What do most fisherman do in the off season of a cold winter?  Go south for the winter, maybe visit Okechobee, basking in the warm South Florida sun.  Perhaps even climb a tree in search of that elusive big buck.  Me, I'm going to the frozen tundra called the Colorado Rockies ice fishing.  I'm heading to Eagle Claw Headquarters for some product evaluation and design business.  And for pleasure; Ice fishing in the Colorado Rocky Mountains on Lake Antero.  
  I've never been to Denver nor have I ever ice fished.  Here in NC, we don't hardly get snow must less hard water.  My only experience with ice fishing is watching the movie "Grumpy Old Men".  I arrive at Denver International and the first thing I notice is snow, alot of it.  And its snowing now.  The plan is to meet Eagle Claw Pro Staff Manager Marty Riddle at the plant, then travel about 3 hrs into the mountains.  On my drive to Denver, the view is absolutely breath taking.  Denver is basically flat and sits at the base of the Rocky Mountains.  When I finally met up with Marty, he ask if this southern boy brought enough clothes since it was 35 below zero where we are going.  "Yea right", is my response.  Yea Right is right !
  I watch the temp gauge on our mirror as we drive further and further into the hills.  What started out at 20 degrees now has reached a bone chilling minus 23 degrees below zero reading.  Matt Smiley, Eagle Claw Sales Manager, will meet us at a cabin near the lake.  He tells Marty that it was -42 degrees today on the lake.  My only thought here comes from Grandpa Gustafson in Grumpy Old Men, "thats cold as a witch's titty"!
"Absolutely breathe taking".  When we arrive at our cabin for the weekend, the view is like a holiday picture post card. All around us is mountains.  You can see for miles down into the snow covered valley.  There is huge elk, buffalo, antelope and some of the biggest rabbits I've ever seen.
The view inside the cabin is just as spectacular.  High beam ceilings, stone fireplace and big wide open windows just begging you to peer out at the mountains.  No time to stay on this tourist trip, there's gear to ready for tomorrow.  Marty and Eric start putting the fishing hut together while Matt and I rig up the rods.  The rods are like toys to me, as they are only around 24 inches long with small reels.  The line of choice is 6 lb test and the lure of choice will be a small 1/32 oz jig tipped with a wax worm.  We make sure our portable heaters are working, they will become essential tools out on the lake.  I make sure I got all my warm clothing ready.  The coffee better be strong in the morning.  I'm like a little kid on Christmas Eve, excited about the fishing trip.
I am awaken by Matt Smiley.  Its 5:30 am and its 33 below zero.  Matt tells everyone to get up, we are already 2 hours late.  Matt was on the hard water yesterday at 3:30 am.  Being I'm used to hitting the lake early for a topwater bite, I just can't see why 3 am would be better than 3 pm.  Matt quickly explains, "the best bite is just at day break".  Will my buzzbait work?  Its so cold, I find it hard to believe they bite early.  Its hard to breathe.  Course I blame that also on the fact we are about 10,000 ft above sea level.  Maybe its just the cold !
The lake is only about 20 minutes away but quickly becomes a chore for some to get there.  Its 33 below zero, that's actual air temp, not wind chill.  Its so cold, one of the trucks in our group has its brake line freeze, causing the brakes to fail.  In the process, they hit the ditch, burst the front tire.  Ever tried to change a tire in below zero temps?  You can't even pump the tire up.  I still can't get over the fact its 33 below zero.  And the bigger shock, there is a line in the snow covered parking lot from people trying to find a place to unload their gear.  I figured we'd be the lone grumpy old men brave enough to be out at 5:30 am.
The first task is setting up camp on the frozen lake.  The ice is only 5 inches thick.  I say "only" because even though they assure me its safe, 5 inches is not thick enough to support motorized transport of your gear, which means dragging it out on sleds.  Matt advices us to set up out beyond the crowd forming near the dam.  In the picture above, thats us dragging our sled gear out on the lake to the far left.  By the time I get there, I'm so out of breath from the thin air I have to stop several times to enjoy the view.
Its so cold, that in less than three minutes, your face freezes..... literally.  My mustache feels like spikes and my cheeks feel like a pin cushion.  And I'm going fishing ! 

