The Greatest Hunting and Fishing Buddies

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I’ve been blessed with some really great hunting and fishing buddies over the years.  Very few of them complain, all but a handful are typically better behaved than I am, and most are pretty talented outdoorsmen in their own right.  As I grow older, I’ve had to bear the occasional loss of one of them, and it’s always difficult to come to grips with the thought that you’ll never share another day in the boat, or a morning in the turkey blind.  Yet places in time and even material things can also have this affect on us, as a certain farmpond will never be as good as it was during a late-May of my youth, and no shotgun will ever hold the same importance as the Winchester 1300 pump my dad gave me. 

So it was when I dropped off my old 1998 Tacoma to its new owner last week.  Don’t laugh, trucks are as much a part of the experience as any one of your friends or family, and you’ll definitely end up spending more time with them.  271,000 miles worth of time to be exact in the case of this truck.  I got it used more than 15 years ago, and took abuse from the get-go.  Few people I knew drove a "foreign car," let alone a truck, and fewer yet used them like I did.  It was equal parts ATV, farm truck, and highway vehicle, at times heavily leaning more towards the side of off-road exhibition vehicle.  It was safer on ice due to its small size and lighter weight, and I drove it as carelessly as I could, less cautiously than I should.  After all those miles and memories, the same friends and family that once ribbed me have gone through 2 or 3 trucks in the same amount of time.

Neil Young wrote a song about his favorite vehicle, an old Buick of all things, singing: “With your chrome heart shining, in the sun, long may you run.”  Or was it about a girl?  Though likely an unknown metaphor, it’s easy to see why he thought of that old Roadmaster having a heart.  Though we know these are just bolted-together contraptions of steel, plastic, and carpet, they also both share and make memories.  Like the time chasing turkeys on some hill in the pan-handle of Nebraska that the old Tacoma climbed such a steep grade, I felt gravity not just pushing me deep into the seat, but almost up and out of it like an astronaut headed for the Moon.  Or the numerous times it skinnied its way through forest rails, field roads, and ditches after everything from mallards to morels. 

It worked harder than it played, like the time we were building our house when I hooked it up to a few strands of grass-buried barbed wire, only to pull out about 100 yards of old fence-line as that little engine groaned.  Or the time I snapped both leaf springs loading mulch for a spring landscaping session.  I was mean, and it was kind.  No matter how much abuse I applied, it only required some gas weekly, oil annually, and new tires occasionally. 

Much like our own friends and family members, we look back and have our regrets.  My Tacoma was parked outside the last 10 years of its life, and I wish now it would’ve been inside.  Weather-checked tires, peeled paint, and rust give it character, but that’s no way to treat an old friend.  Neither were all the bumps, deep gouges, dents, and dings I carelessly applied over its long-life.  We never made it to collector’s plates together, and I’m the sole reason why. 

Still, when we say goodbye, we realize that goodbye is not forever.  This is especially true in the case of my old truck, as it’s going to an old friend in hills and valleys of Pepin County Wisconsin.  Last I talked to him, he’d already taken it around to all of his coon and coyote-hunting buddies to brag about how little he’ll be getting stuck this winter.  By the time this goes to press, my old truck has become someone’s brand-new-used truck.  Parts of it won’t change, as I requested to have the turkey feathers and molded old turkey beard on the dash remain as permanent fixtures.  At the same time, everything changes, nothing stays the same.  I know it’ll have a new dog box installed in the bed for a good group of respectable hounds, and I’m thinking that the 4WD shifter might be strapped into place from September through April.  It’ll be at home on the dairy farm, hauling calves, feed, and logs whenever called upon. 

So as I say so-long to another old friend, I know again, farewells are never permanent.  Sometimes if we look hard enough, and even more-so when we’re not searching, memories well up all around us.  Those beloved people, the places of our childhood, and the things that have been with us the longest can never truly be forgotten.  They continue on, just as we do, becoming more a part of us than what they meant to us.  No matter where they end up or how they get there, we remember them because we are them. 

Long may you run.

Dedicated to my late parents and the Mike Hernke Family. 

From Now Until Ice-Up

From Now Till Ice-Up

Ice anglers are a nervous bunch it seems from about the time of the whitetail rut, all throughout November.  Even if ice doesn’t come in their neck of the woods until December, it seems we find more ways to worry about getting ready for it than we do once it’s actually here.  While I can’t do anything about ice-formation, I can certainly give you a peek at my pre-ice checklist.  Get the prep-work done, then rest easy until we get some single digits and calm winds.

Auger

Traditionally, gas-powered engines have made this the first item on my checklist.  Should you need a carburetor adjust or other fix, you might be a few weeks out.  Better to work on this one sooner than later, while service center lines are short and turnaround times are quick.  To prep any auger, you first need winter-blend fuels sold in the ice-belt usually anytime in November.  Pre-mix your fuel, or purchase some of the handy pre-mixed gas in a can.  Check your spark plug, auger flighting, and blade sharpness, then turn over the engine.  If you’re choking and adjusting throttle like mad just to get it to fire, think how much harder that’s going to be on a frozen sheet of ice.  Of course, if you’re part of the electric auger crowd, simply test your batteries, blades, and general condition to make sure you’re ready to drill first ice.

