Icefishing a School Bus Away by Matt Carey

Icefishing a School Bus Away by Matt Carey

It’s human nature to think that we need to go to great lengths to find happiness, joy, fulfillment or satisfaction. It makes sense at first glance – the more time invested, the higher the payoff. In reality, we can find value in a lot of things that are right in front of us. A quick jaunt, a stone’s throw away, right around the corner. 

Maybe the same can be said for fishing.  

In my day job, I work as a principal for an alternative high school. Much of my day is dedicated to helping these kids realize the opportunities they have in front of them and how to access those people who can offer help when needed. To my students, a career, graduation, just getting to Friday, are all unknown hurdles in their lives. Imposing forces that take away from the goal of just getting through the day. With the multitude of stressors on their minds, recreation and leisure are often a fading thought.  

One of these recent lessons presented itself with a school fishing trip to the Helena Regulating Reservoir not too far from town, maybe 20 minutes. When I go fishing personally, I’ll opt to fish at Holter Lake, about an hour’s drive or Pishkun Reservoir, nearly two hours away, when I feel the need to fish. Coming into the day, I had low expectations. I’m not using my own gear. I’ll need to supervise these kids and keep everybody engaged. It’s just down the road, not much adventure there. I’ll probably get called back to the building for something. We went, as a school, on this same fishing field trip last year – with no success. Not a bite. Windy conditions. On the metaphorical pendulum that is fishing, that outing swung strongly towards the forgettable side. Furthermore, this fishing “trip” isn’t anything like those days where we need to wake up at 4am to drive to the dock at first light or prepare a few different set ups if we decide to target different fish. How could I possibly have the same level of excitement and anticipation as a fishing trip out with my buddies? 


The afternoon started off unassuming. The folks from Montana Fish and Wildlife talked to our students and staff about some general ice fishing information. How to bait a hook. How to open the fishing bail. How to know if you have a bite. Trivial information you and I take for granted. To kids who have never gone fishing, this information was captivating. One student even asked to come closer to see the line drop to the ground when the instructor opened the bale demonstrating how the bait would fall through the water. The seemingly innocuous presentation had captivated at least one of my students. We made our way on the ice and walked for a good 15 minutes. Many of the kids, and the guy in charge of supervising everyone, didn’t have the appropriate footwear. This made the icy trek all the more cautious. The freeze was still in full effect, and our guide for the day reported the ice was about 18 inches thick. More than enough to comfortably fish without danger. After a few hundred yards we had made our way to our fishing holes. A previous school was there in the morning, with no luck of course, and the gear was ready for immediate fishing. We were given primarily Swedish Pimple jigs with a maggot as our bait for the afternoon. Kids and teachers wandering around finding what they’d hope to be their lucky spot. Remember how I mentioned last year’s conditions? Well, now picture a complete 180* (you couldn’t really expect to not get a lesson from a guy in education, right?). The sun shining with a few clouds painted across the skyline. A calm breeze that was never overbearing, but enough to remind you that you are outside during a Montana winter. Mid to high 30-degree weather, necessitating a jacket or sweatshirt, but no need for snowpants or a full facemask gaiter. My Reel Obsession Sport Fishing sweater and Montana Grizzly hat combination was the perfect balance of “drip” (swagger or style to those of you not up to date on the newest slang) and functionality. In a similar fashion to the weather, our fishing experience was nothing like last year’s. Within 5 minutes two different kids are pulling up perch. No state records, but a fun experience. Kids goading each other to kiss the fish, being caught off guard by the fish slime and calling over their friends and teachers. Some kids catching multiple fish, one girl catching 3 in our outing. After seeing such a lively bite, I figured why not, I’m here anyway, I might as well wet a line.  

A silver and blue jig with a maggot ended up being my lure of choice. More so because it was the only one open at the time. Engaged kids, minimum screwing around, it was a winning combination. I dropped the lure beneath the ice, hit the bottom, reeled up a few feet and started jigging around 18 feet of water. A few other members of Fish and Wildlife were with us, and I struck up a conversation about anything and everything you’d expect – what set ups have been working well, other lakes or reservoirs in the area, that kind of thing. Caught off guard, my rod tip gets absolutely slammed. My FWP counterpart exclaiming “that ain’t no perch! You’ve got a koke on there!”. As I’m reeling, he asks if I saw the fish on the fish finder. Sheepishly, I told him I wasn’t really paying attention and I was looking at everyone else catching fish. As I pull the fish out of the water, I see a solid 16 inch kokanee come out of the hole. This is a great fish and certainly not what I was expecting coming into the day. I ask for a picture and release my catch back into the reservoir for someone else to find. I realized in that moment that even the mundane or trivial, we can find great joy and satisfaction. Are weeklong fishing adventures great? Of course. Can adventure and happiness be a school bus ride away?  

Without a doubt. 

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