Aaron Thomas, aka A.T., drills an eight-inch hole with an auger into the ice on Tutshi Lake. Andrew Cremata

Under the Ice


The lake is more than 100 miles long and nearly 900 feet deep in spots. It is capped by 30 inches of solid ice, frozen hard by winter cold. A thin layer of snow blankets its entirety, creating a vast expanse of white, blinding the eyes as the sun creeps over the mountains that frame it. Coming to grips with the sheer immensity of this body of water is an impossible task for the mind. And yet here I am, standing over an eight-inch-wide hole that’s been cut into this massive sheet of ice, fishing pole in hand, wondering why anyone would expect it was possible to actually catch a fish under these circumstances.

These were my thoughts just before my first attempt at ice fishing. I’ve always been opposed to the idea – the words “ice” and “fishing” just didn’t seem to belong together. So I spent 16 years in Alaska before ever attempting to catch a fish by working a lure up and down through an eight-inch column of water. It seemed impossible, yet in the back of my mind I knew this was a popular activity in the north, so people must actually catch fish, or else why would they bother?

Fortunately, I was with an ice-fishing expert, my buddy A.T., who had brought along an assortment of fishing gear custom designed for winter fishing. The most important piece of equipment was the motorized auger that cut perfect, eight-inch holes in the ice. When A.T. was done drilling a series of ice holes, we were ready to fish.
When you’re standing on an endless mass of ice, an eight-inch hole looks pretty small. A.T. assured me that there were few fish that wouldn’t fit through the hole, but I still had my doubts. I have caught some trout in this particular lake that were in the 20-pound range, and I wasn’t worried about those fish squeezing through the ice hole.

I was thinking back to one particular trout I saw a few years ago, directly under the spot on the lake where I was standing. I had been following a large grayling with my eyes as it swam out into the deeper water. Suddenly the water exploded and the grayling was engulfed by a giant trout that came completely out of the water as it attacked. It easily topped 40 pounds. And at that moment, I was sure that no mechanism exists by which one can pull a 40-pound trout through an eight-inch ice hole.

I related this story to A.T. but he didn’t seem to think there would be much of a problem. To settle our disagreement we took a few minutes to calculate the circumference of the hole, and how it would compare to the girth of a large trout.

We attempted to remember the value of pi, and had a significant debate on how this alleged number relates to either the radius or diameter of the hole. Then we multiplied and divided all of the integers together in an effort to come to a consensus on the hole’s circumference. But after a few failed attempts we gave up on math and had a beer instead.

I hadn’t been jigging for five minutes when I got my first bite. This trout currently holds the dubious honor of smallest lake trout I have ever caught. I also caught the second fish of the day, a healthy 19-inch trout perfect for the bottom of a skillet.

Then we waited.

I was starting to understand the attraction of ice fishing. You are surrounded by primal winter beauty. The rugged frontier is your doorstep. It is truly a chance to be at one with nature. And you get to enjoy it all with a shelter, a heater, and cooler of beer.

The conversation was good, and a couple of hours slipped away when A.T. said, “I got a bite.”

He said it casually and, sure enough, he looked to have a nice trout on the line. This one seemed to be heavier than the others as he patiently worked it toward the ice hole. To the fish it must have been some sight; a shaft of light reaching into the depths – the light at the end of the tunnel.

When the fish was two-thirds of the way up, A.T.’s rod began thrashing wildly. I knew immediately what this meant. Often, a large fish won’t immediately know it’s hooked. However, there is a point when it’s being pulled toward the surface that it makes the sudden realization it is going in a direction it does not intend. When the fish does figure it out, it will thrash from side to side, undulating in an effort to free itself from whatever force holds the fish in its sway. That’s when your rod starts thrashing.

“You’ve got a big one,” I said cleverly.

It was then the fish ran. It took out around 80 yards of 20-pound line. For the uninitiated, this means you have hooked into one very nice lake trout. I was already putting the fish in the 15 to 20 pound range as A.T. started to make up ground. We were devising a plan to hoist the trout up through the ice hole, as if planning a thing like that would make any difference whatsoever.

The fish was getting close. I stood ready to take action. Then it ran again.

This run was something I’ve never seen before. I’ve seen big salmon take out a hundred yards of 20-pound line before, but never a trout. The lunker laker didn’t stop until 170 yards of line had been pulled from A.T.’s spool. It was then that I knew for certain there was no way that fish was going to fit through any eight-inch ice hole.

A.T. did everything right throughout the battle. Fourteen minutes into the most epic fight of his life, tangling with the largest lake trout he is ever likely to hook, he got his first look at Leviathan.

The phrase of exclamation A.T. uttered, while not printable, told the whole story of the size of this trout. In that moment, he saw the laker through the icy portal his auger had drilled. He saw its mass as it rolled into view – within arm’s reach if you really stretched. And within the split-second where excitement turns to disbelief, the trout was gone.

A.T. collapsed in the snow and lay prone for some time. There was no sound for what seemed like minutes. I thought it might be a good idea to check his pulse when his cry of “NOOOOOO!” echoed between the Yukon mountains.

Afterwards, we dissected these events for quite some time, and I tried to be supportive lest A.T. suddenly have the urge to slice his own wrists. His humor was good, though. After all, you seldom get a chance to clash with a true monster. What we determined was that when A.T. tried to hoist the trout’s giant head through the ice hole, the hook had come loose.

A.T. described the side of the trout’s mouth as longer than the diameter of the hole. While I never saw the fish, I did see the fight, and I guessed the weight of the trout at over 40 pounds. A.T. said he thought that it was more like 35, but there is no way either of us will ever know for sure.

There are, however, three things I do know for an absolute certainty…
• Ice fishing is fun.
• You can’t fit a 40-pound trout through an eight-inch ice hole.
• A.T. has been seen shopping for 10-inch augers.