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Cold spell means ice fishing on Bear Lake

Annual cisco run draws fishermen to town each January

SHARE Cold spell means ice fishing on Bear Lake

GARDEN CITY, Rich County (AP) — Dale Weston remembers the good old days in this booming resort town. Before high-dollar condominiums. Before fishing regulations. Before refrigeration.

In those good old days, the ice on Bear Lake would be 30 inches thick. It would ice over every year. Teams of horses would pull wagonloads of grain, rock or mahogany wood across the frozen lake. Residents would haul 15-foot blocks of ice to ice houses for use all summer.

But this January was the first in three years when Bear Lake's ice could support the weight of an ice angler, much less an 18-wheeler — which Dale saw drive across the lake in an icy year long past.

"Maybe we're stuck in the grip of global warming," said Anita Weston, Dale's sister, who still lives in Garden City with her mother, Marie. She laughed when she said it, but her brother remained stoic.

"Well, something's changed," Dale said.

Bear Lake's ice was measured at 8 inches thick on Jan.29. Temperatures up until then had been lower than 30 degrees for three solid weeks.

Ken Alder, of North Ogden, has been visiting Bear Lake for 35 years. For him, the annual cisco run is one of the year's best couple of weeks.

"Right now is the fun time. The cisco are spawning, the whitefish are eating the eggs, the trout are eating the whitefish ... You never know what you're going to get," Alder said. "It's just like Christmas."

Whether on ice or from a boat, Alder makes it to the cisco run. But the first 20 years were decidedly colder, as he remembers it. This was only the third time in 14 years that he could dip cisco through the ice. The first 20 years, ice was there just about every year.

But some hard statistics show that the lake's ice may not be diminishing as quickly as it seems. Scott Tolentino, Bear Lake fisheries biologist for the Division of Wildlife Resources, notes that Bear Lake has capped in nine of the last 16 years.

That's a little less than the historic average — according to records kept since the 1890s, the lake caps about three out of every four years — but nothing to get alarmed about, Tolentino said.

"You look at the data and you can pick out other 10- or 15-year periods where ice has been just as rare," he said.

Sometimes, like last year, the ice comes a little late for the cisco run. And it has never been much more than a foot thick in the 15 years Tolentino has been at the lake. But he says it's likely more of a phase than a trend.

For instance, there were four winters in the 1950s — Weston's good old days — including three in a row between 1952 and 1954, and three in the 1960s where the lake remained completely ice-free, according to Utah Power and Light records.

Nothing like cold, hard facts to ruin a good story. But Weston's got some doozies about Bear Lake. Some — like the string of cutthroat trout, none less than 3 pounds, he caught with his bare hands in one of Bear Lake's tributaries — may be tough to independently verify. Others — like the time the wind blew the ice off Bear Lake and into a massive pile in Gus Rich's house — have documents to prove them.

All of them are fantastic.

How about speed-skating ice anglers who skate along clear ice above a frantically fleeing fish until the fish, too tired to swim, gives up, allowing its pursuer to cut a hole in the ice and pull a large, exhausted trout through the ice?

"I never did it myself," Weston said. "But it's true. It works. You have to be a good skater."

How about the time his uncle, hauling a load of grain across the lake to a mill in Laketown Canyon, almost lost his wagon and team of horses to the depths? The back runners sank in rotten ice and the horses were able to pull it out but only after the entire load of grain was emptied onto the lake.

And Gus Rich, who lived for years on the point that now bears his name, his house was actually a victim of blowing ice not just once, but twice.

"The ice gets a comin' and it just never quits," Dale Weston said.

It happens frequently on the lake. Pounding winds push the ice into massive piles, quickly opening the water.

Bear Lake's wind is one topic that brings out the storyteller in Tolentino.

"I've seen it (the lake surface) go from 8 inches of ice to nothing in two hours," Tolentino said.

That legendary wind is one factor that could keep this year's ice from reaching legendary status.

"I've seen the lake stay open when it was 20 below for weeks. If the wind blows, it doesn't cap — no matter how cold it gets."