DIAMOND LAKE, Ore. (AP) — Paul Heberling ventured onto the ice at Diamond Lake on New Year's Day ready to break in a new era — but he was certainly not willing to die trying.
Before each step, the Roseburg man poked with a 5-foot metal chisel to test the firmness of the unproven and unmeasured ice beneath a mat of snow. When he stepped forward, his large snowshoes helped disperse his weight and ease the surface tension.
Should that fail, Heberling had a two-pronged back-up plan — the life jacket strapped to his chest would keep him afloat so he could pull himself to safety via a 100-foot-long rope that was tied around his waist at one end and to a metal bench at the lake's north boat ramp.
"My Minnesota ice-fishing experience told me this was not good ice conditions," says Heberling, 61. "With my Alaskan snowshoes, though, I thought I'd be OK to go out a ways."
These tricks helped Heberling catch what were probably the first Diamond Lake trout of the 2013 fishing season, ushering in what likely was the lake's last opening day.
Heberling was one of about two-dozen anglers to dig holes and pull trout through the ice on New Year's Day at Diamond Lake, which officially became a year-round fishing lake on Jan. 1. The lake has historically closed on Oct. 31 and reopened to fishing on the traditional trout opener in late April. But after a rule change by the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission in 2012, it's now likely to become a popular ice-fishing destination.
"I'm not touting that I got the first one, but that's what it looks like," Heberling says. "I didn't see anybody else fishing out there at that time."
His first fish was a chunky, 12-inch rainbow, but it wasn't the biggest of the seven trout Heberling caught and kept as part of the lake's unmatched eight-fish daily limit.
Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologists supported a year-round fishery at Diamond so anglers would catch and keep more stocked rainbows. Biologists were concerned that the lake might have had too many fish in it, which could threaten its water quality.
If the lake has too many rainbows, it could alter zooplankton levels enough to trigger summer algae blooms, similar to what happened when the lake was overrun with illegally introduced tui chub. The lake was drained and poisoned with rotenone in 2006 to get rid of the chub.
Trout-stocking rates are based on catch rates at Diamond, where anglers consistently release 30 to 40 percent of the rainbows they catch. The expanded bag limit of eight trout per day was meant to increase the catch rates, and the new year-round fishery is aimed at the same goal.
Ice anglers will be asked to voluntarily fill out creel sheets at Diamond Lake Resort or at the north boat ramp to report how long they fished, how many trout they caught and how many they kept.
"We want to be able to add it to the standard creel that we do during the 'normal' season," says Laura Jackson, ODFW's Roseburg district fish biologist. "We really need that data to see how successful this is."
While Diamond Lake has seen a few recent April openers with ice thick enough to support a short ice-fishing season, there's no background data on what January ice should look like and what tactics will work best through the mid-winter ice.
The resort marina will rent augers and life jackets to anglers, most of whom will ply the ice near the resort because access is best there.
In the past, anglers have used baits ranging from worms dangled just below the ice surface to PowerBait and jigs to catch trout during iced-over spring conditions.
"We're kind of inventing this as we go," says Rick Rockholt, marketing and events manager at Diamond Lake Resort.
The most important goal this winter — even more important than higher catch rates — is to ensure that western Oregon anglers not steeped in ice-fishing traditions of the Midwest stay on top of the lake instead of in it.
"Anglers are going to be fishing at their own risk," Jackson says. "People need to be careful."
Heberling personifies the careful ice angler, forged in part by memories of his dad surviving a plunge through the ice while fishing in Canada more than 40 years ago.
The ice chisel, life jacket and tether are basic buffers between Heberling and a cold, possibly fatal, swim.
As one of a handful of people who petitioned ODFW to open Diamond Lake to year-round angling, Heberling wanted to take part in the lake's last opening day, but he was unsure of the conditions.
"I've heard reports that ice conditions could be good or bad," he says.
Heberling first drove to the lake's south end Tuesday, but he didn't want to snowshoe down the trail to reach the lake. Instead he headed for the resort, in part because people would be around to see if something went haywire.
"If I went in, I was hoping someone would see me," he says. "But I didn't think I'd go through the ice."
He inched his way out and settled on a spot over 10 feet of water. The surface had a thin layer of crust, about 8 inches of wet snow and a sheen of ice less than 2 inches thick.
He chiseled out two holes to take advantage of his two-rod license. In one, he rigged a hook with a piece of glitter Rainbow PowerBait above a small weight that sank it to the bottom. A bobber on the surface showed when the bait got bit.
In the other, he fished a small white jig popular in the Midwest.
The first fish hit the PowerBait, as did three others he landed. Three fell prey to the jig. Most were plump, 15- to 16-inch rainbows that make Diamond Lake the crown jewel of Cascade Range trout lakes.
"I missed a lot, too," he says.
The original story can be found on the Mail Tribune's website: http://bit.ly/13kJQ61
Information from: Mail Tribune, http://www.mailtribune.com/
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.