The author steps onto the ice at Castle Lake last weekend. - Nancy McClain

Ice fishing in a winter wonderland

It took 10 minutes of serious stabbing and chopping with ski poles to punch through the ice that had reformed over a hole drilled by a previous ice fisher at Castle Lake, only to discover another layer of ice a foot below that one, and a third layer below that. By the time we'd cleared a wide enough hole to lower a weighted line through the slushy water, the sweat was running.

The first trout — a skinny but feisty 14-inch rainbow — struck a night crawler before the bait had a chance to hit bottom. The second, third, fourth and fifth trout — all between 12 and 15 inches — took single salmon eggs as fast as they could be dropped through the ice.

After two hours of hiking to reach the lake — which is perched in a rock bowl at 5,450 feet in the Trinity Divide — and 20 minutes of furious chopping, it took less than 10 minutes to catch the five trout we needed for a dinner for four last Saturday night.

Castle Lake, situated about 10 miles outside of Mount Shasta City, Calif., is a postcard destination that offers some of the best views of Mount Shasta and Black Butte in the region. With a paved road that ends within yards of the shore, Castle Lake can be crowded during the summer, but in the winter, when the road is buried beneath 10 feet of snow, it's a wonderland of solitude and breathtaking scenery.

From Lake Siskiyou, Castle Lake Road winds west up the mountain for seven miles. In early January you could have driven within a mile of Castle and snowshoed or skied into the lake. Last weekend, following several massive snow dumps in the last month, the road was gated after 2.5 miles, leaving a 4.5-mile uphill hike through deep snow to reach those hungry trout.

While ski and snowmobile tracks were visible the entire way — and the sun was blinding as it bounced off the snow — we didn't spot a single skier or snowmobiler as we crunched over the crusty hard-pack that was solid enough to make snowshoes unnecessary.

When we reached Castle, a pair of snowmobiles sat at the edge of the frozen lake. As we trudged across the ice looking for a place to begin chopping, we spotted the riders — three young men with skis and snowboards lashed to their backs — who were snowshoeing up one of the peaks that encircle Castle.

They finished their ascent before we finished chopping our hole, then they treated us to a spectacle of skill and daring as they flew down the mountain, dodging trees and boulders all the way. One man wore telemarks, one wore backcountry skis and one rode a snowboard. They whooshed onto the ice of the lake, changed back into their snowshoes, and immediately began climbing toward a saddle on the opposite side of the lake that leads to Heart Lake at 6,050 feet.

"All that hiking for a few moments of 'whee!' " I thought.

As they climbed, we landed dinner and spent some time soaking up the sun that rendered our layers of wool, Gortex and nylon superfluous. We wished we would have brought sunscreen. After about 30 minutes, the climbers traded showshoes for boards and filled the air with primal yawps as they raced back down the bowl.

When they hit the bottom we shouldered our packs and began the long trek back to our car.

All that hiking for a few moments of fishing. All that climbing for mere moments of "whee!"

It wouldn't seem worth it if the goal was the "whee!" But as the westering sun transformed snow diamonds into gold, and a nearly full moon hung over the cinder cone of Black Butte, the effort required to earn this view seemed to be the entire point.

Mail Tribune Features Editor David Smigelski can be reached at or 776-8784.

Share This Story