EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was originally published in the Winter 2014-15 edition of Tahoe Magazine. It was first published on this website in August 2018 and is presented in its original form.
Somewhere down that dark gray ice soup hole is a fish.
All that fish needs to do is find the food on the end of the hook, and BAM! But, it’s never that easy.
Ice fishing is a renowned trial in patience. Men and women in the Midwest have been known to sit for days on end in a tiny hut, waiting for the fish to bite. Luckily, in California, ice fishing is typically done on a sunny day for a morning or an afternoon.
“We don’t traditionally have to sit in a hut,” said Victor Babbit, owner of Tahoe Fly Fishing Outfitters in South Lake Tahoe, which offers ice fishing tours in the winter. “The best time to be out there is on a beautiful sunny day when you can sit back in a nice chair with a light jacket on.”
The activity can provide a nice respite from typical winter sports. Hanging out on the lake surrounded by snowy peaks can be relaxing, plus it’s pretty non-committal. There’s typically no bruising associated with ice fishing. It’s relatively inexpensive, and it’s great for the whole family.
“It’s an incredible family experience,” Babbit said. “When I take my family out there, my kids are sledding half the time and fishing half the time.”
The best spots in the Lake Tahoe area are typically Red Lake, Caples Lake and Silver Lake on the South Shore, and Donner Lake in Truckee when it freezes over.
Ice conditions can vary widely, depending on temperatures. In most years, the small lakes freeze over in December and begin to thaw around the end of March. Lakes need at least 6 inches of ice before they’re safe to walk on.
To get through the ice, fishermen use a giant drill, called an ice auger. Man-powered augers are available for rent and to buy through several Lake Tahoe fishing and hardware stores.
In the Midwest, fishermen often use short poles because they sit in small shelters where a longer pole would be a hassle. But most regular fishing gear is suitable for ice fishing in Lake Tahoe. Chairs and a barbecue aren’t bad accessories to bring along on your trip either.
As far as bait goes, there’s no silver bullet. Often, ice fishermen will drill several holes and try different combinations of bait and depth to see what’s working.
Powerbait, worms, mealworms, and jigging with Castmasters are all pretty common, Babbit said. Often, there’s more than one successful option, but some days it’s just hard to catch anything, he added.
“There are certain days that are incredibly good,” Babbit said. “There are days when they pull 10-pound to 12-pound Mackinaw through the holes. Other days, you’re catching 20 or 30 smaller trout.
“And honestly, I’ve been out there on days when we haven’t caught a single fish.”
As always, be careful on the ice, as it may not be as thick as you think. If you decide to recreate on the area lakes or ponds, consider wearing a life jacket and bringing a rope — and always bring along a buddy.
Spots to ice fish:
Directions: From South Lake Tahoe head west on Highway 50. Turn left on Highway 89. At the junction, turn right on Highway 88 toward Kirkwood. After Carson Pass, Caples Lake will be on your left. Ice fishermen often fish near the dam or on the south side of the lake.
Directions: From South Lake Tahoe head west on Highway 50. Turn left on Highway 89. At the junction, turn right on Highway 88 toward Kirkwood. Just before Carson Pass, Red Lake will be on your left.
Directions: From South Lake Tahoe head west on Highway 50. Turn left on Highway 89. At the junction, turn right on Highway 88 towards Kirkwood. Past Kirkwood, Silver Lake will be on your left.
Directions: From Tahoe City, head north on Highway 89. Turn left on Interstate 80, toward Sacramento, and take the Donner Lake exit.