Sometimes in fishing, it pays to roll the dice.
For a recent ice fishing trip, I was faced with two options — play it safe with a tried-and-true destination, or venture into the unknown with little more than a hunch and a theory.
“It’s high-risk, high-reward,” I cautioned my companions, Randal and Jon. “But I think we can pull it off.”
And so, the die was cast. We rendezvoused at zero-dark-thirty and set off for our destination — the Riddle Lakes deep in the Owyhee wilderness.
On top of an hours-long drive and some janky dirt roads, the Riddle Lakes are the kind of journey that requires planning your fuel stops. Power poles are the only manmade structures for long stretches, and you’ll likely see more jackrabbits than people along the way.
We beat the sun to the lake, and it was time for the moment of truth: would there be enough ice to fish on? I nervously tiptoed out, armed with a headlamp and my auger. I drilled just a few feet from shore and took the fateful measurement. Four inches. Maybe five. It wasn’t much, but it was enough.
We set up shop and dropped our lures through the ice, careful not to let them hit the bottom. These lakes are crawling with crayfish, meaning anything that gets too close will be devoured by crustaceans.
Before sunup, Randal shuffled across the ice in pursuit of the first bite. His hook set was true, and we soon caught a glimpse of what had brought us on this wild adventure — a Lahontan cutthroat trout.
Lahontans are a unique species that only inhabit a handful of Idaho lakes. They thrive in desert water with high alkaline content and are most commonly found in Nevada. When conditions allow, southern Idaho is likely one of the few places on earth where they can be caught through the ice. I smiled to myself — for a fish nerd like me, that pan-sized trout pretty much made the trip.
We fished on and caught a few more Lahontans in the 14-inch range. I landed our group’s first big fish, a hefty rainbow trout — the other common game species found in these lakes. As the morning wore on, I got another heavy bite and Jon came over to assist. The fish flashed at the hole but somehow spit the hook. Jon looked at me, wide-eyed.
“That looked like a big cutthroat,” he said.
I was bummed to have lost the fish, but as I dropped back down the hole, my line started racing sideways again. I set the hook hard. “Let’s find out!” I smiled. “That has to be the same fish.”
After a spirited fight, Jon helped me haul a stunning 20-inch trout onto the ice. He looked at me again, eyes even wider.
“Buddy!” he cried. “It is a Lahontan. You just caught a state record!”
Jon would know. He owns the state catch-and-release record Lahontan. I was inclined to go for the catch-and-release, but the fish struggled to swim away, so I decided to harvest it and bag the certified weight record rather than feed it to the crayfish.
Our trip a success, we fished until lunchtime and headed for home. I texted a Fish & Game contact and got instructions for submitting the record, which requires a photo, a witness to the catch, measurements, completion of an online application form and a receipt from a certified scale. I brought my daughter along to weigh the fish at Winco, where the seafood specialist couldn’t have been more kind and helpful when Quinn proudly handed her “daddy’s big fish.”
I recognize my record is mostly attributable to the species’ rareness, and I have no doubt it will be broken again down the road. Still, it’s pretty cool to have my name in the record books — somehow, the story even made national news! I think what makes me happiest is that I caught it through the ice, and that our Hail Mary into the desert turned into a fishing trip I’ll never forget. Tight lines!