Breaking the ice when the fish bite: Local competitions highlight Grand County as an ice fishing destination
The beauty of Grand County is that when temperatures drop, the fishing doesn’t stop. The area is home to 80 lakes and reservoirs, including Grand Lake, Colorado’s largest natural lake. Many of these vast bodies of water are prime ice fishing spots. The area’s frigid temperatures create a long ice fishing season. Once lakes froze over in mid December this year, many anglers headed out with augers, poles and tents, ready to catch some fish. Among them was Austin Howard of Granby.
Since he moved to Grand County from Wisconsin in 2008, Howard has fished year-round. For some, casting a line is a pastime — for Howard, it’s a sport he’s built his life around.
“I try to keep my life in fishing one way or another, to try to make a living off it, because I love it, it’s my passion,” said Howard.
Undoubtedly, ice fishing requires more preparedness than warm weather fishing. Anglers must bundle up for the elements, bring necessary equipment such as augers to drill holes, and be able to read the lake’s condition.
“The biggest thing is safety. I mean, there’s never really safe ice, but there’s a point where it is safer,” Howard said. “Be sure to check the ice as you go out onto the lakes to make sure it’s thick enough and stable.”
Guided trips can be ideal for novice ice fishers, which help to mitigate some of the risks involved. In addition to fishing for himself, Howard offers guided trips through FishingBooker.com, a website designed to connect anglers with guides. Guides like Howard help ensure anglers are traveling on stable ice and dropping lines where the fish are biting.
“I fish a lot of lot of spots; I can drill anywhere between 20 and 100 holes a day,” he said of his guided trips. “I like to be very mobile, to chase the fish around.”
Howard, who started guiding when he was 18 years old, has worked for three different outfitters in Grand County. He’s in the process of starting his own outfitting service and is working on a website, which he hopes to get up and running this February. He’s also working with the Department of Regulatory Agencies to get permits so he can guide trips throughout Grand County.
He currently leads excursions on Grand Lake, Lake Granby and Williams Fork Reservoir; he’s also working to pull permits to guide at Wolford Reservoir.
“I am a Coast Guard captain as well; I recently got my captain’s license so that ranks me … on the higher end of professionalism. It took a lot of time, a lot of money and a lot of training just to get to that point,” he said, adding that Fishing Booker only promotes certified captains for safety reasons.
Howard offers 4-hour or 8-hour trips every day of the week. He provides rods, reel, tackle and bait, plus an ice fishing shelter and heater to ensure participants stay warm. He added the trips are also kid-friendly and participants can keep their catch.
In addition to guiding, Howard ice fishes on his own every chance he gets, whether on a snowmobile or on foot. He says the beauty of ice fishing is that it allows anglers to venture to places that are only accessible by boat in summer, giving a whole new perspective to the environment. Once anglers find a prime spot, it’s time to set up, drill their hole and patiently wait for a catch. The pristine, snow-white views are hard to beat, but when it’s time for a change of scenery, anglers can quickly move on to drill their next hole.
Grand County’s waters are home to a diverse fish species population, including lake trout, rainbow trout, brown trout, brook trout, northern pike and kokanee salmon, all of which are all active in winter.
“That’s what I love about this area,” Howard said. “That’s why I’m still here after all these years, because of these good lakes.”
Each body of water offers something different for anglers. Grand Lake is close to town, so anglers can grab lunch when they’re ready to take a break from the ice. Williams Fork Reservoir near Hot Sulphur Springs, or portions of the Colorado River west of Granby, offer quiet seclusion. Another prime winter spot is Meadow Creek Reservoir in Tabernash, which is home to rainbow trout and the rare tiger trout.
Friendly competition never hurts the fishing scene.
“I try to fish as many contests or tournaments as I can; I love the thrill of that,” Howard said. “It’s fun – it’s fierce too; there’s some really good fishermen out there.”
Howard began competing at age 15. He frequently participates in Grand Lake’s annual 3 Lakes Ice Fishing Contest.
“I won the division last year,” he said. “I had a pretty good weekend!”
Howard took first place rainbow day one, then took second place rainbow day two. He’s planning to fish in this year’s contest.
Howard says he is also currently the only professional bass fisherman on the Bassmaster series from Grand County. The Bassmaster series is a professional bass fishing tournament circuit.
Local ice fishing events
For readers who are ready to cast their own lines into the competitive waters, Grand County is the place to be. There are several different competitions slated from January to February.
3 Lakes Ice Fishing Contest
3 Lakes is the longest running ice fishing contest west of Mississippi. Hosted by Destination Granby from Jan. 27-29, contestants will fish at Grand Lake, Lake Granby and Shadow Mountain Reservoir.
Destination Granby raised their cash prizes for fish this year by almost $9,000 compared to last year. There will be $8,775 in daily cash giveaways and $26,325 for the entire weekend.
“This is a big year, it’s our 35th anniversary,” said Sarah Cichon-Douglas, Destination Granby’s interim executive director. “We have people who come every year, but we’ve also had a lot of new people, which is nice … to infuse a little new energy.”
This is Cichon-Douglas’s second year organizing the event; she said the most rewarding part for her is seeing happy people — even when it’s minus 35 degrees.
“It has such a great vibe,” she said. “It’s very family-orientated. … People love to come to this event, they love it. It’s a very supportive community.”
Cash prizes are given to the top seven places each day for each fish species, plus prizes for tagged fish and a grand slam prize for catching all species.
