Nevada Smith: An icy fish story from Cave Lake

(I write a weekly column on rural Nevada that appears in several weeklies throughout the state. Starting today, I’ll also post them on my blog under "Nevada Smith.")

Pushing my shopping cart past the fish case at a Las Vegas supermarket late Sunday afternoon, I had to laugh. Rainbow trout: $5.99 a pound.

The fish seemed fresh enough. Their color was pretty good. Breaded and pan-fried or baked with almond slivers, they probably would have made someone a fine supper.

Someone, but not the Smiths.

When it comes to trout, daughter Amelia and I wouldn’t dream of taking such a shortcut from the freezer case to the dinner table.

Why spend $5.99 for store-bought trout when you can spend $374.50 per pound for a fresh-caught rainbow at the annual Rotary Club Ice Fishing Derby at Cave Lake outside Ely?

If that doesn’t sound like a bargain, then you’ve never set foot on the frozen surface of Cave Lake for one of Nevada’s most hilarious outdoor events. When weather permits, that’s where you’ll find Amelia and her dad on the last weekend in January: dropping a Power Bait-slathered hook down through a stove-pipe-sized hole in the foot-thick ice.

Granted, tickets for the Rotary’s annual Cave Lake derby might not be as hard to come by as those for a Garth Brooks concert at Wynn Las Vegas, but I’ll bet a week’s pay the anglers have a lot more fun.

For many local families, it’s an annual event. The snow-covered hillsides are dotted with children sledding. The volunteers keep the brats, burgers and chili hot and the pop and cocktails cold. Although most veteran ice anglers bring their own augers, Rotary Club members will gladly cut a custom fishing hole for anyone who requests it.

From there, it’s a lot of waiting and occasional celebrating. While families appear to have a great time, the fact is the ice-fishing derby is also one pretty good reason to drink beer at 8 a.m. in 20-degree weather. There is more focus on beer drinking and barbecuing in many groups than on yanking pan-sized trout up through a hole in the ice. Each year that we’ve attended, the presence of barbecues portable fire pits and store-bought ice-fishing tents has increased.

Steel-gray storm clouds greeted us Saturday morning for the 30th annual event. Daughter Amelia uses a wheelchair, and I usually take her by sled out onto the lake, but this year the Rotary Club volunteers insisted she ride in style in a vintage World War II snow “Weasel,” a sort of half track that can go just about anywhere.

Once we were with our group, which has grown from a dozen to 42 in five years, we did what dedicated ice-fisherman do. We ate and drank … and waited.

At the outset I have to confess I am not much of an angler. I have caught far more colds than trout at the ice-fishing derby.

But the look on my kid’s face as she talks trout with the group and watches the winter day unfold is worth the 230-mile drive from Las Vegas. For a $45 entry fee, there’s a reception and a chance to catch tagged fish worth up to $5,000.

In the few years I’ve attended, I’ve yet to hear one person complain about not catching a money fish. They’re have too good a time.

That’ how we felt, but as the morning wore on I started to wonder whether Amelia would be shut out. With the snow beginning to fall and the icy wind cutting down from the Schell Creek mountain range to the lake at 7,000 feet in elevation, I was ready to take my tackle box and go home. Not the kid.

On her last reel-in off the day, she pulled a foot-long rainbow from Cave Lake’s icy depths.

“Hey, I caught a fish!” she shouted.

I couldn’t have been more proud if I’d won the Super Bowl. I did a little touchdown dance in the slush and snow and snapped a photo I wouldn’t trade for gold.

Amelia had her trout. I had my cold. All was right with our world.

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