I can't help but notice the long ice cracks that line down the length of the lake bed.  Matt again assures me thats nothing to be alarmed about, "just pressure cracks from the freezing water". 

The next step is drilling the holes.  We will drill three holes, two for fishing and one for the flasher.  Again the cold will make this a task, the gas auger will not crank, then the pull rope freezes.  No problem, another group near us has a hand auger.  Matt tells us to pace ourselves doing this by hand, not to work up a sweat as it could make us colder.  Colder?
Once the holes are drilled, the fishing hut is set up over them.  The first thing then is fire up your Mr. Heater!  Amazing how hot zero degrees can feel compared to the outside temp of -33.  Its so cold, the drinking water we brought is a brick.  Course, not sure how much drinking liquids you want to do with having to expose any naked skin frost biting.  I think everyone just patronized me when I suggested bringing a loaf of bread for lunch.  It looks like it was dipped in dry ice, you can drop a slice and it will shatter like glass.
I soon learn why this is one of the most popular forms of fishing there is.  Its by far the most visual fishing I have ever done, even over sight fishing for spawning bass.  In fact, someone who loves to bed fish would quickly become addicted to ice fishing.  You see the entire action take place in front of you, like looking at a round high definition TV.  Once the fishing hut is in place, the only light source other than your gas heater, comes from the hole.  The water is so crystal clear, you can see the bottom 15 ft deep.  And you can see the fish swim either by your jig or inhale it.  Its very mesmerizing.  Several times a big cut throat trout would swim by my jig, then swim up to the other jig suspended from the other hole.  When the trout takes your jig, its hold on drag screaming fun.  You can see the trout fighting thru your hole or the other hole.  When the trout finally tires, it can be hard to get them head first up the hole.

My biggest rainbow was probably close to 8 lbs, a size that most locals have never caught.  Call it beginners luck or just a great teacher with Matt Smiley.  If we could have filmed me trying to land the big trout, it would have been hilarious.  Thank goodness you are hidden from the others inside your hut, as it became a circus for this rookie ice fisherman to land the trophy trout.  I actually saw the fish swim by the hole several times.  It finally took my bait and I missed it not once but twice.  In the fish's frenzy, it quickly inhaled the jig from the other hole, only again to escape.  It finally got hooked on my small little Eagle Claw hook, and the fight was on.  It made several long runs, and it made both us trash the inside of the hut.  I got the fish up thru the hole atleast two times, only to see it flip back.  Once it even went back down the other hole.  We finally got so frustrated trying to flip it on the ice, we tried to hand lip it.  Amazing how much fight a fish will give you in 34 degree water.  I managed around 15 rainbow and cut throat trout that day, with most ranging around 5 pounds.  Here is a photo essay of ice fishing on Lake Antero:
The Cabin View
Me & Marty standing on the cabin back deck
Early morning on Lake Antero
Marty and Matt begin preparing the fishing site
The view looking at my ice hole
The ice scooper becomes a good net to land a trout
Breaking the Ice.  "Fish On"! 
My first cut throat and my first ice fish.
Marty gives his best "Tats what I'm talk'n bout"!
"Wheres my sunglasses, its bright outside the hut"!
An seven pound trout.
Winter Wonderland view from inside my hut.
Marty and I enjoying the scenery.
Me, Marty and Matt with a trophy trout.
Matt caught this 10 pound trophy, notice its big as the rod/reel we used to land it.
Tour Journal Pt.1: Ice Fishing in Denver, Colorado
Tour Journal Pt. 2: Eagle Claw Headquarters
The next couple days will be spend in Denver Colorado, home of Eagle Claw Tackle Co.  Why Denver Colorado?  In the late 1920's Drew McGill and Stan Wright formed the Wright & McGill Co. in Denver, for the tying of high grade fishing flies. Drew was on the upper Colorado River pursuing his favorite sport, fly fishing that magnificent stream.  The morning's fishing had not been as good as it could have been, for it seemed that even though the rainbows and native Trout were rising, they were difficult to hook. While stopping to light his pipe and take a short rest, McGill was thinking of ways that he could improve his fishing techniques, he watched the lazy circles of two large eagles. As he sat quietly enjoying this wilderness scene, one of the eagles slowly spiraled downward and landed beyond him in the top of a dead cottonwood; the tips of the bird's talons lightly gripping a weathered bare limb. His thoughts turned to the penetrating power of those lethal claws, and then to the penetrating power of the fishhooks he was using.

