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Frozen gourmets harvest fish through ice

Bryan Lepagnol trudged across Fernan Lake’s frozen surface Friday afternoon, pulling a sled filled with fishing supplies.

The sky was blue overhead. The perch were biting. And the ice was like costly crystal: thick, smooth and patterned with frost whirls and air bubbles.

For those willing to bundle up, the small lake east of Coeur d’Alene was an outdoor playground.

“I like the cold,” Lepagnol said. “You can get to the fish better than from on the shore, and you’re more secluded.”

Ice fishing lets him roam all over the lake. And unlike summer, when the lake is congested with motorboats, Lepagnol had the place nearly to himself.

Wool pants and four layers of shirts and jackets protected him from temperatures in the 20s. For traction on the ice, he’d strapped on a pair of spiked lawn aerators.

Lepagnol’s dog, Tank – a playful, lab-chow mix of seven months – had a harder time with his footing. The dog’s legs splayed as he sprinted across the ice, and he skidded when he tried to stop.

The ice occasionally creaked and popped. But it was 5 to 7 inches thick, sturdy enough to support the fisherman’s weight.

Tom Burke, an ice skater, was delighted to see Fernan Lake’s smooth, glassy surface. After a promising freeze early in winter, the ice had thinned until water lapped along the shore.

“I was playing golf last week at Prairie Falls Golf Club,” Burke said. “My buddy’s cellphone said it was 59 degrees in the sun.”

Plunging temperatures restored skating conditions. Burke, 56, glided across the ice in preparation for an impromptu hockey game. He was expecting neighborhood kids to join him with their sticks and pucks after school let out.

“It’s got some character – you know that you’re skating on a lake,” Burke said of the ice. “But it’s got some sweet spots, too.”

The thermometer read 11 degrees when Warren Sperry and George Clapp, fishing pals from Osburn, Idaho, left their homes around 7:30 Friday morning. They stopped at Rose Lake, but decided that the ice wasn’t thick enough. At Fernan, the men set up portable ice shanties. The tentlike structures kept them warm, even though their fishing holes threatened to ice over.

By afternoon, they had a bag of perch for a future fish fry.

“We’re big fans of fish finders,” Sperry said. The sonar devices are “the ticket for finding fish. Once you get one, they’ll spoil you.”

Lepagnol also caught several of the yellow-and-black striped perch, which glistened in the winter sunlight. But he threw the smallish fish back.

“I’m letting them grow today,” he said.