HARDING LAKE’S ICE FISHING CHALLENGES
By Dennis Musgraves
Grabbing the pull-cord handle and giving it a couple quick rearward yanks, I fired up the power ice auger.
I made a quick adjustment on the choke lever, which allowed the rough idling engine to keep running, warming up in the cold, crisp morning air. To prevent it from dying while I cut into the thick ice, I took extra time to make sure the machine reached a good operating temperature. I patiently waited for a familiar purring kitten sound, which indicated when it would be time to squeeze the throttle and put more holes in the lake.
The sun sets on Harding Lake, a
deep fishery near Fairbanks that has a reputation for skunking ice fishermen. (DENNIS MUSGRAVES)
HITTING THE ICE
Fellow Alaskan Salmon Slayer member Chris Cox and I had already been ice fishing for lake trout for more than an hour on Harding Lake. I had become restless from the lack of activity on the Vexilar sonar monitor we were using to spy fish swimming 100 feet below us. Marking only a couple uninterested fish during the first stint of the day was not unusual while fishing for elusive “cheetahs,” but I had decided it was time to try a different location. Putting in some fresh ice holes a short distance away would give us a change in depth, and maybe a responsive fish.
I left Chris to watch the display on the fishfinder. I wanted him to continue jigging at our initial location, while I set off to drill the new holes. I intended on shifting about 100 yards, prepping the position and returning to move all the equipment with Chris. The auger’s sharp blades worked quickly, evidenced by an accumulating pile of shaved ice on the surface. We would be fishing again very soon, boosted by a renewed promise for success.
Harding Lake regulars refer to it as “Hard Luck” due to the challenges of not just fishing it but getting to it through huge snow drifts at entry points. (DENNIS MUSGRAVES)
But just as I was about to punch through the remaining inches of a third ice hole, I heard what sounded like someone crying out in the distance. Actually, maybe it was more like I felt someone crying out in the distance, since the noisy machine deafened my hearing abilities.
The faint noise sounded panicky, so I let off the auger’s accelerator. As the motor hushed to an idle, I began to hear the distant yelling more clearly. It led me to look over my shoulder.
Somewhat shocked, I realized it was Chris. He was screaming at the top of his lungs, trying to get my attention, frantically holding a rod in each hand. Both sticks were doubled over and flexing wildly.
It appeared he had his hands full, literally.
At some point while I had been drilling out the new holes, Chris hooked up. Judging by the twerking rods it seemed to be a good-sized fish (or maybe two?) and I probably should have stayed with him.
BAD LUCK CHARM?
My friends and I have affectionately nicknamed Harding Lake, “Hard Luck.” It’s a fitting name since winter fishing is normally brutally slow and challenging. Even for the most avid ice angler, a bit of good luck is required when vertically targeting fish at this large lake.
But even with that reputation, it’s no secret what attracts me to Harding:
Finding fish at Harding Lake is made more difficult when you consider the small size of an ice fishing hole, and the lake’s 2½-mile width and 2,500 acres. (DENNIS MUSGRAVES)
About 15 years ago, when I first moved to the Tanana Valley, I heard legendary stories and saw numerous pictures of enormous lake trout and Arctic char caught out of the lake. Pics posted on local sporting goods stores’ brag boards, tacked up to neighborhood gas station windows, and published in the outdoor section of the Fairbanks newspaper left me in awe. All of the angling evidence had me intrigued and excited about catching my own fins of glory one day at Harding.
The photos made it look easy, but I soon found out just how difficult the reality of hauling a lunker onto the surface would actually be. Hard Luck almost broke me – I went several winters without even a nibble. My relentless efforts, however, would eventually pay off. My theory was, if I didn’t go, I certainly would not catch anything – that was a guarantee.
Investing in a quality sonar device and filling my funnel full eventually allowed me to finally catch my first fish there. Harding has now become one of my main staples during the winter fishing season.
A DEEP LAKE
Located only about 45 miles from Fairbanks, Harding Lake is reached by the Richardson Highway. The lake is large, deep, spans 2½ miles across and reaches depths of 145 feet. You can access the lake at two different locations: following the signs from milepost 321.5 to the Alaska State Park Recreational Area boat launch, or continuing to travel a little further down the highway for the lake perimeter road turnoff, which leads to a lakeside residential community boat launch.
The author reels in what he hopes is a trophy lake trout or Arctic char. Anglers will be aided in finding fish with sonar with the lake at such deep levels; in some spots Harding Lake is 145 feet deep. (DENNIS MUSGRAVES)
Arctic char and lake trout are the fish I search for here during the winter. Expect the majority of both to be around 20 to 25 inches long, with some running from 28 to 36 inches. There are also burbot and northern pike present in the lake, but note that fishing for the latter is not permitted per Alaska Department of Fish & Game regulations.
Equipment plays a vital role in success at Harding. Vertically fishing in a 10-inch hole on 2,500 acres in 130 feet of water can be random, at best, if you’re actually trying to catch something. It is more like the proverbial fishing a needle in a haystack.
In order to compensate for the dynamics that Hard Luck presents, I prefer to use a Vexilar-brand electronic fishfinder. With it, fishing becomes more like stalking. I use the electronics to locate depths I want to fish in an area of the lake that’s usually between 100 and 130 feet deep. The finder will not only determine the depth, but also detect and display objects in the water column. When fish move under the transducer – at any depth – a mark turns up on the display.
