The Next St(age)

After a fairly successful introduction to fishing for my two young sons, now ages 9 and 12, it’s been a slow-go in recent years.  It took some steady learning on my part to understand that snacks, bait, shoreline rocks, and frogs were far more interesting an experience, and that all the pressure I put on myself to keep bobbers dunked and lines tight didn’t really matter all that much unless they had the freedom to experience fishing the way they wanted to.  About the time it started clicking for me, it came to a grinding halt for them.  What was once an easy task to convince them to head out fishing for a few hours, became painstakingly difficult, requiring bribes and negotiations regarding all kinds of competing activities.  Maybe I’d made it too easy for them, or perhaps there was still too much focus on the fishing?  Either way I had somehow managed to do what I promised not to do, which was burn them out on it in some way or another.

Now, as my boys have gotten past those initial stages, I see them coming back to the sport of fishing that I know and love, just maybe not as much for the same reasons.  All of which is fine by me, as anything that gets them on the water is positive as far as I’m concerned.  A few fishing fanatic friends have really turned the tide, as angling becomes a way to hang out with their buddies as much as anything.  It’s amazing how “uncool” something can seem when coming from your parents, only to find out how “cool” it is when introduced to the very same activities and ideas by peers.  A bit of boyhood bravado, brought on by some impressive fish pictures, has helped to fuel that fire as they trade these photos back and forth as if they were a form of currency or man-measure.  All of which is not necessarily that dissimilar from our own grown-up angling aspirations.

I certainly don’t know it all as it pertains to helping your kids along with fishing, but my own family has provided a great case-in-study.  I continue to learn the do’s and don’ts of fishing with kids, and am anxious to see where it goes from here.  That said, here’s what I’ve learned in helping to take some initial interest and grow it into what I hope becomes a life-long activity for them:

Bigger Species – Kids eventually bore from the bluegills and crappies under a bobber routine, and at least for my own kids, by ages 7 and older they were ready to try some other species.  While they didn’t then, and still don’t, have the patience for an all-day walleye expedition, pike and bass provide more than enough excitement to keep them busy.  Going after the “big” fish becomes a great draw, even when not catching as their attention-span gradually increases.

New Techniques -   My children hated trolling or more passive techniques like live-bait rigging, even when catching fish.  Then, casting was the draw, and forcing them to keep the rod in a holder or worse, in-hand but still, was pure torture.  Now, simple patterns like throwing spinnerbaits to weed edges or casting senko-type plastics in the shallows will keep the kids busy for hours, especially if the action is reasonable.  As their fishing universe expands, you’re creating a feedback loop where the more they learn and understand, the more they want to consume.

Bring a Buddy – Take advantage of the fact that as your kids get older, they often naturally want to spend more time with friends than just family.  Recently, on a Lake Pepin trolling run, I had my oldest in the boat for more than half a day, and his buddy posted his (at the time) personal best walleye.  We were trolling crankbaits, something my son previously couldn’t stand.  Now I’m fielding requests from other friends of his that want some boat time, and the benefit is getting to spend some more time with your child and fishing all at the same time. 

Photos and More – With how digitally easy it is to preserve and send memories these days, take as many photos as you can.  You’d be amazed at how proud they are of fish or experiences you wouldn’t think to take shots of, like the recent 10lb Sheepshead my son caught while hoping it was a walleye the whole way to the net.  If you’re socially savvy, share their catch and watch their chest swell as others congratulate them and pile on accolades.  Those memories mean more to them than we know. 

Don’t Forget the Fun – Even though their patience level is increased and they may be able to make it all day, make sure the event stays fun.  For them, every trip on the water is special, no matter how often you get a chance to fish, so make sure to do all those little things right.  Maybe it’s a meal out on the way home, some special boat snacks, or even just letting them pick the music (as painful as that may be) in the boat or on the drive to and from.

It’s a fun ride, and I continue to learn more with each trip I take, but know that there’s not a bad time to take your kids fishing.  I find myself sometimes passing on the opportunity for better weather, longer hours on the water, or increased opportunities, but as long as you keep it a fun event no matter how well the fish cooperate, I’m convinced they’ll choose fishing first more often than not. 

