By David Harrison
The 2014 census listed 1,394 people in Jackson County, and the 2016 and 2017 stocking report for the 656-acre Lake John numbered 1 million fish. This means that if you want to catch a trout through the ice, North Park is where you want to be.
The single incorporated town in Jackson County is Walden, with half of the county’s residents. Walden in northern Colorado is not the middle of nowhere, but it can be seen from there. Over two hours from Ft. Collins and almost three hours from Denver, the lakes surrounding Walden provide a multi-tiered challenge for ice anglers.
Lakes John and Cowdrey, plus the three Delaney Butte reservoirs (North, East and South), have some of the easiest to catch and largest rainbow, cutbow and brown trout available. Although well-publicized, the overall fishing pressure is low. Plus, the layout, size, accessibility and fisheries management combine to create one of the best places in the world to graduate from elementary ice school (first fish), through middle school (catching 50-plus fish), and on to high school (trophy fish).
A great ice-fishing destination (and education) involves more than just fish and ice. Avoiding the immediate growth of a ski resort town due to low snowfall, Walden retains its working-class Colorado roots. The reason anglers return to this place has to be the authenticity of the Lake John Resort, the fantastically furbished Antlers Inn, the hand-built Rock House rental and (a sign of any great mountain town) the local bowling alley.
It pays to hurry though. The recent high rates of trout stocking in the lakes will not last forever and oil and gas exploration in the area caused a mini-boom, so things might be a bit busier than normal for a few years.
Elementary School: Lake John Rainbow Trout
Lake John currently holds the largest density of trout in Colorado. The reservoir was drained in 2011 and then an unexpected sickleback minnow hatch invaded the lake in 2016, leading to the high trout stocking rates. Although 8- to 14-inch trout do not count as trophies, they exist in droves.
The Fish-n-Map Company publishes a map for Lake John that lists three major areas for winter fishing. The “pocket” is right off the boat ramp and is the shortest walk for ice anglers. The North Dam and Davidson’s Point section is another good area near the road, as well as the Chokecherries about a mile from the parking area. A simple start is to drill two holes next to each other 10 to 20 feet from shore on either side of the boat ramp and trust that some fish will come along.
The first hole is a great place to use a deadstick rod. A slip-bobber rig with a tiny 1/32-ounce jig baited with a waxworm and set a foot off the bottom of the lake should do. It is possible that this rig would be pulled down before deploying the second rod. This second rod should be a 2-inch crappie tube or a flashy spoon sent down to a similar depth. The first rig imitates an insect and adds some scent to the water, while the larger spoon flashes or the jig dances. If nothing works in the first 20 minutes, then move spots 10 to 30 steps farther from shore. Since the rainbows constantly swim throughout the lake, it helps to dial in the depth first, then the section of the lake second.
The Lake John Resort has anchored the area for over two decades. The long-time owner, Bill Wilcox, retired last year (moving into Walden) after selling the business to the Imm family. Their renovated cabins and general store provide a great porch to watch the early winter sunset and share stories about the day. The photographs in the catch books showcase fish caught by the anglers who have stayed at the resort over the years, so flip through them while planning your strategies for day two.
In town, take some time to unwind at the River Rock Café or read a book in the upstairs social area of the Antlers Inn. The fire never stops, and if the other visitors are not talking about moose sightings or snowmobiling, I guarantee they were ice fishing. For dinner, order the chicken-fried steak (as featured on National Geographic) because you’ll need the calories to stay warm the next day.
Secondary School: Lake John Part Two
The easiest lake to catch a fish in North Park rotates yearly depending on the biomass in the reservoirs. These shallow lakes have issues with oxygen depletion in the winter due to weed die-offs, and the sucker fish population sometimes outnumbers the trout, decreasing the catch rates. Check the yearly lake reports online from Colorado Parks and Wildlife to see if Cowdrey Lake, Delaney South Reservoir or Delaney East Reservoir is the best place to start your trip.
For now, stick with Lake John and try to develop a pattern because to “graduate” from secondary school, you need to catch 50 trout through the ice (total, not necessarily all in one day). Why 50 fish? This is the number when an angler has fished multiple locations, developed an understanding of different lures and set the hook enough times to understand what is happening out there. Without careful attention to details, these 50 fish might take a lifetime, or just a few hours.
The first detail is timing. If you stuck around the Antlers Inn for breakfast on the first day then skip it for this assignment. Insects and especially freshwater shrimp are active at first light, and this encourages the trout to feed right when the restaurant opens at 7 a.m. Stop by Corkle’s Mini Mart at 6:30, buy a local burrito and refill your supply of waxworms and meal worms (check the fridge below the beer). If a trout pulled your rig down the hole or your auger gave out, this is where to find replacements as well.
After setting up in your favorite spot from day one, the next detail has to be setting the hook. Active fish will hit about any lure but truly devour only the right color, size and action. If bites do not turn into landed fish, change colors. Trout have excellent noses, so adding some Berkley or Eagle Claw liquid scent to the lure also helps.
