Framed: Ice fishing brings back warm memories, family traditions at Fish Lake

Washington might be known for its skiing and snowboarding, but some take to a spot near Leavenworth in hopes of catching perch and other fish.

Two anglers sit atop a frozen Fish Lake in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest during the early morning hours of Saturday, Feb. 8, 2020. (All photos by Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

During cold winter months, some anglers may have hung up their fishing poles and packed away their tackle, but on Fish Lake they’re just getting started.

In the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, about a 30-minute drive from the Bavarian-themed town of Leavenworth, families from Kent, Arlington and across the region join locals in ice fishing atop Fish Lake. 

On this relatively small, 600-acre lake, stocked with bass, trout and perch, nearly all anglers are searching for the yellow perch on a recent frigid Saturday morning. The goal: reach your Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife limit of 25 fish. 

Weather the night before changed from heavy rain into snowstorms, creating a fresh layer of snow across the lake, which also ensured the icy top was frozen solid. “We checked the ice this morning and it said 14 inches,” said Elmer Larsen, 77, of Leavenworth, while fishing with his daughter, Annie Schmidt, 39. Larsen has fished the lake since the 1970s, many times with his children.

It’s a place where people come to connect with their family history, as well. “Coming out here reminds me of my childhood in Ukraine, fishing with my friends and family there,” says Yury Peresh, of Kent, who moved to the United States 30 years ago. 

The process is fairly simple: drill and hold, sit down and hope you get lucky. The luck comes from an angler’s choice of location. An ice auger — think of it as a gigantic drill bit — is used to create a circular hole in the ice. Everyone at Fish Lake was using hand-powered versions of the tool, but there are also gas-powered ones. 

Once there’s a hole, it’s just a matter of using a pole or hand to drop a line with a lure into the water below.

On this recent Saturday morning, the fish were biting. 

For a few moments it seemed like everyone who put a line in the water was immediately rewarded with a catch. Then, as if the fish got wise to the anglers’ tactics, they disappeared. 

But they always came back, just as the anglers do every winter.

A yellow perch emerges from an ice fishing hole at Fish Lake in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, during the early morning hours of Saturday, Feb. 8, 2020. 

Nadja Borisov, 8, pulls a fish from the lake while her father, Vladimir Borisov, 43, teaches her about technique. Some from their family of 10, who live in Arlington, took a trip over the Cascade Mountains via U.S. Highway 2. "It's nice for the kids because you don't have to sit in a boat and be quiet the whole time," he says, at Fish Lake in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, Saturday, Feb. 8, 2020. 

Elmer Larsen, 77, of Leavenworth, fishes with his daughter, Annie Schmidt, 39. "I've been visiting lake with Dad as long as I can remember," says Schmidt, laughing about her memories. "When I was little, I put my foot through a hole and just kept fishing." 

Fresh snow-capped trees along Fish Lake in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, Feb. 8, 2020. 

Yury Peresh, 52, of Kent, doesn't require a fishing pole to catch his fish from atop Fish Lake. He keeps it simple, using his two hands and some fishing line to lure fish. Making the hourslong trip from south King County to the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest is worth it for him because he's reminded of his own cultural experiences where he was born.  “Coming out here reminds me of my childhood in Ukraine, fishing with my friends and family together,"  he says. 

Vladimir Borisov, 43 removes an eye from a yellow perch that he will use to bait a fishing line his daughter is using during a trip to Fish Lake, Feb. 8, 2020. 

Ruvym Prokhor, 16, of Lynwood, Wash. pulls a sled with all the necessary supplies he'll need for ice fishing; auger, fishing pole, tackle box and a chair to sit back in while he waits for the perch to bite. "I actually like it better sometimes when the fish are harder to catch. It makes you really work for it," he says. Prokhor also brought a camera and a tripod. He hosts a YouTube channel where he shares his ice fishing experiences. 

Visitors walk past the closed bait shop at the Cove Resort on Fish Lake. 

Midmorning winds started blowing frigid air across an already frozen Fish Lake, causing some anglers to chase down their fishing tent. 

Elmer Larsen, 77, of Leavenworth, has been catching fish from the lake since the 1970s. "When I first came here back then, we hiked into the lake and cut holes in the ice with a saw," he chuckles. "I don't fish during the summer. There are no mosquitoes this time of year, less competition, and it's a quiet and relaxing way to spend time." 

A bald eagle watches Fish Lake anglers from a distance, as a man drills a hole in the ice with his auger. 

A collection of yellow perch rest atop frozen ice at Fish Lake during a visiting angler's successful trip. 

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About the Authors & Contributors

Matt M. McKnight

Matt M. McKnight

Matt McKnight is formerly a visual journalist at Crosscut, where he covered a variety of political, social and environmental issues around the Pacific Northwest.