The 3 Main Speeds of Walleye Fishing

There are plenty of presentations in walleye fishing these days, ranging from burning trolling runs to the slowest vertical applications.  While all of them will catch ‘eyes provided the conditions are right, the fact of the matter is that the rose-colored glasses of yesteryear’s bites, rather than current fish location and variables are what make us select the techniques that we do for any given day.  I’m just as guilty.  I love a handful of select patterns and tend to reflect on what has been successful rather than what will be.  That said, what’s helped me get out of those ruts when needed, is to break down the bevy of presentations we have into 3 main speeds, then let fish locations and what I’m seeing on my sonar reflect how I should fish them. 

Speed #1 – Trolling – 2.0mph – 3.0+mph

Pulling crankbaits is great fun, but more importantly, it’s your #1 defense against scattered fish, expansive areas, and new water.  Fish strewn about a long breakline or flat, along with walleyes that are suspended and roaming make for prime candidates to put hard-baits in front of.  Of course good intel or sonar-based evidence of this makes trolling like this a no-brainer, but it’s rarely a bad plan to start pulling crankbaits at the start of any day come summer.  If you’re on any of the big walleye factory type lakes, and fishing new spots, you can cover some water and put more lures in front of more fish.  More importantly, it’s a great way to scout areas while having a line down.  Whether by long-lining, or pulling lead-core for deeper fish, the onus is on you as an angler to put these diving lures in front of the fish’s face, at the proper depth.  From there, you’ll be relying on the fish and your electronics to give you clues on what you might do next.    

As you’re fishing, pay careful attention to your sonar and what it’s telling you.  You need to process the information in a general way by paying attention to the size, distribution, and number of fish you’re seeing on the screen, in order to put together a game-plan that continues to evolve as you gather more information.  Trolling allows you to pass over areas while gathering valuable data, both visually and virtually, as you hopefully catch fish and see them on-screen.

Speed #2 – Trolling/Drifting – 1.0mph – 1.5mph

This intermediate speed is where a great deal of tournaments are won, and involve a number of related techniques from spinners on bottom bouncers, to slow-death rigs pulled in the same manner.  The key to these presentations is certainly feeding the fish what they want, but before we get there we have to know quite a bit more about their locations.  These techniques work great for pods of fish along a pronounced break, structural element, weedline, or other more linear feature.  I spoke with Fishing Hall of Famer and consummate tourney pro Perry Good a few weeks ago, and we talked about a few locations where we like to pull slow-death rigs.  Not surprisingly, most of those locations were broad pieces of structure where fish like to congregate along a certain stretch, rather than a precise, on-the-spot location.  Sometimes, you do need to pull through a school of fish glued to these tiny spots in order to get them to bite, but the point is that there are likely more efficient means to present baits to the same fish.

Speed #3 – Nearly Stationary – 0mph – 0.5mph        

To me, the most important reason to slow-down when walleye fishing, is likely only when you’ve got some solid information on fish locations, whether electronic or otherwise.  Fishing slowly with little to no intel on where fish might be, especially on larger waters, can be frustratingly futile.  Often, there’s just too much water for them to be elsewhere.  While this speed has probably the largest category of patterns residing within it, we can break them up between relatively shallow and deep presentations.  For many summer applications, we’re often fishing off of the main break into deep water, relying on our sonar to show off larger schools of fish relating to bait, hard-bottom edges, or other structure of interest.  This is where the Jiggin’ Raps come out should fish be aggressive and in the mood to chase.  If they’re in a more sullen mood, rigging various types of live-bait up to 0.5mph, or vertically jigging that same bait is often the ticket. 

On the shallow end, again, I’m looking for intel as to why they’d be in that specific location to start with, but I’m also looking for certain conditions to excite the bite.  Wind is the primary driver here, but pair it with lower-light, whether morning, evening, or just plain overcast, and we’ve got some prime conditions for a casting bite.  Whether soft-plastic swim-baits, cranks, or even jigs with live-bait, think of fishing shallow and more slowly like you’re fishing for bass.  Pick a few areas that are being buffeted by 10-15mph winds or better, especially if wind has been coming that direction for some time, and put the bow-mount down to cast at some shallow zones.

Of course there are many more presentations, and also exceptions to these rules.  Not to mention, wrinkles or riffs on the same patterns detailed here.  That said, the most important part about breaking down the 3 main speeds of walleye fishing, is to select one of those speeds and a resultant pattern based on what you’re seeing, not on what you once saw. 

