for the day's prizes.

I am the Rural and Small Communities Reporter at KUNC. That means my focus is building relationships and telling stories from under-covered pockets of Colorado.
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