Participants can catch kokanee salmon, brown trout, rainbow trout and lake trout. According to Colorado Parks and Wildlife, Lake Granby boasts the highest density of lake trout documented in Colorado.
The event begins with a kickoff party at Sun Outdoors from 6-9 p.m. on Jan. 26, then anglers head onto the ice as early at 6:40 a.m. on Jan. 27.
“We’ll have raffle prizes, with the big one being a side-by-side from Power World,” said Cichon-Douglas.
Participants will also have a chance to win daily giveaways, from Yeti coolers to fishing poles. Everyone who registers is also guaranteed a custom hat, a welcome bucket with swag from Ace Hardware, and an entry into the raffle.
Proceeds from the contest benefit Destination Granby and the U.S. Forest Service. Cichon-Douglas explained that all funds collected for Destination Granby go back to the community. As a nonprofit, Destination Granby provides marketing, business support, events, community gathering spaces and façade beautifications for the town.
Wolford Ice Fishing Tournament
Held Feb. 18 at Wolford Mountain Reservoir near Kremmling, the tournament offers chances to catch rainbow trout, brown trout and kokanee salmon. While waiting for a catch, anglers can enjoy amazing views of Wolford Mountain, or even catch sight of a distant elk or deer herd moving through the white landscape.
“We spend months planning to make sure that this event is nothing short of amazing,” said Brittany VanderLinden, executive director of the Kremmling Chamber of Commerce. “This will be my fourth tournament, and this is one of my favorite events.”
The tournament, which began in 1998, provides the Kremmling Chamber with additional funds to support local businesses. The tournament offers a $2,500 guaranteed cash prize for the first tagged fish recorded, $250 for the second to fifth tagged fish, and prizes for the 10 largest fish caught.
“We have seen the tournament grow a little every year, with a lot of growth over the last few years,” VanderLinden said. “Last year, we saw 200 more contestants than 2021.”
She explained that Wolford is a popular place to compete because it’s easy to access from many counties, including Grand, Summit and Routt, plus other states.
“Everyone is able to go at their leisure. Contestants can drill as many holes as they wish and move if they would like,” she said. “There is approximately 1,500 acres of surface area so (there’s) plenty of room for contestants to have a little place of their own for the day,”
The event is also a great learning experience for kids and beginners. Kids 15 years old and under are free. They can also register to try their chance at winning cash and prizes.
“If you have a kid that would like to do it, but has never ice fished before, this is the perfect tournament for you,” she said, adding that children must be accompanied by an adult.
“We have so many contestants that come back each year, which makes it have a community feel on the ice,” VanderLinden said, adding that there’s always excitement at the tent as anglers cheer each other on.
The Chamber is open to donating a percentage of the event’s proceeds to local nonprofits. Volunteers are also welcome. Interested nonprofits or potential volunteers can reach out to VanderLinden at email@example.com or 970-724-3472 for more information.
Ice Addiction Tournament
Also on Feb. 18, anglers can look forward to Grand Lake’s Ice Addiction, hosted by Denver-based Tightline Outdoors. Nate Zelinsky, owner of Tightline Outdoors, explained that the beginner-friendly competition is designed to create a social atmosphere, rather than having anglers spread out over the lake.
Contestants don’t have to study different depths of the lake or other factors to figure out the best place to drill, Zelinsky and his team do that for them.
“It’s much different than a normal ice fishing tournament,” he said. “We go out on the lake and and pick a section — like 10 acres on the ice — and pre-drill all 2,000 holes 30 feet apart.”
After checking in, anglers are able to chose a hole, but they can bounce around to different holes as much as they like, since there are about 30% more holes than competitors.
“It’s nice because we eliminate knowledge of the lake,” Zelinsky said. “For someone who only ice fishes once a year and might not be as competitive … it’s very user-friendly.”
Ice Addiction offers prizes for first to 30th place. There will be over $25,000 in cash and prizes for the top 30 competitors, and the first place winner will score $7,500. Participants don’t have to get a limit of fish, or a tagged fish, to win.
“There’s no gimmicks or hoops to jump through, we just go by the heaviest single fish to win, not the species,” he said. “Everybody has a chance to win.”
Anglers can fish for lake trout, brown trout and rainbow trout. There is no age limit for kids, as long as they can hook and reel in their own fish. There are plenty of games throughout the day to keep them entertained, plus free hot chocolate and donuts. A final bonus — if a participant has never gone ice fishing before, Tightline Outdoors will provide them with tackle for the day.
3 Lakes Ice Fishing Contest, Jan. 27-29
Register at DestinationGranby.com/events. Online registration is available until Jan. 25. In person registration (cash only) is also available at Granby Bait N Tackle at 383 E Agate Ave. Due to the Special Event Permit with the Forest Service, only 1,500 registrations are available per day. Destination Granby recommends registering early. To fish at Lake Granby or Shadow Mountain Reservoir, anglers must purchase an Arapaho National Recreation Area Pass online at recreation.gov.
Wolford Ice Fishing Contest, Feb. 18
Register at KremmlingChamber.com or by visiting the Chamber office at 203 Park Ave. in Kremmling.
Ice Addiction Tournament, Feb. 18
Register online at TightLineOutdoors.com/ice-addiction.
Grand Lake Reel Fun Ice Fishing Tournament, Feb. 25
The Grand Lake Reel Fun tournament offers prizes for the top 30 heaviest fish. Register at ReelFunIceFishing.com/information.
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