Photo: Nickolaus Hines

Ice Fishing Is the Perfect Winter Day Trip Activity From Denver

Denver Outdoor
by Nickolaus Hines Mar 21, 2022

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Growing up in California, ice fishing always seemed to fall into the “extreme” category of fishing that seemed somewhat inaccessible to me. Turns out that’s far from the case, as I learned on a recent trip from my now hometown of Denver. In fact, the part that made it seem extreme — the weather — wasn’t much of a hindrance at all thanks to the right guide and the right gear.

I purchased my ice fishing experience while browsing some fun local activities that I could gift my fiancée, Heather, for Christmas. Our summer fly fishing trip was a success, so I thought a winter fishing trip might be worth a go, too, and I purchased a guided ice fishing Airbnb Experience through Airbnb to Dillon Reservoir with Adam Pudik, the man behind Adventure Ice Fishing.

We went on a private trip for $375 for a half-day, not knowing what the experience would be like or how much of the cold we could handle. Our three-or-so hour trip was originally scheduled for the morning. Pudik was thankfully flexible, however, as a wind chill that brought the feels-like temperature into the single digits called for pushing our start time to the early afternoon. Pudik’s six-hour trips would require braving the early morning cold, depending on the temperature that Colorado’s famously unpredictable weather delivers to you on your scheduled date.

Few places do winter activities like Colorado — something that became immediately clear to me even in the few short years since I moved from New York City to Denver. I’ve leaned on Airbnb Experiences a few times to get to know the activities in the area. The app’s Experiences section has especially come in handy for trying activities out before committing long term.

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Where to go ice fishing near Denver, Colorado

Photo: Nickolaus Hines

I-70 may be most defined by trips to the slopes in the winter, but you’ll also find fish-filled lakes and reservoirs along the corridor not far from Denver (depending on the ski traffic, of course). Pudik messaged me the day before for directions to his preferred spot on Dillon Reservoir, which he chose based on the fishing conditions from other recent trips.

Pudik is a Colorado licensed guide, and is bonded, insured, and first aid certified. He provides the equipment needed, from the tent to the heater to the sonar to the poles. Depending on the body of water, you can expect to catch arctic char, lake trout, pike, rainbow trout, cutbow, and brown trout. Rainbow trout were the ones doing all the biting on our trip out to Dillon Reservoir.

The bodies of water that Pudik lists on his website are Dillon, Antero, and Williams Fork (all of which are a couple hours from Denver), though he mentioned on our trip that he’s open to fishing trips on the reservoirs in or near Denver city limits as well.

Dillon Reservoir was built in 1963, and the dam divers water from the Blue River Basin. Mountain weather is always unpredictable, but especially at just over 9,000 feet like it is in this case. Pudik pinpointed the exact spot to go to along the 25-plus miles of shoreline and how to get there.

The average depth is about 80 feet, though we were closer to shore fishing for trout at around 20 to 30 feet. Colorado Parks and Wildlife lists brown trout as “one of Dillon’s greatest assets,” though we had better luck pulling in rainbow trout — two for me and five for Heather, plus one that managed to wiggle off the hook at the last minute.

Over the course of experience, Pudik told us about life in the area, what makes Colorado lakes and reservoirs good for fishing, and the history of how Dillon Reservoir came to be stocked with so many fish. There were plenty of fish stories, too, naturally. Along the way he taught us how to use ice fishing gear and the techniques for catching different types of fish — something that proved extremely useful as we looked into buying our own gear on the way home.

Heather and I ended up going home with three trout. Pudik taught us the best way to quickly clean the fish, and we cooked them whole when we got home with sichuan peppercorns, five spice, miso, garlic, and bok choy. Undoubtedly the best takeaway was the knowledge of how to continue ice fishing down the line.

What you’ll need to go ice fishing near Denver

Photo: Nickolaus Hines

When going with a guide (especially one as prepared as Pudik), you mostly just have to prepare yourself to stay warm. There is a shortlist of what’s provided and what’s suggested to take with you, however.

Here’s what we brought either on our person or in a small backpack:

  • Waterproof boots
  • A warm jacket, gloves, and layers
  • Two pairs of socks
  • Hand warmers for our feet
  • Fruit, chips, and other snacks
  • Beer and water
  • Sunglasses and sunscreen
  • Fishing license

Here’s what Pudik provided us, which is generally the level of gear to expect when going with a guide:

  • Ice fishing rods, reels, and bait and tackle
  • Ice auger (Pudik uses an electric one, though gas and hand crank are other options)
  • Two sonars
  • Ice hut
  • Propane heater to keep the ice hut warm
  • Chairs

Going ice fishing for yourself around Denver

Photo: Nickolaus Hines

After giving ice fishing a go with Pudik, Heather and I decided to invest in the equipment needed to make a few excursions of our own. Here’s what we decided to purchase. Note that while we opted for the base level of gear, there are always more add-ons you could choose from, and I highly recommend you do a trip with an experienced guide first to match your purchases with your needs and goals.

Nordic Legend 33cc power ice auger with portable two man shelter: A two-for-one deal that makes getting started ice fishing much more affordable. The tent is pretty cozy with two people, but it’s more than adequate when it comes to heat retention and pops out without much hassle. The auger is easy to use and reliable. A trip the following weekend was in near-white-out conditions in the single digits and the auger started and ran with ease on the first go.

Mr. Heater Buddy space heater: This propane heater is indoor safe (with the tent’s air ventilation holes open). We found one used for around $60, and each propane tank lasts about three hours on max heat. There’s an auto-shut-off for safety, and though it says the heater may shut off on it’s own above 7,000 feet elevation we haven’t had any issues on three total trips above that level.

Shakespeare Ugly Stik GX2 ice fishing reel and rod combo: You can get away with full-size poles, but it won’t be easy or as fun. These affordable short poles allow you to comfortably hold the pole at the right angle and easily fit inside a two-person tent.

Ice fishing scoop: If you plan on fishing holes outside (an absolute joy with the Colorado sun beating down), then you’ll need a fishing scoop. This simple tool is used to get the ice off the top of the hole so you don’t have any issues with your line freezing up or the fish encountering a sheet of fresh ice on its way to the surface.

Portable fish finder: Pudik used high-grade sonars that were highly sensitive. For a more wallet-friendly option, we went with the Lucky portable fish finder. It’s a steal at under $100, and though it’s not as sensitive and doesn’t have as wide of a range as the professional ones Pudik uses, it does the trick (plus can be used for boat fishing in the warmer months, too).

Things you’ll need from the hardware store:

  • A sled to more easily carry the tent, auger, and other equipment over the snow
  • Rope to pull the sled with
  • Fold-out camping chairs
  • Small shovel
  • Hand warmers

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