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Local Diving: Payette Lake, Idaho

Check out this site through the eyes of the local dive community
By Katie Doyle | Created On January 2, 2024
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Local Diving: Payette Lake, Idaho

Dive tenders stand by after carving into Payette Lake’s frozen surface. Note the wheel formation they dug out of the snow to allow more sunlight to hit the ice.

Dale Caza

McCall is a winter wonderland—for everything.”

Phillip Graf, owner of Omni Divers, reflects on his career as a PADI dive instructor and his favorite place to practice the art of ice diving: Payette Lake in McCall, Idaho. The lake spans nearly 5,000 acres in the Payette National Forest, bordered by Ponderosa State Park. The elevation is significantly higher than in Boise, Graf says, resulting in heavy snowfall that can pose challenges for those climbing the winding mountain roads to reach McCall in the winter. There are three ski resorts within 10 miles, but the winters are long: Snow arrives around Halloween, with 4-foot snowbanks remaining until May.

McCall is a small town near the Oregon border, about a five-hour drive from Coeur d’Alene and two and a half hours from Boise. In the warmer months, the town and lake are full of boaters and anglers, which bolsters the tourism industry but can create less than ideal diving conditions underwater. In winter, things are much quieter—especially beneath up to 3 feet of ice.

“The clarity of the lake is the best—no boat waves stirring stuff up,” explains Dale Caza, a retired volunteer firefighter, EMT and rescue diver who spent 20 years with the McCall protection district.

Graf echoes that sentiment and emphasizes that with no wind movement on the surface of the lake, all the debris settles and makes for “very clear” visibility, in which divers could hold staring contests with kokanee or other sleepy lake dwellers: “You see fish down below… normally, bubbles tend to scare the fish, but these fish are semi-hibernating, so they kind of [stare back] at you.”

“The local dive community is thriving in Idaho. Here, we all just want to have fun and make bubbles.”

The 30- to 40-foot depth just off the marina is ideal for ice diving, especially for divers who haven’t been beneath the ice previously. Often, a group pursuing certification consists of a mix of rescue divers and advanced open water divers looking to expand their abilities. Ice diving should only be done with proper training or an instructor.

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Those interested need to make plans early, no less than three months in advance, so proper equipment and personnel can be arranged, explains Jake Powlison, owner of Jake’s Scuba Adventures in Coeur d’Alene, who has logged over 150 ice dives. “It takes a lot of people to have a few divers in the water,” says Powlison. It’s important to have that support to make ice diving a safe, fun experience.

Although Dive Magic in Boise doesn’t currently offer a PADI Ice Diver course, Jenny Dennis, partner and owner of the shop and a PADI Master Instructor, feels the community energy and welcomes interested divers to her shop to find out more about diving this specific location.

“We actively dive Payette Lake,” she says. “Our goal is to get a few of our other instructors up to that level [to teach the PADI Ice Diver course] in the future.”

Ice diving is a team endeavor that brings local divers together: Over the years, Graf and Caza dived together off Mile High Marina in McCall. After a day of digging out a wheel formation in the snow to let sunlight hit the ice, then suiting up divers before the cold diminished mobility in their hands, then sawing a circular hole with an ice auger before finally dipping underwater, everyone would gather down the road at Toll Station to debrief over pizza. With McCall’s full-time residents numbering about 4,000 in the winter, it’s easy to picture a cozy group of divers warming up in a local business with a pizza and beer, marveling (as Graf says) that the best place to be during a blizzard is indeed beneath Payette Lake—escaping the wind chill.

Today, Idaho operators like Dennis and Powlison are dedicated to sustaining the dive community and continuing to introduce new generations to the sport.

“The local dive community is thriving in Idaho,” says Dennis. “Most people get certified for trips to warm-water destinations. There is a small handful of divers that will explore the lakes year-round.”

“Here, we all just want to have fun and make bubbles,” Powlison says.

Kokanee (Oncorhynchus nerka) are some of Payette Lake’s most prehistoric-looking inhabitants.

Cassidy Vincent

Site Spotlight

Kokanee (Oncorhynchus nerka) are some of Payette Lake’s most prehistoric-looking inhabitants. The native fish share a genus with sockeye salmon, which are no longer found in the lake. Unlike sockeye, kokanee remain in fresh water their entire lives. When they’re ready to spawn, females turn from silver to red. Males stay silver, but they grow a hump when they reach maturity.

Other fish thriving in the lake include smallmouth bass, rainbow trout, and trophy-size lake trout. Lake trout prey on kokanee, and the Payette Lake kokanee population is currently experiencing a resurgence after an imbalance with lake trout arose about 15 years ago. Kokanee are classified as endangered under the U. S. Endangered Species Act.

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Need to Know


Temps hover at 30 to 40 degrees. Viz reaches 40 feet on a good day, according to Caza. Thermocline is at around 10 feet deep.

When to Visit

The ice is thickest from January to March.

What to Bring

Drysuit, 7 mm wetsuit or a semidry suit. “It depends on your ability,” Graf says.

Local Resources

Jake’s Scuba Adventures (Coeur d’Alene)

Dive Magic (Boise)