For many, when winter hits, the fishing gear gets put away for the season. But that doesn't have to be the case - ice fishing is a great winter pastime in the Mat-Su Valley, with opportunities to catch lake trout, landlocked salmon and more in a variety of locations. Just an hour north of Anchorage there are endless opportunities for you to turn fishing season into a year-round hobby.

Ice fishing has already started in the Mat-Su Valley, although you should make sure the lake is frozen thick enough to safely get out on the ice. Some lakes have natural springs that prevent them from freezing to a safe enough level. A good rule of thumb is that 5-6 inches of clear ice is good for foot traffic, while 12 inches is best for vehicle travel on ice. Once you know you are on safe "ground," head out for a fun-filled afternoon!

There are more than 80 lakes stocked in the Mat-Su Valley, with species ranging from trout to salmon to char. Best bets include the Nancy Lake State Recreation Area with its abundance of lakes, lakes along the Glenn Highway National Scenic Byway, Finger Lake near Palmer and Byers Lake in the Denali State Park region. Many of these have already been producing catches this winter, despite the lack of snow.

Many suggest the best bait for ice fishing is cocktail shrimp with a split shot about 10 inches up the line, with a bobber on the surface. Others use lures and jig for fish. Make sure the bait you are using is legal, and try several methods and techniques - it varies depending on your location and what species you are targeting. Just like salmon fishing in the summer, many anglers like to keep their best techniques a secret!

Make sure you pack right to stay warm, and have your fishing license. Remember, you'll need a new 2017 fishing license when December ends. Check the Alaska Department of Fish and Game's web site for current rules and regulations for the region you fish.

Load up the kids, hot chocolate and the ice fishing gear and head out for an exciting day on the "hardwater."