Lure Color - When it Matters, When it Doesn't

“What color are you getting them on?”  It’s a common question out on the lake when fishing with friends, and often the topic of much controversy when fishing for all species.  It’s also typically one of the last variables I mess with when trying to fine-tune my offering in the great experiment we call fishing.  So many other factors will affect a fish’s willingness to strike, long before lure color ever comes into play.  Still, there are scenarios in coming months where color WILL play a large factor in your success.  Here’s a rundown of when it matters, and when it doesn’t. 

I spoke with famed tournament angler, Devil’s Lake guide, and fishing communicator Johnnie Candle at the recent Scheel’s University out in Chamberlain, SD this spring about the topic of color, and found his thoughts closely resembled my own on the subject.  “First and foremost you need to have your baits in front of fish,” said Johnnie un-prompted.  “Color can’t overcome fishing where fish just aren’t (nearby).  After you’ve found fish, gotten a few to eat, and then fine-tune retrieve, speed, action, and other offerings, then maybe you can start to crack the code of which colors work better,” says Candle.

I offered a few experiences when trolling in a more controlled environment where one bait in a certain color shined in the morning, then another color picked up stronger in the afternoon.  “Sure,” he said, “You see that quite a bit when light levels or overall weather patterns change, but fish can also move under these conditions or prefer another presentation.”  Which is why trolling multiple baits in varying colors, especially in areas that allow more than one line (the more the merrier), allows you to work through the initial variables until you can start to crack the color code.  Eliminate selection due to other circumstances such as bait, depth, speed, and method, then work through your colors.   

Color matters typically only when you can prove it matters, as in the above trolling example or in pressured water bodies where fish see it all.  Still, there are other reasons when color can make a big difference, such as during this year’s Minnesota Fishing Opener.  I opted to get after some shallow sunfish and crappies in a rather clear lake.  It was moderately windy, making strike detection a bear, but shallow sight-fishing was still in play.  For this tactic to work, you need to first and foremost pick apart likely locations in the shallows where you can see fish, but it also requires you to be able to see your offering.  On that day, lake, and with those light conditions, small white curly tail grubs were the most visible option as they were readily sucked down by anxious gills and a few big spawning crappies.  I caught a good number of shallow panfish that day, not necessarily because they preferred the color of my offering over another, but because I could visibly detect the strike and immediately set the hook.             

Baits come in a myriad of colors these days, though I keep reaching for many of the same combinations I always have.  Reds and oranges in crawdad patterns, perch, gold, firetiger, and purpledescent tend to be top crankbait colors for me, with plastics in chartreuse, white, black, and watermelon being staples depending on the species, time of year, and water fished.  That said, there are several times annually when a bite shows me something new.  An unintended wrinkle to an old pattern, or a forage opportunity that completely changes my perspective on a familiar water body.  Chartreuse pepper on the river, or shrimp-like colors near-shore on the Chesapeake, all indicate a local interpretation of preferred forage.  That's why I can't fault lure manufacturers, as we live in a wonderfully varied fishing environment, with even the weirdest of colors seemingly having a niche somewhere and sometime.  

Orange, and I mean the brightest, gaudiest, blaze orange you can find has been just that outlier for me in recent years.  I attribute it to the rise in invasive Rusty Crayfish in many of the larger waters I fish, as I’ve seen orange craw patterns dominate in many conditions as fish in the livewell regurgitate scads of orange carcasses.  From Lake of the Woods, to Leech, and other smaller waters in Northern Wisconsin, crankbaits and plastics that imitate a scurrying crayfish have been winners no matter the time of year, species, or tactic.  This preference in known infested waters has been the closest thing I’ve noticed to a “silver bullet” in selecting the right color for the job.  Rapala now offers several colors of Retreating Craw Patterns that have worked on numerous occasions, no matter where I'm fishing.

Still, on nearly all waters, I’m with Mr. Candle in worrying first and foremost about fish location, then putting together the right technique or bait that enters their strike zone in a manner which gets them to eat.  It’s easy to spend the entire day trying to piece together the small parts of that puzzle without ever getting to color.  In those situations, go with proven choices, confidence colors, and local favorites.  Once you’ve got a bite going however, work to change up colors to tip the scales in your favor, while being mindful of the few curveballs that nature can throw you along the way.