The idea is to move your lure to the depth of the marked fish to entice a strike. Electronics will not guarantee you catch fish, but having a fishfinder will greatly enhance your ability to determine which depth to bring the lure up or down to.
Having the proper rod, reel, line and lure selection are other factors that you need to take into account to avoid failure at Hard Luck. I use a custom 32-inch medium/heavy-action rod designed for ice fishing for bigger catches. The rod’s spine and the action of the tip allow you to fish lures of up to 1 ounce. It also gives you the ability to set hooks at deeper depths and handle the pressure of a large fish.
I use a low-profile baitcasting reel, strung with 20-pound braided line. I add a heavy-duty swivel at the end of the line with a 3-foot leader of 15-pound-test fluorocarbon. Off the leader, I tie on large spoons, plastic tubes on jig heads and, occasionally, herring.
You won’t see a hard-sided hut city on this lake, and there are no rental shanties from the state either. That and very slow action makes most fishermen drive right by Harding to waters down the road. The lake is also very difficult to access most of the season because of large snow drifts at the entry points. Expect to either walk or snow machine out on the lake most of the winter.
Once you get on the lake there’s no guarantee you will hook up. I have a habit of rolling more doughnuts fishing Harding than you can find at a bakery. Avoiding the skunk takes patience, persistence and, of course, a little good luck at Hard Luck. Once in a while, when the stars align correctly and Lady Luck lends her hand, anglers are able to catch a mammoth fish from the dark depths.
Investing in good equipment and spending hours on the lake will definitely give you an edge on dialing in and catching a beast, but it won’t be easy. I have managed to catch my share of trophy lake trout and Arctic char from the lake by using good equipment, making numerous outings and, of course, having some good old-fashioned luck.
The one constant is an inconsistent catch rate. The fish present an ever-changing pattern of here one day, gone the next. But that’s what makes pulling a 3-foot-long laker out of a 10-inch circle in the ice so rewarding: it’s simply not done every day.
FIGHTING A BIG FISH
Watching Chris battle the large fish and listening to his whooping and hollering, I knew he might want some help surfacing the trophy-sized fish. Without hesitating, I killed the engine on the auger and quickly made my way towards him. Chris had flown north from his home in Anchorage to specifically spend the weekend fishing with me at Hard Luck. (It seemed like I had just picked him up at the Fairbanks International Airport and here he was catching a big fish less than three hours later – man, some guys have all the luck!)
I was a little breathless and excited when I finally reached Chris. As I stood next to him and surveyed the situation through the ice hole, it appeared to be a mess – jigging two rods in such close proximity had left fishing line tangled under the ice. The laker had hit Chris’s jig like the proverbial freight train, taking off and pulling line off the reel, and then getting wrapped in the other line a short distance away. I reacted quickly by cutting the line on the fishing rod without a fish to eliminate further confusion.
With only one rod in play now, Chris gained control and slowly brought the fish toward the surface. I peered into the ice hole, trying to get a glimpse of what he had hooked. Then I saw it. In the clear water, the color and patterns were unmistakable. Chris was surfacing a beautiful lake trout that appeared to be at least 10 pounds.
He guided its head carefully up through the hole, lifted the big fish from the water and cradled the trout’s underbelly with one hand. He quickly cast his rod aside with his other hand and grasped around the peduncle of the trout’s tail, which was now totally out of the water.
Chris Cox was one of the lucky ones at the lake they call Hard Luck, landing a 30-inch laker before releasing it back into the icy water. (DENNIS MUSGRAVES)
Chris beamed from ear to ear with his accomplishment.
“Take the picture!”
I immediately obliged, and after a few quick snaps, we took a length measurement. The laker taped out at just over 30 inches, a little bigger than most fish we pull from Hard Luck.
“Not too shabby,” I told Chris.
Although not the stuff of 20-pound-class folklore, the fish was a very respectable lake trout, a fish any Harding angler would be proud to catch.
Chris did not want to harvest the beautiful old lake trout.
“Let’s get him back in,” he said.
He submerged the trout’s head back into the water, allowing it time to regain strength from the battle. That would hopefully allow the fish to swim off with a strong kick. Chris held the tail just out of the water as the fish revived, gathering strength. It did not take long for the fish to feel reinvigorated, and Chris let go. We both watched as the big fish kicked downward, disappearing into the deep.
Reflectively, I could not help thinking how easy this catch had seemed for Chris. Fewer than two hours had passed between his arrival at the airport and the hookset. For sure, this was not normal at Harding, but there was no hard luck for Chris.
NO EASY FEAT
The next nine hours on the ice was far less exciting. We moved several times, jumping back and forth between different holes, feverishly jigging our lures, yet nothing we did induced another fish to bite. As the sunlight faded on the horizon, we packed up the sled for the last time.
There is nothing strange about a one-fish day at Harding. Indeed, I was happy for my friend’s angling success, despite finding myself fishless, dejected, and wondering what else I could have done on the day to hook into my own trophy. My feelings slipped out as I left the ice-covered surface.
“Hard Luck, I hate you.”
But I’m relentless, and I will be back. There be beasts in Harding. ASJ
Editor’s note: Author Dennis Musgraves is one of the Alaskan Salmon Slayers, who fish throughout the state. Check them out on Facebook and at alaskansalmonslayers.com.