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Diamonds in the ice

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Gary Jonesburg ice fishes for rainbow trout at Diamond Lake in this photo taken with a drone .Mail Tribune/Jamie Lusch
Gary Jonesburg lands a rainbow trout while ice fishing at Diamond Lake.Mail Tribune Frame Grab from Oregon Outdoor Shoot
Gary Jonesburg ice fishes at Diamond Lake.Mail Tribune Frame Grab from Oregon Outdoor Shoot
By Mark Freeman

Mail Tribune

A stiff wind whisks down from Mount Bailey over the snow-cloaked ice field of Diamond Lake, creating a blizzard effect that obliterates footprints just minutes after they’re made.

Dark clouds to the east foreshadow more of the same, if not worse. Perhaps not an ideal day to dig foot-deep holes into one of the West’s most ballyhooed ice-fishing lakes to take a stab at some of the shimmering rainbow trout in the water below.

“Well, I’ll meet you out there,” says Gary Jonesburg, a Diamond Lake Resort lifer, as he guns his snowmobile and powers from the resort to a not-so-secret fishing spot just off the lake’s north ramp. “It’s a good spot. We’ll get them.”

Diamond Lake is a gem of the Cascades, and for those with the right clothes and the right bait, it can produce steady catches of winter rainbows that rival or exceed those caught during the popular spring, summer and fall seasons.

Since 2016 when Oregon went to year-round fishing in most inland lakes and reservoirs, Diamond has continued to shine.

A fishing website called fishingbooker.com named it one of America’s 10 “bucket list” ice-fishing destinations, and the only one west of the Rocky Mountains. It’s a new title for the lake, but not new information for Jonesburg, who works at the resort and has spent much of the past five winters plying the ice for the rainbow treasures below.

Last year’s best fish was a 21-inch rainbow that weighed 4 pounds — enough to win big money in June’s Rainbow $5,000 trout-fishing derby.

“I haven’t caught a fish smaller than 14 inches through the ice,” Jonesburg says. “Some of the biggest fish I’ve caught in this lake have been through the ice.”

Diamond Lake is stocked each spring with 300,000 rainbow fingerlings, as well as a smattering of brown trout and sterile tiger trout planted to target infestations of illegally planted tui chub that decimated lake’s productivity in 2006.

In winter, ice holes are drilled with augers and can be no larger than 12 inches in diameter. Special ladles are used to scoop ice chunks out of the hole.

Standard trout rods and reels can be used, but shorter rods built for ice fishing work better because the rod guides are less apt to freeze with line in them.

Beyond that, ice fishing can be a bit of a crapshoot as to what’s happening below.

“Your guess is as good as mine, honestly,” Jonesburg says.

Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife statistics show catch rates as high as 3.5 fish per angler per day during summer months at Diamond Lake, but the little data collected on winter fishing since 2016 show catch rates of about one trout per four hours.

Jonesburg says such catch rates are deceiving, because it includes everyone and not just those who have the game dialed in.

Some of the lake’s best spots are in water around 15 feet deep, either near the resort or along the lake’s south end, Jonesburg says.

Most of the standard baits that work in the summer work in the winter. Small pieces of worm or very small balls of PowerBait in chartreuse or rainbow colors are go-to offerings.

But tactics vary greatly in the harsh season.

With the surface cloaked in snow and impenetrable by sunlight, the lake’s vegetation is nearly nil. Diamond Lake’s legendary insect levels — which in the warm seasons are an off-the-charts 650 pounds of insects per acre of underwater muck — are largely dormant now.

These fish are cold and hungry, often just a few feet under the ice.

“You just need to figure out where they are, put a worm right in front of them and hope they’re mad enough to bite it,” Jonesburg says.

Unlike their ground-hugging tactics of summer, the rainbows can be anywhere except along the bottom. That’s why using the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s $22 two-rod validation can be such a great asset.

The validation that allows anglers to use two rods in lakes and reservoirs during regular seasons allows ice-fishers to employ up to 5. That allows the setting of rods at different depths and baits to see what works.

And when it works, the bite is as subtle as a playful nip on a lover’s ear.

This day’s first bites went virtually unnoticed. Others were a bit more dramatic, but led to hook-sets that went unrequited.

“Sometimes, like today, the fish hook themselves on bites you don’t notice, and you lose them on ones when you’re holding the rod,” Jonesburg says.

One of the rules of thumb for ice-fishing safety is 4 inches of thickness is good for people to walk on; 5 inches or more for snowmobiles.

The ice often remains solid enough for angling through April, but always check ahead at 1-542-793-3333.

After a few hours, the whipping winds bring sideways snow and a desire to beat the deluge to shore.

Shoulda been here yesterday, Jonesburg says. No wind and T-shirt weather.

“That’s the thing with fishing in the winter,” Jonesburg says. “You don’t know what you’re going to get. One day, it could be real nice. The next day, a blizzard. Today’s kind of in-between.”

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