Alaskans play the long game in a weekslong ice fishing tournament on Big Lake

Timothy Hill
Big Lake, snow, winter, february, Still Cold Open Ice Fishing Series

BIG LAKE — The charcoal vista of the early morning was softening to gray as Jesse Cashin sat sidesaddle on his Arctic Cat snowmachine.

Cashin had just used an auger to drill a hole in the ice atop this lake west of Wasilla in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough and hung a line in the water with hopes of capturing an elusive Arctic char.

The Still Cold Open, now in the midst of its ninth edition, touts itself as the longest ice fishing tournament in North America. And while organizers admit that claim may be unverifiable, the tournament is most certainly not for the uncommitted.

Cashin, who is competing for the first time in the derby that stretches from early January to the third week of March, is as devoted as any.

Big Lake, snow, winter, february, Still Cold Open Ice Fishing Series

“I fish every single day,” he said. “Literally every single day. I don’t care if it’s raining. I don’t care if it’s snowing … I’m a retired vet. I fish now. It’s what I do.”

Cashin’s “come rain or snow” approach isn’t optional for the 22 two-person teams competing this year — it’s a necessity.

The tournament runs every other Saturday for 12 straight weeks, exposing fishermen to the full battery of Alaska’s winter and early spring weather.

“The conditions change,” said assistant tournament director Josh Leach. “Especially here in Alaska. If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes. If you get a big, wet, heavy snow, you have overflow to deal with, and that creates its own challenges getting around and accessing spots. Or it might be 20 or 30 below and the wind is blowing. That’s really tough.”

The tales of the worst days sound like scenes from a big-screen survival thriller.

“Back a few years ago, we had wind and 30-32 degrees,” said Bill Clark, a veteran of the tournament. “It was coming down slush and it was coming down sideways. We had 4 feet of snow we had to dig down through to get to the water, and we’re standing in standing water. It was ugly.”

Big Lake, snow, winter, february, Still Cold Open Ice Fishing Series

While the third day of the derby on Feb. 4 was overcast and more comfortable at around 20 degrees, the first day in early January saw temperatures near 15 below zero.

“You’ve got to be hardy, that’s for sure,” said Daniel Kampmann. “We’ve had days on this tournament where it’s negative 25 and we’re out here all day (fishing) off snowmachines. It gets intense. It’s definitely not for everybody.”

According to tournament director Jerrid Hixon, last year’s derby was truncated due to unsafe conditions, with standing water and holes developing on the ice.

While the conditions are one major variable, the venue is another. The lake is undeniably vast — 2,495 acres, or nearly 4 square miles. The area allows for a choose-your-own-adventure approach to the tournament.

While most of the teams headed west, Kampmann and his partner RJ Kinmon selected a spot near the Burkeshore Marina, the tournament’s unofficial headquarters. Kampmann said it allowed them to set up almost immediately after the 9 a.m. shotgun start, saving the time it takes to travel across the lake. They fished an underwater structure that included an island surrounded by deeper water for a variety of options.

“The last weekend we were here, we got some good luck,” Kinmon said as he hunched over a fish finder screen. “We caught one and marked quite a few, so activity looks pretty solid.”

Nimbleness is required during the tournament. Defending champ Josh Hughes said he and his partner will generally drill 16 holes 10 or 20 big steps apart and move from one to the hole to the next. If those holes don’t produce within a span of 15-20 minutes, they move on.

“One of the most important things I’ve learned about Big Lake is not being tied down to any one spot,” he said. “If you haven’t caught a fish in a reasonable amount of time, it might be time to pick another hole. Not necessarily a whole other spot, but Big Lake is a single hook, no bait lake. So there’s no reason for the fish to swim over to you because it smells your shrimp or worm or eggs or whatever.”

Big Lake, snow, winter, february, Still Cold Open Ice Fishing Series

The tournament strips away many of the luxuries and advantages some ice fishermen enjoy, with no scented or artificial lures and no use of permanent fish houses allowed.

More than a third of the teams failed to catch fish during each of the the first two Saturdays. Hixon said that when he started fishing Big Lake, that failure only led to resolve.

“I’ve heard the same story from many other guys that are addicted to fishing this lake,” Hixon said. “You go out there, you get your tail handed to you. And it makes you mad. It makes you motivated. You have that tenacity.”

Big Lake, snow, winter, february, Still Cold Open Ice Fishing Series

While most teams are serious about catching fish, it’s not the only goal. There’s a clear camaraderie among the people fishing in the tournament, a larger band of wintertime interests that ties them together.

“It’s supposed to be fun,” Clark said. “So how do you want to fish it? How competitive do you want to be? Or do you just want to be out there and enjoy fishing?”

The tournament was founded by Wasilla’s Jim McCormick, and participants are generally, but not exclusively, fishermen from the Mat-Su. Hixon said extending it through nearly three months gave competitors something consistent to circle on their calendar as the winter months passed.

“People have vitamin D deficiency in the wintertime up here,” he said. “People tend to stay indoors more and not get outdoors. It was a little encouragement to quell cabin fever and depression and encourage people to get outside.”

Big Lake, snow, winter, february, Still Cold Open Ice Fishing Series

The structure of the tournament puts more of an emphasis on expertise and consistency, according to Hughes. Instead of a one-day tournament where luck could be the deciding factor, the Still Cold Open relies on an extended sample size.

“What’s different about the SCO, I feel like it’s a measurement of skill because you’re fishing every other weekend for six weekends and a championship day,” he said.

For Hughes, it’s also a built-in opportunity to spend time with his son Caleb, who he partners with.

“My son is 22 years old, he’s married, he’s got a kid of his own now and has been moved out for four years,” Hughes said. “I get to fish with him seven times a winter and that’s pretty much our plan and that makes for a pretty awesome experience.”

In past years, the tournament has been larger, with more than 50 teams competing. But Hixon said the cancellation of the last half of the 2022 tournament may have dissuaded some fishermen.

With the size of the venue, experience can be the biggest factor, according to Hunter Leach, who partners with Cashin.

“Knowing the lake,” he said. “Being out here and being able to fish it every day versus once or twice a month. The more you know the lake, the better your chances.”

The derby rules allow competitors to fish for two of the five species available at Big Lake. Rainbow trout are easier to catch, making the char a much more cherished trophy.

“They are very picky fish,” said Hunter Leach. “That’s mostly what I target in the winter. They’re just so fun. Beautiful fish, beautiful colors. I mean the trout’s nice every once in a while. Burbot’s good eating, of course, pike’s good eating, of course. But yeah, char, I just catch and release all day.”

There’s a certain reverence for char among many competitors. The derby is judged by fish length, not weight. In part, that allows anglers to quickly measure the char and get them back into the water as soon as possible.

“We like to fish because we like to see these things out of the water for a quick second,” Kinmon said. “The second we end up hooking a fish, we let each other know to get our board ready. Too much time outside of the water can be really damaging to some of these fish, especially their eyes. We’re here to catch the fish. We’re not here to ruin them. We want them to keep breeding and doing their thing so other people can enjoy it.”

Big Lake, snow, winter, february, Still Cold Open Ice Fishing Series

With a smaller field, the top prize this year is a bit smaller than usual — $500 for the winning team. Still, for most of the competitors who show up early at the Burkeshore Marina every other Saturday for much of the winter, it’s the line in the water, not the bottom line that takes priority.

“I live up here for a reason,” Kinmon said. “I really enjoy getting to meet the community that’s around here.”

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