Anything Fly Fishing

Ice Fishing with a Fly Rod . . . in South Carolina?

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I have heard that necessity is the mother of invention. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the idea was a good one. I’ll let you be the judge.

To say it was cold in South Carolina in mid-January is akin to saying Sasquatch has big feet. I sometimes digress, but I’ve often wondered if Bigfoot calls all of us Little Feet.

Anyway, an outdoor writer I know had accepted an invitation to visit, talk shop, and take a break fly fishing on some local trout water in the mountains of South Carolina. The week before the planned trip, the mercury in the thermometer started shrinking faster than a wallet in Vegas, and I went daily to the small lake I planned to fish, slowly watching it freeze over.

Just the day before, the water was still partially open.

The temperatures the day before were warmer and a third of the lake was still open water, so I thought we’d be able to fish. But warmer doesn’t always mean above freezing. Air temperatures went from 8 degrees F. to 24 degrees F. for nightly lows. So, when we went to the lake the next day, it was frozen solid from bank to bank.

It was so cold even the moving water stopped moving.

At one point, I thought I spotted an opening in the ice, so I pointed it out to my fellow writer and had him cast to it. We had visions of snaking a trout back through the ice, but when he cast and hit the spot, his fly bounced off. Apparently, this circle of water had just frozen clearer than the other parts.

This is when necessity kicked in. Realizing that the lake was covered in ice, I started to think about ice-fishing tactics. Just because I had never done it didn’t mean I couldn’t. All we needed was some deeper water and a couple holes in the ice.

The ice was likely too thin to walk on and neither of us fancied a polar bear swim. So, we devised a plan to get out over the ice another way.

We walked around the lake to a short pier where the water was about four feet deep on the end. Using a boat paddle, I chipped out two holes and we were in business.

Thinking we could jig flies through the holes, I decided to tie on jig flies. I’m smart that way.

Even with the hole in the ice, we had to fish from nine feet away.

After dropping my fly through the hole, I realized I had to stand nine feet away since that was the length of my rod. That was probably better than backing to the far end of the dock and casting at the hole, but it did prevent my looking down to watch my fly when it was near the bottom.

I worked the jig fly from the bottom to the top, held it suspended, and even tried just letting it shimmy in place. After about five minutes, I noticed my leader slanting and set the hook. Now, I was onto a nice rainbow that swam a wide berth under the ice.

A couple times I thought it would have jumped but the frozen ceiling held it in place. Finally, I brought the fish to the surface and slid it across the ice.

Getting the trout onto the ice was only half the battle.

Trout on ice are surprisingly slippery and more than a little frisky. I had a net but couldn’t get it under the fish. So, I lay down on the pier and pushed the fish into the net using my free hand. Chuckles from behind me were followed with the comment, “I’ve never seen anyone pick up a fish to put it in the net.”

I replied with some remark about my many skills in fish handling and we went back to fishing.

Releasing the trout was no easy feat either. Given how slippery they were and our desire to minimize handling, we simply scooted them across the ice to the hole headfirst so they would dip into the water, and make sure no last minute acrobatics let them scurry across the ice out of reach.

Being outdoor media people, every time one of us hooked a fish was an opportunity for the other to take photos. It’s a job where you’re either working or catching fish and sometimes catching fish is the work. I’m not complaining.

In between, we laughed a lot. Having expected to arrive at a partially open lake to cast for cruising trout, we were instead cutting holes in the ice and fishing like we were in Canada.

By the end of the afternoon, we had each caught several fish, clouds were rolling in, and the wind was picking up. Somewhere back at the cabin, there were pork tenderloins that needed to be grilled and just the thought of my fireplace made my toes feel warmer. My outdoor media friend made no complaints when I suggested it might be time to quit.

What stands out on this trip was how much we laughed at the conditions. We had each caught more and bigger fish on fly rods, but neither of us had ice fished in South Carolina before. But we would both do it again when the chance presents itself. For me, the trips are usually more about the story than the fish, though fish sometimes are the story.

On this trip, the story was the absurdity of two fly anglers fishing through holes in the ice and laughing the whole time. Shivering a little, yes, but laughing.

In the end, necessity drove us here. You can decide whether the idea was a good one or not. Either way, next time I’m bringing a shorter rod.

Jim Mize still wonders if he should have backed up and cast at that hole in the ice. You can purchase Jim’s new book, The Jon Boat Years, at or buy autographed copies at

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