The Lure of Ice
Even in the dead of an Idaho winter, Magic Reservoir draws hundreds of sportsmen to its flat expanse, gathering to commune with nature and each other.
PHOTOGRAPHY Tal Roberts
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It's before dawn on January 1, 2009. The moon glows, just enough to illuminate the faint outline of the frozen Magic Reservoir. There’s no sound but the wind, the only lights those cast by lamps at cottages and mobile homes surrounding the lake. There’s not a soul on the ice but Paul Hopfenbeck and Bill Tormey. This is their annual pilgrimage to Magic to watch the sunrise on New Year’s Day.
Tormey and Hopfenbeck forego their usual supplies and take only necessities: poles, bait, headlamps, beach chairs, gas-powered auger, thermos of coffee and bottle of Bailey’s Irish Cream. Rather than transport the gear across the ice on a snowmobile or all-terrain vehicle, they opt to drag two plastic sleds, and they wait until they’re settled to use the headlamps, navigating by dawn’s reflection on the ice to guide them.
“To use a light would almost ruin it,” Hopfenbeck says.
Every year, these two Bellevue, Idaho, residents skip the parties and champagne, go to bed by nine and travel the 20 snow-swept miles to Magic before six in the morning. They’re often the only people out there, in part because it’s so early, in part because it’s so cold. Last New Year’s, the temperature registered 30 below zero.
“I can’t think of a better way to start the new year off,” says Tormey. “Nobody’s there. It’s just pure silence. And the serenity of your surroundings, man, you feel like you’re the only person on the earth.”
Their figures, alone in the dark on the moonlit ice, conjure a stereotype of weathered old ice fishers, lonely and scruffy men who squat by dark holes limply holding fishing poles in one hand and cans of beer in the other. By mere association, the words ice and fishing sound solitary and cold.
(Clockwise from top left) The spoils of the sport; Frank Smith affixes bait to his line; Paul Hopfenbeck’s golden retriever, Muti, patiently awaits the next catch; Johnny Christensen looks on as Hod Swanson augers into the ice.
a summertime barbeque or football tailgate than fishing trip.
Yet, at Magic Reservoir, quiet and isolation are rarities. On a sunny winter day with temperatures anywhere above zero, the ice bustles with people and dogs. Don Hartman, owner of West Magic Resort, a restaurant-cum-convenience store, reckons as many as 400 people will populate the ice on a good winter’s day.
They bring their fishing gear and their snowmobiles, their beer and hot toddies and sometimes even a gas-powered grill to cook mid-afternoon snacks. Some are in groups of two while others huddle among 15. They sip beer, watch their poles and take shelter from the wind in makeshift shanties.
Ice fishing is a communal activity, and it can feel more like a summertime barbeque or football tailgate than fishing trip. Ice fishing could also very well be a fly-fisher’s worst nightmare.
“Fly-fishing and ice fishing are entirely different activities,” says Hopfenbeck, who is a past president of Idaho Steelhead and Salmon Unlimited, a sport fishing group focused on recovering endangered stocks of Idaho salmon and steelhead. “It’s like backpacking by yourself in the wilderness versus having a barbeque in your backyard. Ice fishing is very, very social. People will have huge speakers and crank up their music. You could be two miles away and still hear them.” >>>