Returning to the fly factory in Denver, Drew started working to produce a fishhook design with greater penetrating power. A hook that would exert this power in the direct line of pull of the leader. From this research came a fishhook that had sweeping curves and sharper points. It was forged for strength and was double offset for greater hooking qualities. The hook's point was in direct line of pull and shaped like the talons of that mighty bird. This design quickly swept the country, for it offered the first improvement in fishhooks in hundreds of years. When Drew and Stan sat down to name their new product, what else could it have been except Eagle Claw? That's how it all happened, and that's the story of the bird that built a fishhook business.

A business now that is a world leader in various fishing tackle and accessories under popular brands such as Eagle Claw, Lazer, TroKar, Laker and Wright & McGill.  For more info on the history of Eagle Claw and its brands, visit Eagle Claw.

I arrive at Eagle Claw Headquarters to find Martin Riddle, aka Commish Mar'ta, hard at work.  The behind the scenes of keeping a pro staff organized can be both rewarding and frustrating.  Marty seems to juggle both well, which means alot of time on the road and on the phone.  Under the direction of Chris Russell and Marty Riddle, Eagle Claw manages a large pro staff, special events like College Bass, PAA, to various fishing shows they sponsor.  Which includes fresh and salt water.  

My day is pretty much full.  First I met with Matt from hook design for some imput on new hooks and new trends.  Then its off for a meeting with Al who heads the Wright & McGill product design team.  A lunch meeting with all, then I'm off to meet with Lisa, who heads the Nitro line and also with Dave who works on one of the new fishing gear lines.
The last of my official business is visiting the production plant.  I can tell from the moment I enter the facility, I'm entering H.S.A. (High Security Area).  No camera's, not even a camera phone.  All I can say is that its amazing process how hooks are made.  Nothing like American ingenuity.   When they say "American Made", they are.  Designed, build, packaged and shipped direct from Denver Colorado.

Its been an amazing journey.  A journey of many "first".  My first trip to Denver, Colorado.  My first trip to Eagle Claw.  My first trip ice fishing and my first time ever in below zero temps!  My first rainbow trout.  My first NBA game as Marty and Eagle Claw treat me to a Nuggets game.  Along the way, I got to see some breath taking scenery, catch some fish, and meet some great people.  Heres some more pictures from the trip:
Steve, Jeffrey, Dave, Lisa and Matt
Marty and I enjoying the Nuggets game.
The Nuggets were hosting Portland Trailblazers.
Denver skyline from Red Rock Park.
Golden Colorado, home of Coors.
Coors really is brewed with
Pure Rocky Mountain Spring Water.
Entering Coors Brewery, which sits at the base of the Rocky Mts.
All Photos: Carolina Outdoors.  Special thanks to Martin Riddle, you are the Master.  Thanks to everyone at Eagle Claw.  A big thanks to Al Noraker, the view and the accommodations were incredible.  Thank you Matt Smiley, you da "Ice Fishing Man".  Thanks to the Riddle family, I owe all my cookie decorating skills to you. 

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