The snow falling on this frozen lake is not quite thick enough to obscure the mountains that surround us. It is cold enough to freeze eyelids shut; the view of the white, ice-tipped Rockies makes it seem colder. It is the kind of day most people choose to spend sitting before a television, generating a giant heating bill.
But Bob Klein, a 37-year-old in thick boots and a snowmobile suit, is standing above a hole in the ice, determined to torment his aging father Al with his catch of the day.
"I taught him too much," jokes the elder Klein, sitting on an overturned bucket beside his own ice hole, resigned to the fact that his son, using the same technique and bait, will again outfish him. "He's the luckiest fisherman that ever lived."
"Back East," as folks in Colorado refer to anyplace east of Denver, the winters don't amount to much more than a few days' worth of Rocky Mountain weather. Folks who live at the top of the world don't use the term "snowstorm" until it gets deep enough to bury school buses. When birds begin to drop from the sky, frozen in midflight, people who live in mountain towns grudgingly will concede that, yes, it surely does qualify as cold.
Despite that climate, there are more outdoor enthusiasts per square foot in Colorado than in perhaps any other cold-weather state in the country. Most of them are engaged in the most obvious outdoor attraction, downhill skiing. Each year, more than 8 million people ski at one of the state's 34 resorts.
But look beyond the speed-crazed mountaineers and you will find a surprising number of people in the woods and along the waterways of Colorado -- fishing, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing and racing everything from dog sleds to snowmobiles. When the weather gets cold here, folks bundle up and head out.
"It's a way of life, really," said Jerry Craig, a fishing and hunting guide who lives in Granby, a town that sits between the Arapaho National Forest and Rocky Mountain National Park. "You can count on it being below zero almost daily up here. Two days ago, it was 30 below. The day before that, it was 40 below. You get used to it. Life goes on."
Craig is an open-water fisherman. When the temperature freezes a lid on nearly everything else, he knows he can find moving water by driving 30 miles to the Colorado River, where 20-inch rainbow trout can be caught all year.
Most anglers change with the season and convert to ice fishing. There are hundreds of mountain lakes in Colorado that become covered fishing platforms each winter. With hand augers that resemble giant corkscrews, men and women drill holes through the surface, then dangle jigs or bait or both.
"The secret is to get here after somebody else has come and gone. Then use the hole they made," said Gene Rohr, who is fishing with the Kleins on Dillon Lake.
"Naw, the best way is to look for blood on the ice," Bob Klein countered. "Then you know just where to fish."
Rohr is from back East. He went to school at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, then moved west with the Army. He didn't much like the Big Sky Country at first. Now, with the passion only a convert can muster, he contends it is the only place worth living.
"You couldn't pay me enough to go back East," said Rohr, holding a short fishing rod in one hand and a chunk of smoked elk jerky in the other.
Maybe the best ice fisherman in the entire state is Gerald (Jake) Bennett, a fish biologist for Colorado's Division of Wildlife. Bennett, a big, bearded fellow who hunts big game with a muzzle loader, prefers ice fishing to any other kind. In two recent weeks, Bennett pulled mackinaw trout from beneath the Granby ice that weighed 7, 12, 15, 23 and 25 1/2 pounds. The biggest of those fish might be more than 22 years old. Bennett releases most.
"I'm from Wisconsin. That's where I brought all that ice fishing technique from," said Bennett, who drills two adjacent holes when he fishes. The first is for his fishing line. In the other hole, he suspends a sonar graph in a bucket that picks up the outline of fish under the ice.
"It's just a matter of letting me know how many fish are moving through and not biting," said Bennett.
There are other towns in Colorado like Grand Lake that snooze during the summer months, then burst into activity with winter festivals and snowmobile racing in the winter. You can't hide from winter in the Rocky Mountains, residents say, so you'd better learn to love it.
"I think that's one of the reasons our country seems so beautiful to us," said Craig, the fishing guide from Granby. "We don't just come in the summer. We stay and pay the piper."