CURT GOWDY STATE PARK – Seven year old Hunter Williams woke up at 3 a.m. Saturday morning for his first time ice fishing.
Twelve hours later, he walked off the frozen Crystal Lake Reservoir with his stepfather, grandfather and other relatives exhausted.
Despite early hints he was in the running for the youth prize, he didn’t end up winning anything. But he still had a long day’s worth of good memories and a decent haul of slippery reasons to do it again.
His favorite part, of course, was “catching the fish.”
There were a few times Saturday when the 60 mph gusts were howling and fish weren’t biting and it almost seemed a mistake to have skipped a chance to sleep in.
But for most of the roughly 175 hardy souls who signed up for the third annual ice fishing tournament at Curt Gowdy State Park, there were more important things than being warm.
For Doug Martin of Cheyenne, Williams’ grandfather, who has been pulling fish out of frozen lakes since 1995, it was a great chance to do the only thing better than regular fishing.
“Fish taste better coming through the ice,” he said, surveying fishing holes attended by specially mounted reels. “And when you get inside your tent, it’s like fishing in an aquarium. You can see the fish coming up and bite the hook.”
Erik Wagner, also of Cheyenne, had shown up to win something.
He said he’d been fishing the lakes of Wyoming, Colorado and Nebraska for most of his life. And he caught a big white sucker last year and won an “ice house,” a wind-resistant tent many drilled into the three competition lakes Saturday.
So despite saying “This is terrible,” through one particularly snowy gust, he planned to stick things out until he or his friends’ luck changed.
And many took any cold in good fun.
Marc Hall, who was out fishing with friends from work, joked, “What’s better for company bonding than freezing your (privates) off?”
Still others were just there to try something new.
Joey Barlow and Cameron Twing said they hadn’t been out ice fishing since they were kids. Nicole Twing said the same thing, adding that as a 9-year-old she’d shown promise in hooking a big walleye, but let it go because she couldn’t stomach killing it.
But their casual approach – they showed up hours after the tournament started and didn’t bother to register – almost seemed an advantage.
Within 30 minutes, they were reeling fish in. An hour in, they and 8-year-old Maysen Twing were jamming an unruly 18-inch trout into a cooler.
“It can barely fit!” Maysen exclaimed.
That wouldn’t be enough to win: Victor Gomez, another first-timer, would later claim the top prize with a rainbow trout with 33.9 inches of combined length and girth.
But organizer Merrill Bassett, said despite having temperatures in the 50s by midday, everyone showing up to ice fish through Wyoming winter winds was still “diehard.”
And while all experienced anglers like Martin wanted to catch big fish, anything his grandson caught brought a smile to his face.
“I honestly don’t care how we do,” Martin said, beaming as Williams reeled in a perch. “It’s about getting them into the outdoors. If they keep coming out, that’s all that matters.”