Fishing the June Boom

Every year, the first weeks of June see some of the fastest fishing of the season.  This season, with a warm early spring, the affect has been accelerated.  What species are we talking about you may ask?  The simple answer is that it doesn’t matter.  Whether you like gills in the shallows, or walleyes on the breaks, anything and everything that swims seems to have a favorable disposition this time of year.  As water temperatures warm, lakes, ponds, and rivers become veritable factories, churning out increasing productivity with each passing day.  From the bottom up, biologically speaking, varieties of vegetative growth spur phytoplankton and zooplankton to rapidly reproduce, and drive invertebrates, terrestrials,  and minnow species to the feast.  The fish we target are not far behind, with the exception of a few species that are actively engaged in the spawn.  Bottom line – fish are establishing summer patterns, and actively feeding amongst the array of developing food sources.  Demand is high, yet supply in terms of food resources are just getting into gear.

The sportsman’s dilemma then becomes a selection process of determining which bites to fish among the embarrassment of riches that presents itself.  I’ll describe a few of my favorite bites to target during this time period, in the hopes that even if weather, fishing funks, or particular systems aren’t producing that species, you’ll have more than enough other options to try-out.  No matter what species you’re after however, think aggressive.  Now is not the time for minutia and finesse tactics.  Cover water, find fish, and go right at them.

Nesting Gills – I hesitate to mention this one, as the negative impacts to bluegill fisheries by high-grading the largest bluegills in the system during this time of year are well documented.  Still, responsible angling for these beauties can be enjoyed, specifically by cruising shallows with polarized sunglasses while looking for the tire-sized depressions often made in large groups by the ever-so-important males.  My favorite way to target them is to cast a weightless #8 or #10 VMC hook with a chunk of crawler under a clip-on pencil bobber.  Should the bobber elevate off the water even slightly, you know you’re being bit, and the slow fall of the unweighted setup really does the trick even in heavily pressured waters.

Trolling for Walleyes Two Ways – Crankbaits put behind the boat and trolled at various speeds will really pull fish aboard during this period.  It’s an ultra-efficient method for both finding AND catching fish, but depending on the depth the fish are scattered, you may need to come at it from two different angles.  The first, when fish are in 8-10 FOW, either on overcast or windy days and earlier in the season, long-line #5 Shad Raps in Gold, Perch, Crawdad, or Firetiger patterns.  Experiment between 80, 100, to 120ft. of line or more behind the boat to dial-in the combination for when you’re fishing.  The second type of trolling that can produce fast action during this time period is leadcore trolling.  We’re not talking about dredging the 30 foot depths yet, but often, using leadcore in depths of 15 -25 FOW will more effectively keep the bait near bottom where the walleyes are.  My favorite baits on leadcore are the #5 Jointed Shad Raps in similar colors as above.  If you don’t have a leadcore setup yet, take the plunge!  It’s not as scary as it sounds and solves many of the problems of traditional weighting systems.

Cottonwood Seed Largemouths – A great phenological indicator of great bass activity annually seems to be the flying fuzz from cottonwood trees.  I can think back to many memorable bass outings on small ponds and southern Minnesota lakes that included a fair dose of picking the fur off of your line.  Keep it simple and fish top-water lures like buzzbaits, frogs, or Skitter Pops for maximum enjoyment.  Fish will very readily strike heavy plastics fished in a variety of depths and means as well, so if fishing with a partner, divide and conquer in terms of bait selection. 

Jerkbait Smallies – As water temps warm and fish activity increases, no species seems to respond as well as smallmouth bass.  On the front end of this time period, smallies are pre-spawn, with some of the males just starting to think about nesting.  At this point, they’re shallow, and eating a variety of prey, but will display some aggressive behavior towards stickbaits, slash-baits, or any neutrally buoyant bait worked quickly.  At its peak, this bite really turns on with X-Raps and similar slash-baits being worked extremely quickly.  “Ripping it like an idiot,” as it has been described to me, is not too fast to work these baits when the bite is prime.  The curiosity of a smallmouth is piqued, and its territorial nature demands an exploratory jaunt for what is making all that noise.  Fish will hit on the pause, and often already be hooked up as you go to make your next “slash.”     

These are broad bites, and dozens of other patterns are developing in a dynamic fashion during this time of year.  One gives way to another as fish begin to establish a more consistent pattern, so don’t be alarmed if it’s here today, and gone tomorrow.  Alas, it’s just like the fall hunting season, which comes and goes far too quickly, but it’s something to be thoroughly enjoyed when it’s hot.  That “get it while you can” seasonality of these pursuits adds to the allure of each and every one of these patterns, urging me to get out and fish as much as I possibly can during this period.

