Ice fishing

Caleb Hernandez uses an auger to drill through the ice atop Eagle Nest Lake on Jan. 25. 

On Jan. 25, the tiny town of Eagle Nest was host to the annual ice fishing tournament, an event that attracts a gathering of brave souls who drill holes into a winterized version of one of New Mexico’s largest lakes, drop in a line and wait for fish to bite.

Many of the more ambitious anglers had thrown their lines into the freezing lake before the sun rose, hours before my fishing partner, Caleb Hernandez, and I stepped on the ice at 10 a.m. Having stayed up past midnight the night before preparing for this new adventure, I inadvertently purchased my fishing license for the wrong day, committing a rookie mistake.

Let this be a warning to those wishing to participate in this competition in the future: the park rangers check licenses. Fortunately for me, internet service works on the lake. I was able to get a valid license just in the nick of time.

But the rangers also serve another vital purpose, testing to make sure that the ice remained safe for the hundreds of anglers present. The Eagle Nest Lake State Park manual states that the minimum safe thickness is 9 inches. Rangers monitor the lake for dangerous cracks, water on top of the ice, and open water, all of which are threatening signs. My fishing partner, also a first-timer, and I had both done the requisite research and quickly navigated the learning curve of using an auger to prepare our fishing holes, though we were not as adept at adapting to the constant shifting and deep cracking of the ice.

I gradually discovered that patience, warm apparel and coffee were necessary to enjoy the many hours on the ice.

After two hours of sipping coffee, and not fish catching, I witnessed a broad-shouldered angler sporting overalls and a grin that could only mean he was in his element and was having a successful day. Hauling his gear across the ice on a sled, I could just see the sparkling scales of trout protruding from the ice in his bucket.

The man, who wished to remain anonymous, informed me that he had lived in the area his entire life. He has been fishing on this lake for 50 years, and he had been participating in this competition since its inception 17 years ago.

He explained that there are four categories in the tournament: largest trout, largest pike, largest perch, and largest creel. In the event of a tie, the fish with the largest girth wins.

This year, the tournament attracted 404 participants. There was a $10 entry fee with 75 percent of the proceeds going towards the prize money for each category: the winner of the trout category won $1,074, pike $540, perch $570, and creel $280. Forty percent of the cash prize goes to the first-place fish with 30 percent to second, 20 percent to third, and 10 percent to fourth place. There is also a large raffle for anglers to try their odds at the tournament. Not only do the winners walk home with hundreds of dollars in their pockets, but they can beam knowing that they had acquired fresh fish for dinner, as well.

Since our angler-historian had fished the lake for so long, he told me how it has changed over the years. He said that the level of the lake had gradually fallen. He pointed to a campsite many yards from the shore that he said used to lay beneath the water’s surface. In recent years, the water table has fluctuated significantly.

He worries for this current season, since the snow will not truly fall in Northern New Mexico until late spring. He fears that the later and intermittent wet seasons will not satisfy the needs of the environment.

Not far from Eagle Nest, the Ute Park fire did major damage to Philmont Scout Ranch in the summer of 2018, forcing the mecca of the Scouting world to close for an entire season. That day on the water — or shall I say ice — the angler said his favorite fishing spot was where the water ran into the lake, especially when it was frozen over, even though it may present a higher risk to try and fish in this area, because of thinner ice. There are several locations around the lake where streams feed in as a source.

With the lake’s burgeoning popularity as a year-round fishing hub, there is a growing desire for more species of fish to hunt. The two most dominant species introduced into this lake, according to the local angler, are pike and perch. In this environment, their presence is unmatched, allowing them to somewhat monopolize the habitat. As a result, many of the original species, especially the trout, have diminished in size and number.

Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” aphorism applies to the underwater species as well. He revealed that even the pike and perch sizes have decreased over the years. The usual perch length several years ago measured 12 to 13 inches. Today, the range is closer to 7 to 10 inches. The combination of intentional and inadvertent introduction of these invasive species has greatly affected the lake’s natural ecosystem.

One option for correcting the problem might be re-introducing more walleye, which would manage the Northern pike, since they control one another’s populations.

After just a single day on this lake, I could understand the connection that these anglers feel toward this special body of water. The stunning snowcapped peaks in the distance surround the lake and hold witness to New Mexico’s tallest mountain, Wheeler Peak, which stands at a whopping 13,159 feet.

As I sat there in the deathly silence, broken only by the occasional auger, or a celebratory cheer for a just-caught fish, I knew that I would undoubtedly return next January for the tournament, or even earlier during the summer when the lake is filled with boats of fishermen trying their luck.

Ice fishing is a spectacular experience, even if you do not catch a single fish.

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