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Start the ice fishing season at Sunriser tourney

by Warren Illi
| December 28, 2023 12:00 AM

Yes, in spite of our unusually warm weather, ice fishing season is here. ‘Tis the hard water fishing season!  

Smith Lake, located close to Kalispell, is one of the first lakes to freeze over, so it is a popular spot to dust off your ice fishing gear and catch a few tasty perch or pike. This year is a little different because of our spell of above normal temperatures. Many of our larger lakes still have open water. Many of our smaller bodies of water, ponds, lakes and river sloughs have a thin layer of ice. So, if you are adventurous, and want to do some early season ice fishing, venture out on the ice very carefully! 

Using your ice chisel or axe, test the ice depth frequently as you venture out. Most experts recommend at least 4 inches of ice thickness, at the minimum, to safely hold a person. Even ponds and lakes with no apparent currents can have ice of varying thickness.

Every ice angler should have a pair of ice picks, on a cord, wrapped around their neck. If you break through the ice, it is very difficult to get a good grip to pull yourself back on the top of the ice. Immediately after breaking through thin ice, grab the ice picks from your neck, plant them solidly into the ice and pull yourself out. This should be done as quickly as possible because your clothing will quickly soak up water, increasing the weight of your body and legs to haul out of the water. Having a fishing buddy with you, with a good rope, will make it much easier to assist you in getting out.      

Smith Lake, with its well-known population of tasty perch, is a local early season choice for early ice fishing.  For local winter anglers, I recommend attending the 52nd annual Sunriser’s Lions ice fishing tournament on Smith Lake, on Jan. 6, 2024. This is probably the longest running ice fishing tournament in Montana. This is a fun family ice fishing adventure. It is designed to get families on the ice. Each year there will be out-of-state grandparents who are visiting their kids and grandkids, during the holidays, who have never walked or fished on a frozen lake. So, it is a new outdoor experience for them.

Registration starts at 7 a.m. on Saturday morning, Jan. 6. The fishing contest ends at 1 p.m Registration is at the Lion’s trailer at tournament headquarters at FWP’s Smith Lake fishing access site. Cost is $8 for adults, $3 for kids or $12 for the whole family.   

An oddity of the Sunriser Lions Smith Lake fishing contest is that not only are prizes awarded for the biggest northern pike, perch and non-game fish (usually a sucker), but prizes are also awarded to kids for the smallest perch and pike caught. The small fish contest is open to kids 12 and under. Kids really love the smallest fish contest. To win the smallest perch or pike contest, the fish must actually be caught on a hook and line. A couple of years ago some kids came in with a one inch long perch. That certainly was the smallest perch entered in the small perch contest, but was not caught on a hook and line. It was likely spit up from the stomach of a larger perch or pike. That small perch was not qualified for the small perch contest.

Our local Sportsman and Ski Haus is the primary sponsor of this event. They donate over $600 in prizes. A local sportsman’s club, Flathead Wildlife, also donates money to buy prizes. Another prime sponsor is the Flathead Chapter of Walleyes Unlimited. They will donate 100 new ice rods and reels for kids under 12. The Flathead Chapter is only one of 18 local chapters of a state-wide group called Walleyes Unlimited of Montana. The name walleyes unlimited does not fully describe all that Walleyes Unlimited does. Montana Walleyes Unlimited actively supports all sport fishing, with an emphasis on warm or cool water fish species such as perch, bass, northern pike and of course, walleyes. The only walleye fishing in Western Montana is the Noxon Reservoir area. Eastern Montana, especially Fort Peak Reservoir, has world class walleye fishing.         

The Sunriser Lions will have their food trailer at Smith Lake to serve hot dogs, hamburgers, chili, donuts and drinks. Hourly, door prizes will be handed out. Usually there is a healthy, split the pot contest, with several hundred dollars for the winner.  There will be a nice warming fire where kids can warm their fingers and burn a few marshmallows and make s’mores.

So, if you want to have some winter fun, come out to FWP’s Smith Lake public lake access site at the southwest corner of the lake. The action starts on Saturday, Jan. 6, 2024, from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. I can’t guarantee you will take home a bucket full of fish, but you will have a good time. If you have any questions, call me at 406-890-0205. See you there! A fun time is guaranteed!