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OREGON OUTDOORS: Hot ice at Hyatt

ASHLAND — After a fishless hour, Ryan Cool gives up on his ice hole at Hyatt Lake and opts to try a spot abandoned by fellow angler Kellan Feyerharm a few minutes earlier.

Cool drops a red-headed jig into the hole, and it doesn’t fall five feet before it gets hoovered up by a hungry rainbow trout that nearly fills the hole as Cool uses a chilly hand to corral his catch.

“Wow, that’s cold, but it’s a nice fish,” Cool says. “He’s going back.”

It’s a scene played out regularly each winter at ice-fishing destinations in Southern Oregon such as Diamond Lake, Lake of the Woods and Fish Lake.

But Cool and Feyerharm are finding some surprisingly hot March ice-fishing at Hyatt Lake, a waterway rarely augered at all in winter, let alone in early spring, because the ice is normally too thin to be on.

But low water, a good concentration of fish and an extremely cold winter have combined this year to turn this lake on the Green Springs east of Ashland into a solid ice-fishing option.

Trout and, surprisingly, largemouth bass up to 16 inches have come through Feyerharm’s ice holes, often with the tracks of otters sliding down the face of Hyatt Dam the only other impressions in the snow.

It’s a fishery Feyerharm and Cool have had mostly to themselves.

“You come up here, and literally there’s no one here,” says Feyerharm, gazing out onto a lakebed recently flocked by 4 inches of snow. “There’s no one here. It’s nice and quiet. You hear the occasional woodpecker, see the occasional otter. It’s so serene, and I love ice fishing.”

Only recently in Feyerharm’s lifetime has ice fishing been an option at Hyatt and nearby Howard Prairie Lake, on the high Cascades Dead Indian Plateau. The two lakes used to close Oct. 31 and reopened the fourth Saturday in April, the traditional start of trout season.

The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife flirted with the idea of keeping Hyatt and Howard Prairie open in the winter, joining Fish Lake and Lake of the Woods as local year-round lakes, but the ice was sketchy most winters. Safety concerns, along with suspicion that ice fishing would cut into the spring and fall successes here, kept Hyatt and Howard Prairie on the spring-fall trout-fishing cycle.

But that changed in 2016 when ODFW opened virtually all Oregon lakes to year-round fishing as part of its drive to simplify Oregon angling rules.

The winters since then have brought occasional ice, with lots of open water, to Hyatt Lake, but Feyerharm has fantasized about ice fishing at the lake because his family has a cabin 100 yards from shore near the dam.

And this year, the elements aligned for him.

The lake was drawn down to a low of 4 percent of full last fall, and while subsequent runoff has risen the lake to 17 percent full, it’s still a far cry from the volumes at other lakes. That has corralled the lake’s largemouth bass and trout into a smaller area, improving fish density.

Then the cold weather in early 2019 saw Hyatt’s surface transform into 18 inches of a mix of good ice and slush, with a base of at least 8 inches of good ice before this week’s warming trend.

In the Midwest, ice fishers say a minimum 2 inches of solid ice is needed to support a person, 3 inches for groups and 5 inches for snowmobiles.

Most local anglers won’t fish on ice unless it’s at least 5 inches thick.

Feyerharm’s day starts with a hand auger to create an 8-inch-wide hole — the maximum allowed in Oregon — then a skimming ladle clears the floating ice debris in the opening.

Typical trout baits are worms, grubs or small jigs usually fished in the top 5 feet of water, but trout hang at different depths depending upon water temperature and oxygen levels.

Small trout rods or regular ice-fishing rods and reels that cost as little as $25 are most often used. In Oregon, anglers who buy a two-rod endorsement for lakes get to use up to five rods while ice-fishing.

Feyerharm fishes just two. They were both meant for trout until he unexpectedly caught a 16-inch largemouth bass.

“I didn’t come here to go fishing for bass originally,” he said. “I came out here just to get trout. We caught bass, surprisingly, going for trout. But you YouTube ‘ice fishing for bass,’ and there aren’t that many results.”

He now uses a grub, jig or small crankbait, all jigged close to the bottom when targeting bass, usually near dead trees that stand like a woody Stonehenge on Hyatt’s bottom.

“For the trout, I just let it sit,” he says. “For the bass, they look for something that’s injured, something having a hard time surviving, so they’ll attack that more than they would something staying still.”

For both fish, the water is so cold that bites are short and tough to detect.

Also, the rainbows stocked in Hyatt are spring spawners, so females now are ready to spawn.

“It is that time of year for trout to have a lot of eggs on board,” Feyerharm says. “I don’t want to do that to a lake with such low water and not a lot of trout.”

Feyerharm says sunglasses are important when ice fishing, because the sun reflects intensely off snow and ice. Hats and layered clothing are musts, because the weather can change rapidly on high-mountain lakes such as Hyatt, which sits just over 5,000 feet above sea level.

“Sun screen is a good idea,” says Feyerharm, sporting a reddish raccoon look. “I got burned out here two days ago. “That one was on me,” he says.

Good boots are mandatory.

“The first thing that goes are your toes,” Feyerharm says. “Then your day’s done.”

Southern Oregon is no Wisconsin. There are no elaborate ice-fishing sheds complete with gas stoves, hot tubs and even poker tables pulled by pickups onto the lake for the winter season.

Here, portable chairs or overturned 5-gallon buckets are the basic accouterments.

“There’s a lot of standing and sitting,” Feyerharm says. “That literally is what ice fishing is.”

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at @MTwriterFreeman.

Kellen Feyerharm ice-fishes in solitude at Hyatt Lake, which has an unusually thick ice surface this spring.PhotoJamie Lusch