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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Johnny Christensen sits, waits and watches.
the fishing, once set up, can be rather easy.
The two friends are also keen to the unique flavor of Magic trout. Trout in Magic feed on an indigenous fresh-water shrimp species that’s only found in the reservoir. The diet of shrimp makes the trout larger, fresher and pinker. Tormey claims it is some of the best trout he has ever tasted.
While trout are typically 10 to 12 inches long, some can be surprisingly large. In early 2009, Magic regular Ron Frey caught a seven-pound, three-ounce trout. Frey, whose license plates read “Fish Frey,” is famous on the ice for his success and dedication. When he’s not working as a bartender at the Silver Dollar Saloon in Bellevue, he can usually be found on the ice at Magic.
Magic Dam, which impounds Magic Reservoir at the northern edge of the Snake River Plain near the Clay Bank Hills and Rattlesnake Butte, was envisioned as early as 1901 and completed in 1910. The reservoir squats over the confluence of the Big Wood River and Camas Creek, the two waterways it captures. It’s about 30 miles south of Ketchum, and in the winter it invariabley freezes over.
When it was built, the dam was one of the largest of its kind and was designed to hold roughly 200,000 acre-feet of water, enough to irrigate downstream farms on the Snake River Plain in towns like Richfield, Gooding, Shoshone and Dietrich.
Fishing at Magic began as soon as the dam was complete. An excerpt from the Shoshone Journal, republished in the book, Idaho and the Magic Circle, reports that as early as 1914 fishers would travel to the reservoir and catch as many as 100 fish in a day, none shorter than a foot long.
Recreation flourished, and in 1936, the same year Sun Valley Resort opened, Ed Gleason opened the first “resort” at Magic. Called “Gleason’s Landing,” it became a center for weekenders who would build makeshift houses and cast the seasons through.
“Those who loved to fish loved the place, and it continued to grow, just a haphazard scatter of shacks,” wrote Betty Bever in Idaho and the Magic Circle. Eventually, however, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management decided the fishers who lived in shacks and shanties were “squatters” and auctioned the land. By 1959 as many as 125 houses, huts and cabins had been built on the west side of the reservoir.
The reservoir itself is large. Stretching for 14,000 acres when full, it is difficult to see exactly where it ends and begins. It also makes fellow ice fishers look like mere specks in the distance. The Soldier Mountains rise in the northwest, their snow-covered peaks a dramatic backdrop to the vast flatness of the reservoir’s surface.
Beyond crisp morning sunrises and warm camaraderie in a chilly-but-awesome setting, the economics of ice fishing are another reason for its popularity.
Hopfenbeck recalls taking his two sons and their friends out each weekend when they were younger. It was a safe place for the boys to play and learn the ins and outs of fishing. It was also far more affordable than buying a year-round ski pass for each son.
“For the blue-collar guy who can’t really afford to keep their kids on the hill all the time, it’s a great diversion,” says Hopfenbeck. “I’m not criticizing Sun Valley at all, but the reservoir is a place where they can yell and scream and go crazy and make a mess and have a great time.”
Hopfenbeck still takes his youngest son, 22-year-old Curtis Hopfenbeck, fishing each week. In January 2008, Curtis fell off a climbing wall at the Wood River YMCA and broke six vertebrae. While he is mobile, he’s still in recovery, and ice fishing is a low-impact sport he can do. It also allows Paul Hopfenbeck to spend time with his son.
“I bowl for him, and he goes ice fishing for me so that we can hang out,” Hopfenbeck says.
Hopfenbeck and Tormey both consider themselves conservationists. While Hopfenbeck reserves jabs for dams and reservoirs on the lower Snake River in eastern Washington, saying they block migrating salmon and steelhead on their journeys to and from the Pacific Ocean, he’s quick to point out that Magic Dam does not impede fish migration.
“The Magic Dam is simply an irrigation dam with some hydroelectric power,” he says. “Its water comes from the Big Wood River, which does not and never has had wild [salmon and steelhead] runs. It is an entirely different structure, and there is no conflict of interest.”
Introduced to hunting and fishing at a young age, Tormey shot his first deer at 16 and remembers weeping for days. Now a contractor sporting a big, bushy beard, Tormey has lived a few lives; he was trained as a professional chef at Baltimore’s International Culinary College. He still caters some, but is more interested in hunting and fishing for his own food than preparing meals for others.
“It makes you feel like you’re a part of the circle of life,” he says. “It is a very sacred act and demands that you be respectful for the animals that you harvest and the substance that they give you.”
After each kill, Tormey offers a prayer over the body of the animal. “Be it whatever God you may pray to, or maybe just the spirit of life that you’re acknowledging, it’s a kind of spiritual thing to take a life in order to sustain life.”
Hunters and fishers are hands-on conservationists, Tormey says. “In a sense, we’re stewards of the lands. Our dollars from hunting and fishing licenses and the tax on all the sporting equipment go into conservation.”
Tormey is right. Most of his $25.75 fishing license goes to Idaho Department of Fish and Game, which is unique among state wildlife management agencies because it relies primarily on its license and tag fees for revenue. It does not collect money from the state’s general tax fund.
According to Rob Morris, a senior conservation officer with the department, revenue from license sales goes to conservation efforts along with the maintenance and protection of public lands, which are used not only for fishing and hunting but also for bird watching and hiking. To Tormey’s way of thinking, it would be helpful if everyone had to buy a hunting or fishing license because almost everyone enjoys the benefits.
Though Hopfenbeck and Tormey rarely come up empty-handed, they are quick to point out that whether or not they catch anything really doesn’t matter.
“Ice fishing is about taking time out of your schedule,” Tormey says. “It’s the serenity of it, and it’s the anticipation.”
He then hesitates, trying to think of a better way to express himself.
“You know when you get the smell of sage, and your heart and head swell up, and it’s just that clarity of the moment, the crispness of being alive, of truly being alive in that moment?” he asks. “Fishing in general is a lot like that—the anticipation, the waiting, the fact that you never know when the fish will strike. It’s hard to put words to those types of emotions.”