BIG LAKE — The early morning view of coal softened to gray as Jesse Cashin sat on his Arctic Cat snow machine.
Cashin had just used an auger to drill a hole in the ice at the top of this lake west of Wasilla in Matanuska-Susitna County and hung a line in the water hoping to catch a elusive arctic coal
The Still Cold Open, now in its ninth year, is billed as the longest running ice fishing tournament in North America. And while organizers admit that claim may be unverifiable, the tournament is certainly not for the uncommitted.
Cashin, who is competing for the first time in the derby that runs from early January to the third week of March, is as dedicated as anyone.
“I fish every day,” he said. “Literally every day. I don’t care if it rains. I don’t care if it snows… I’m a retired veterinarian. Now I fish. It’s what I do.”
Cashin’s “rain or snow” approach isn’t optional for the 22 two-person teams competing this year — it’s a necessity.
The tournament is held every other Saturday for 12 straight weeks, exposing anglers to the full battery of Alaska’s winter and early spring weather.
“Conditions change,” said assistant tournament director Josh Leach. “Especially here in Alaska. If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes. If you have a big, wet, heavy snow, you have to deal with an overflow, and that creates its own challenges for getting around and getting to places. Or it can be 20 or 30 below and the wind is blowing. That’s really tough.”
Tales of the worst days sound like scenes from a survival thriller on the big screen.
“A few years ago, we had wind and 30-32 degrees,” said Bill Clark, a tournament veteran. “It was going down slush and going down sideways. We had 4 feet of snow that we had to dig out to get to the water, and we’re in standing water. It was ugly.”
While the third day of the derby on February 4 was cloudy and more comfortable around 20 degrees, the first day in early January saw temperatures close to 15 below zero.
“You have to be resilient, that’s for sure,” said Daniel Kampmann. “We’ve had days in this tournament where it’s minus 25 and we’re (fishing) all day with snow machines. It gets intense. It’s definitely not for everyone.”
According to tournament director Jerrid Hixon, last year’s derby was cut short due to unsafe conditions, with standing water and holes in the ice.
While conditions are an important variable, location is another. The lake is undeniably vast: 2,495 acres, or nearly 4 square miles. The area allows for a tournament approach to your own adventure.
While most teams headed west, Kampmann and partner RJ Kinmon selected a site near Burkeshore Marina, the unofficial home of the tournament. Kampmann said it allowed them to set up almost immediately after the 9 a.m. shotgun start, saving the time it takes to travel across the lake. They fished an underwater structure that included an island surrounded by deeper water for a variety of options.
“The last weekend we were here, we had good luck,” Kinmon said as he hunched over a fish finder screen. “We’ve caught one and scored a few, so the activity looks pretty solid.”
Agility is required during the tournament. Defending champion Josh Hughes said he and his partner will generally drill 16 holes at 10 or 20 large paces and move from hole to hole. If these holes do not occur within 15-20 minutes, they continue.
“One of the biggest things I’ve learned about Big Lake is not to be tied down to any one place,” he said. “If you haven’t caught a fish in a reasonable amount of time, it might be time to pick another hole. Not necessarily another spot, but Big Lake is a single hook, no bait lake. So no there is no reason for the fish to swim towards you because it smells like shrimp, worms, eggs, or whatever.
The tournament does away with many of the luxuries and advantages that some ice anglers enjoy, with no scented lures or artificials and no permanent fish tanks allowed.
More than a third of the teams were unable to fish on each of the first two Saturdays. Hixon said when he started fishing Big Lake, that failure only led to resolution.
“I’ve heard the same story from a lot of other guys who are addicted to fishing this lake,” Hixon said. “You go out there, you get tailgated. And it drives you crazy. It motivates you. You have this tenacity.”
While most teams are serious about catching fish, it’s not the only goal. There is a clear camaraderie among the folks who fish the tournament, a larger band of winter interests that unites them.
“It’s supposed to be fun,” Clark said. “So how do you want to fish it? How competitive do you want to be? Or do you just want to be out there and enjoy fishing?”
The tournament was founded by Jim McCormick of Wasilla, and the participants are generally, but not exclusively, fishermen from the Mat-Su. Hixon said spreading it out over nearly three months gave competitors something consistent to circle on their calendar as the winter months wore on.
“People get vitamin D deficient in the winter up here,” he said. “People tend to stay indoors more and not go outside. It was a little pep talk to calm the cabin fever and depression and encourage people to get outside.”
The tournament structure puts more emphasis on experience and consistency, according to Hughes. Rather than a one-day tournament where luck could be the deciding factor, the Still Cold Open is based on an expanded sample size.
“What’s different about the SCO, I think it’s a measure of skill because you’re fishing every other weekend for six weekends and one championship day,” he said.
For Hughes, it’s also a built-in opportunity to spend time with his son Caleb, with whom he partners.
“My son is 22, he’s married, he’s got a kid of his own now, and they’ve been moving for four years,” Hughes said. “I get to fish with him seven times in the winter and that’s pretty much our plan and that makes it a pretty incredible experience.”
In recent years, the tournament has been larger, with more than 50 teams competing. But Hixon said the cancellation of the last half of the 2022 tournament may have deterred some anglers.
With the size of the site, experience may be the most important factor, according to Hunter Leach, who partners with Cashin.
“Knowing the lake,” he said. “Being out here and being able to fish it every day instead of once or twice a month. The more you know the lake, the better chance they’ll have.”
Derby rules allow competitors to fish two of the five species available in Big Lake. Rainbow trout are easier to catch, making the pot a much more prized trophy.
“They’re very picky fish,” Hunter Leach said. “That’s mostly what I aim for in the winter. They’re so much fun. Beautiful fish, beautiful colors. I mean trout is nice every now and then. Flounder are good to eat, of course, by the sink, sure. But yeah, Char, I just catch and release all day.”
There is a certain reverence for char among many competitors. The derby is judged by the length of the fish, not the weight. In part, this allows anglers to quickly measure coal and get them back into the water as quickly as possible.
“We like to fish because we like to see these things out of the water for a quick second,” Kinmon said. “The second we end up hooking a fish, we inform each other to prepare our table. Too much time out of the water can be really harmful to some of these fish, especially their eyes. We are here to catch the fish. We are not here to ruin them. We want them to keep breeding and making their stuff so other people can enjoy it.”
With a smaller field, this year’s top prize is a little smaller than usual: $500 for the winning team. Still, for most of the competitors who show up early at Burkeshore Marina every other Saturday for much of the winter, it’s the line in the water, not the bottom line, that takes priority.
“I live here for a reason,” Kinmon said. “I really enjoy getting to know the community around here.”