Work the Bird, Don't Let the Bird Work You

The bird hunts you as much as you hunt it!

The bird hunts you as much as you hunt it!

The title is a well-traveled phrase created by turkey legend David Hale of Knight and Hale Game Calls, which highlights so succinctly a common calling blunder in the turkey woods.  It’s a study in human nature, and mother-nature, all wrapped up in an often-repeated scenario that happens every spring.  Turkey hunter calls and gets a response from a gobbler.  With glee, turkey hunter pours on the calling, delighted with the response and more often, enthralled in the sound of his or her own yelps, clucks, and purrs.  The bird approaches, but more cautiously, as incessant yelping becomes both louder and prouder, thus pinpointing the location of said turkey hunter.  The gobbler, now quiet, finds the most open and visible spot to strut and display just out of range.  This lasts for only so long, and eventually the tom retreats to whatever it was he was doing before. 

To better understand the interaction, think in terms of turkey radar.  The tom is up on some ridge (a.k.a – his backyard) minding his own business, when a hen sounds off.  Immediately he responds with excitement, thinking the entire time, “Now where is she at – sounds like the corner of the field edge where I eat clover about 200 yards from here?”  While I doubt that toms understand yardage the way we do, I know from watching them approach so many times that they have a pre-determined spot in mind. 

This location could be the actual spot you’re calling from, or an area that they’re used to hearing from and intercepting hens, but one thing is for certain, the more you call, the more they KNOW where you’re at.  An old gobbler’s radar works like a series of rapidly closing concentric circles, with him tightening the noose each time he hears from you.  After your first series, he’s got you pinned down to a 50 yard area.  By the time your box call is smoking your you’ve got a blood blister on your striker hand, that bird knows you down to the tree.  That’s a blow-by-blow account on how the bird “works you.”

Now that we’ve identified the problem, here’s a heavy dose of solutions.  The first being to call more patiently, and more to attract him, rather than to scratch the natural itch we all have to plainly do anything it takes to hear him gobble one more time.  So often we call to elicit a gobble, rather than to punch a tag.  We grow nervous after not hearing from him in 5 minutes, so we “check-call” hoping to get an update on his progress as he makes his way nearby.  This check calling is effective and often required, especially if you’re in a bad setup, covering a large expanse, or otherwise exposed.  The trick is to do it quietly, rarely, and variably.

Speaking of varying your calls, this most often means steering the direction of your calling.  This can be tough with a box call, easier with a slate, and easiest of all with a mouth call.  With a diaphragm, you can throw the sound, and many times I’ve steered a tom around obstacles or more towards my position effectively by throwing my calls the direction I’d like him to come.  Don’t think you can get a tom to zig zag his way through the woods on command?  I didn’t see it captured in video form until Denny Gulvas did it on his DVD – “Challenging Pressured Gobblers,” where Denny demonstrates the technique quite well.  You can even turn around, pointing your calls the other direction, mimicking a hen that’s tired of the waiting game and is leaving town, ready or not.  This trick works best in a blind where you have free range of motion without being seen, and is a phenomenal way of breaking loose a hung-up tom.

Another trick is to call more quietly, or switch to non-verbals like leaf scratching.  While scratching can be easily pinpointed, a bird often needs to be within range to hear it well.  Just like it’s easy to find your buddy when he’s honking the horn on the truck, turkeys can more easily pinpoint your location when the sounds you’re making are loud.  Quiet down and match the tone and noise of the woods you’re hunting to more effectively get those birds to close.

In my mind, the best way to work a bird then is to keep him guessing, never letting him know your exact location.  Of course there’s always outliers.  I’ve spoken at length and hunted with guides and championship callers that never shut up.  They blow a call constantly and it only improves their success.  That said, they can sound like a flock of turkeys, yelping more convincingly than the real thing and projecting the symphony across a wide-range of vocalizations.  They do so with mouth calls and throw the sound around the woods.  If you can work a call to their level of proficiency, the more power to you.  For most of the rest of us however, fewer, well-placed calls that pique a tom’s curiosity into having them close the distance, leaves you more likely this spring to work the bird, rather than having him work you.

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