What is the best winter fishing water in Northwest Montana?
While I know of no public survey, a lot of winter anglers would say it is Smith Lake near Kila. Montana is known for its world-class stream fishing for wild trout. But those fabled trout waters are mostly located in Southeastern Montana.
Here in Northwest Montana, with abundant lakes, most of our anglers tend to be lake anglers.
Most of our local lakes are deep lakes with crystal-clear water. These lakes are pretty to look at but not highly productive for growing fish.
Smith Lake is just the opposite. It is a shallow 300-acre lake. Its bottom and shoreline have thick weeds. When these weeds die in the fall, they stain the water with tannic acid, which gives the water a stained color.
But this type of lake habitat produces tons of fish food and fish — and that attracts local anglers. For years, Smith contained zillions of small perch and a few rainbow trout. Then, in a heavy snow year, spring snow melt washed some northern pike into Smith from upstream lakes.
Those pike found a fish-eating paradise full of small perch. Now Smith supports both a good perch fishery as well as lots of pike. Most of the pike you catch are small, running from 12 inches to 20 inches.
But Smith also produces some trophy-size pike. At the recent Sunrisers Lions Ice Fishing Derby, a dandy 8-pound pike was brought in for weighing. If you want to see a real Smith Lake trophy, visit Snappy Sport Senter. There is a 30-pound Smith Lake pike hanging on the wall.
If you are a perch and are born in Smith Lake, your chances of reaching adulthood are very slim. For many years I’ve been the weigh-master at the Smith Lake Ice Derby. In past years it took a tiny 2- to 3-inch, 20-gram or 4/100 of a pound perch to win the smallest perch contest. This year, after the pike introduction, the smallest perch was 226 grams or about one-half of a pound.
That is an eating-size fish. Now there are fewer perch in Smith but those that survive hungry pike grow big and fat. The largest perch weighed at the derby was well over a pound. That is a dandy eating-size perch. During the recent derby, there were many pound-size perch weighed.
One fun moment at the fish derby occurred when two young boys brought in a pike to be weighed. When I asked who caught the fish, so I could give the successful angler a free fishing rod, they both spoke up, “I did.” It seems the aggressive pike took one lure and bait, then swam over to the next lure and bait, and bit again. Both boys fought their fish until they realized both were hooked to the same fish. Then one had to reel in and the other had to release line. Both boys received fishing rods.
Just because there are lots of perch and pike in Smith Lake doesn’t mean they are always easy to catch.
Two weeks ago, the Perch Assault fishing contest was held at Smith Lake. There were 52 registered two-person teams. These fishing teams pay a premium entry fee to enter this contest to attempt to win the generous cash prizes. So these guys are good fishermen, yet half of those teams didn’t catch or at least weigh a fish.
One secret for a successful team was to use modern technology.
That team caught seven nice perch with the aid of an underwater camera. The camera showed lots of fish but also showed lots of fish food clinging to the dense vegetation. The fish just weren’t hungry. The camera showed perch nosing up to their lures and bait but not really grabbing it. Occasionally a fish would barely take the bait and begin to swim off; that is when the camera fishermen would set the hook and catch the fish.
Several years ago, I was fishing in Lake Mary Ronan. Fishermen told me the kokanee were biting at 30 feet. So we fished at 30 feet, catching a fish every 15 minutes or so. Then I decided to fire up my fish finder. No sooner was the fish finder humming when a school of kokanee came through at 15 feet, well above my fishing depth. Then another school came through at 15 feet. We cranked up our lures and bait to 15 feet and immediately began catching lots of salmon. Within an hour, five us had our 50-fish kokanee limit plus one fat rainbow.
There is no guarantee that technology will always help catch more fish, but sometimes it works wonders. And besides, I find it is fun messing with new fishing gadgets.