It also helps to have a sensitive rod matched to the right lure size. A small spoon works best on a medium-light action rod while a larger spoon will require a medium-action rod. A crappie-sized tube jig should work on the medium-light as well. It pays to buy a nicer rod for jigging as sensing the bite from a trout requires quick reactions which can be the difference between five and 20 fish before 9 a.m.
Due to the bug activity, the bobber bite stays red hot these first few hours and cools down later in the day. Another way to lag behind is to put down the jigging rod when the bobber goes under only to find that the first fish has left the bait and is now chasing your spoon. Don’t worry, much to the delight of your friends watching you juggle rods, it happens to everyone.
From 9 a.m. on, the small fish will still show up in schools but generating a bite poses a challenge. For us to reach 50 fish on my last trip, we tried about 30 different spoon, jig and tube combinations before finally finding a pattern that caught a fish from every school that swam by us. If three fish came through the area (as seen on our sonar) without a bite, we changed lures or colors. The first day’s winner was a Chartreuse Clam Caviar Jig with a pink, 3-inch Berkley Gulp! Floating Trout Worm threaded on the hook. The second day, a 1/8-ounce Clam Blade Spoon in the white color was the ticket.
Magic lures exist, but not without the right jigging action. The first day, we worked through a series of tiny pulses, big rips and everything in between for each lure. The Caviar Jig rig required us to play, “keep away” from the fish with a rising and shaking retrieve. I started with the jig near bottom, shook it twice, then raised the rod about 6 inches. When I ran out of arm length, I stood up and continued the rising action. By the time I was standing with the rod over my head I had a fish, or I dropped the lure back to the bottom and started again. The Blade Spoon was easier because it just required the spoon to be shaken in place to create a bite.
Walden Comes Alive
This small town knows how to throw a party. Early in January is the Lake John/Cowdrey two-day ice-fishing tournament. With so many fish in these lakes, everyone weighs something. Late January or early February hosts two events, a similar ice-fishing tournament at Delany Butte and the Ron Sessions Memorial Ice Golf Tournament.
If you do not participate, at least watch the weigh-in for the Delaney Butte event to see some of the largest fish in the state. The ultra-shallow Walden Reservoir hosts the ice-golf event where half-drilled holes and plowed “fairways” create a unique winter golf course.
The Chamber of Commerce keeps a year-round schedule on their website and a majority of the events include wildlife. Before you leave, make reservations to fish ice-out and visit the sage-grouse leks in April, moose watching all summer and elk hunting in the fall.
Graduate School: Delaney North
At some point, cookie-cutter 12-inch trout wear out their welcome. The 160-acre bathtub known as North Delaney Lake used to be a fish hatchery, and the oversized brown trout stocked at a rate of 30,000-plus per year (187 per acre) provide brood stock and an egg supply for the state biologists each fall. The rest of the year they exist to provide a first-rate challenge for trout fishermen.
The first two hours play out similarly to any other trout lake. Set up in one of the corners of the reservoir near rocks or a weedline in 4 to 8 feet of water and see what swims under you. The Delaney Lakes do not allow live bait or scented lures (check the current regulations), so stick with a spoon or marabou crappie jig on a single line. Flies are a good way to imitate insects and can be used on a second line under a bobber if desired. The Salmo Chubby Darter and Lindy Darter lures will work on these larger fish, as will small rattlebaits like the Rapala Ultralight Rippin Rap.
After 9 a.m., these large fish change habits. Instead of continuously swimming laps around the reservoir chasing bugs and crawfish, they spread out and digest their morning meal. This is where the advanced tactic of ice trolling can be used to chase down the big fish. Drill a hole every 15 steps and drop a lure for a minute (two minutes maximum). If you hit a fish nearly on the head with the lure, it should bite (if only out of annoyance). Spend some time following the shoreline but do not be afraid to head out over deeper water. Finding an 8-pound fish 10 feet down over deep water offers rewards for those willing to explore.
While a bit too much of a drive for a day trip, each ice season needs a good overnight adventure. The multiple days in a row quickly generates stories and memories while digging deeper into the patterns of the fish provides a true education. The recent stocking schedule will provide consistent action for the next few years.
David Harrison is a frequent contributor to Colorado Outdoors. This article is copyrighted by the author. This article appeared in the March/April 2018 print version of Colorado Outdoors magazine.
Wow! That’s as good a story on ice fishing North Park as I have ever seen. It’s dead center right-on. Good job, David. Nice photos, too, You sure did your homework on this piece.
Great article, David. Thanks. I haven’t ice-fished up there but my son and I have been going up there in the summer with belly-boats and fly rods. There are some great rivers in that area, too. I’m always surprised to see the map of the area showing the North Platte flowing north into Wyoming before heading east into Nebraska. The Medicine Bow mountains are snow-capped and beautiful in the summer. We rough camped at North Delaney one night, but have been getting rooms at motels since. Good burgers at the bowling alley. Next time I’m going to check out the inside of the courthouse, and maybe put some clean clothes on and visit the Antler Inn. I’ve only stuck my head in there a couple times, but it looks pretty amazing. Thanks again! I’m anxious to get up there now.