Fish Lake is becoming more and more popular as a winter playground. And it's easy to see why. It's a spectacular area, high up in the tops of the mountains, surrounded by thic pine and quake forests and open meadows.

It's great country for snowmobiling and cross country skiing. Both sports are drawing more and more people to the area.

But its the fishing that has been – and probably always will be – the primary attraction. Over the years, Fish Lake has consistently provided good fishing. Splake (a cross between a lake trout and brook trout) have done very well in the lake. They were introduced a few years ago, and some are now pushing five pounds. They respond well to ice fishing techniques, and provide an exciting winter fishing adventure.

So far this winter the fishing has been pretty good. Unfortunately, that's down from the great fishing the lake has offered at times in the past. Most people fishing the lake going after the splake. The average splake is running a bit smaller this year, but there are still enough big ones to generate considerable excitement.

Rainbow fishing seems to have fallen off in recent years. Fair number of rainbows are being caught, but not as many as in the past – and most are only pan-sized.

Lake trout fishing also seems to be slower at Fish Lake. There are some good sized macks in the lake, and they are well worth hunting down but they are always difficult to catch. You've got to put in your time to catch one.

I visited the area on January 2, while the Salt Lake area was getting blasted by the first of several whopper snow storms. Light snow fell off and on at Fish Lake, and the winds howled – producing poor fishing conditions. Still, the mountain didn't get nearly as much storm as northern Utah – or I would probably be there still, trying to dig out. Several things impressed me as I arrived at the lake. One was that the road was plowed and sanded. The road was kept in good shape throughout the day, even as snow fell. That's in contrast to Highway 24, from Sigurd toward Loa, before the Fish Lake turnoff, which had several bad stretches. Still, family cars were making it up to the lake with little trouble.

Another thing that impressed me was the number of people on the mountain and at the lake. More than I've seen on winter outings in the past – despite the storm. Lots of snowmobilers and skiers heading up the back roads and trails. There wasn't all that much snow on the mountain, compared to the Wasatch Front, but plenty to slide on.

There are some very good snow trails in the area. A spectacular high mountain trail runs from the end of the plowed road at Fish Lake to the Gooseberry exit on I-70 in Salina Canyon. A branch from that main trail leads to the Sand Ledges winter recreation area on Utah Highway 24. Both are groomed and maintained by the Utah Division of Parks and Recreation. Check with the Fish Lake National Forest for more information, and get one of their free travel maps.

I talked to several parties fishing the lake. Most had worked hard for hours, and only had a few fish to show for their efforts. A group from the Salt Lake area, Brad Kimball, Dan Southgate and Vee Hanks, were doing the best. They had nine fish, including a couple 16 inch splake and a few nice rainbows. However, they made me promise to emphasize how cold and miserable the weather was before they would let me take their picture and tell me their secrets.

They came prepared and determined to fish, and that makes a difference. They had ATVs to get them out on the ice, away from the easy access points that get most of the pressure. And they had shelters so they could stay out of the wind and keep warm. Such equipment allows you to stay comfortable on the ice, so you can concentrate on fishing and stay on the ice longer. They also had fish finders, so they could focus on spots where there are fish.

A gold-and-black Rapala jigging lure proved to be their most effective fish-getter. They worked it slowly near the bottom, and caught most of their fish in water about 18 feet deep.

Most people I saw fishing the lake were staying as close to their vehicles as possible, and so they were fishing within 20 or 30 yards of shore. At Fish Lake a thick bank of weeds circles the lake, extending at least 30 yards from shore in most areas. When you fish over the weeds you can only drop your hook down about 11 feet, before it runs into snags. Perch and small rainbow hide in the weeds, where they are protected from the larger predator fish. So, as a rule, if you fish in the weeds you can expect to catch perch and small rainbows.

Drop an ice fly tipped with a meal worm into the weeds and you can catch perch all day long. There are lots of them in the lake. Some are getting big, as far as perch go. They are fun to catch, especially if you have kids with you. And there is always the chance that you will hook a rainbow or a splake.

But if you want to get serious about catching the big splake – and perhaps a lake trout – you need to get out past the weeds. For splake, it's often productive to fish the edge of the weeds, where the weed bank falls off sharply into deep water. This time of year the splake cruise throughout the water column, but are often found down near the bottom.

Splake seem to bite well when you first start fishing a spot, but soon the action slows. So move around. You've got to be willing to drill a bunch of holes to track down the fish. Sonar really helps.

Gold seems to be a good color for splake, but other flashy colors also work. Jigs and lures, with or without bait, are often effective. A gold Kastmaster tipped with sucker meat or a nightcrawler generally works. You can fish with dead yellow perch at Fish Lake, and that can be effective. Splake prey on the perch.

The big lake trout will almost always be down near the bottom in deep water.

The first hours of daylight are usually the most productive for splake and lake trout.

The perch population in Fish Lake has exploded during the past 10 years. There is some evidence that the growing number of perch is having a negative effect on other species in the lake. Perch compete with Utah chubs – the primary forage fish in the lake, and with young trout. Biologists have been studying the lake and will soon make recommendations for future management. Stay tuned for more information.

At an elevation of 8,700 feet, Fish Lake is one of the highest major Utah fishing waters. Storms often run into the mountain, and it often snows there even into June. It is not uncommon for the temperature to drop below zero through the winter months. Go prepared for harsh conditions.

Fish Lake is about 180 miles from downtown Salt Lake City – an easy distance for an overnighter, but a little far for a day trip. There are wonderful campgrounds at the lake, but few people are brave enough to spend a night there in a tent during the winter. There are cold toilets open to fishermen at major access points, but no other facilities.

Fish Lake Lodge and Resort has cabins for rent at the lake. They feature from 1 to 6 bedrooms, and range in price from $60 to $150 dollars a night. Holiday weekends are usually booked solid. If you want one on a weekend you had better call a few weeks in advance. On weekdays, you can probably get in with just a couple days notice. Call 638-1000 for more information.

The store and other facilities at the lake are not open during the weekend.

Loa, Richfield and Salina are close, and offer good lodging and other accommodations.