Shelter

This comes next on my list as I want to make sure I have time to assess any items that may be broken, torn, or otherwise not functional.  Then I still have ample time to replace items or add new ones like a light bar, cargo nets, hooks, etc.  Were you sick of the bottom of your portable shelter sled holding snow and water last year?  Consider drilling small holes at the back end of the sled in the bottom of the runner wells.  That way, as your gear warms and dries, simply prop up the front part of your shelter to allow water to drain out.

Electronics

A quick look at your battery and its condition, as well as general operation of the unit itself completes the trifecta of your big-ticket item pre-ice checklist.  Look for a shifting screen, poorly lit marks, loose knobs, frayed cables, or loose connections.  All of these issues can be carry-overs from the year prior and will make the new year on ice that much more difficult.  Again, customer service waits are very short right now, but will be long when everyone breaks out their flasher for the first time of the new season.  Stay ahead of the curve and be ready to fish when others aren’t.

Outerwear and Boots

This could be one of the most overlooked areas to prep for all ice anglers.  Especially early ice, you’re often fishing outside of a shelter or at least roaming the open ice to check for safety.  Consider a floating bib and jacket combination that’s designed for the ice, and line its pockets with everything you’ll need.  Headlamps, bait-pucks, hand-towels, measuring tapes, superline scissors, GPS, and forceps all fit inside the pockets of my on-ice outerwear.  Boots are a subject unto themselves, but make sure yours don’t leak, and consider equipping them with ice cleats for slick first ice.

One of the most overlooked aspects of pre-ice prep, is getting your Outerwear and what you put in it, squared away.  

One of the most overlooked aspects of pre-ice prep, is getting your Outerwear and what you put in it, squared away.  

 Tackle

I start with putting fresh line on every ice reel I own.  It’s cheap insurance, and tiny 500 series reel spools are made to create memory in ice line.  Make sure that reels are firmly taped and/or seated on rod seats, and that everything fits into your transportation tote or rod-box of choice.  Consider how you’ll fish, where, and for what species.  Go through the scenarios of what species you’ll likely fish for and where.  Configure your storage solutions accordingly.  For me, it’s Ziploc bags for small jigs and plastics, individually labeled and sorted, then stuffed into a tackle bag.  For hard baits and spoons, I run a series of small boxes that I can separate easily and keep on my person only what I need.  Rarely do I bring everything, but I’m still striving for the perfect solution as we all are.  Regarding bait, consider buying in bulk, as I’ll typically buy 1000 euros at a time then dip ice pucks into that stock as necessary to refill.  If they’re left outside to freeze or otherwise die, you haven’t lost it all and you need to restock less often.

Lastly, and this is the fun part, gather all of your ice tackle in a single location, spread them out on the floor and admire how large the pile has become.  Make sure to do so in the absence of your significant other, or you’ll likely be prevented from ever adding to it again.  Go through old baits, replace hooks as needed and more than anything, take good inventory on what needs re-stocking.  Be honest with yourself.  This is a difficult task.  Work new baits and lures into the rotation, but do so sparingly, and then, only in a few selected colors and sizes.  Instead, focus on your staples, and make sure you have plenty multiples of them.  The worst thing you can do when shopping for lures is to buy a smattering of one each in various lure types.  Instead, do your research and know your fishing style, then make educated and targeted purchases in multiples of the colors and sizes of baits you know you’ll make use of this winter.  While it can be more expensive, you’re far more likely to have what you need when using this system.  I’ve more recently been a fan of shopping for these items online, mostly because I can order these multiples with greater ease, and typically the stock is virtually limitless.  Still, whether online or in-store, supply can be sold thin if you wait too long.  This is especially true for brand new lures and baits that get a good amount of press.   

From here, you’re more prepared than the vast majority of your ice-fishing brethren, and for good reason, first ice can be the best fishing of the year.  So fill your deer tags, get some fresh winter blend fuel in that ice auger, and wait until mother nature gives us the icy layer we need to walk on water.

The Best Anglers Find Their Ice Spots Right Now

Photo Credit - Matt Adddington Photography 

Ice-fishing has undergone an interesting transformation in the past few years especially.  As social media ice-thickness reports hit the internet by the hour, we get on ice collectively faster than we once did.  A legion of mobile ice-anglers get out in their portables sooner than ever, scouring at first the shallows then pushing deep as ice permits.  Yet there is a growing group of wheelhouse anglers that fish in comfort weeks and months later, waiting until the ice becomes thick enough to support both truck and drop-down trailer.  No matter which group you’re in, eventually you’ll hit the lake in search of fish, and just like in school it pays to do your homework.

As ice-anglers, our mobility though better than it’s ever been, is drastically limited by the reality and need to drill a hole in ice to gather information.  So why not put in the work when it’s easy?  Using electronics from a boat to find fish, and more importantly find areas that will gather fish, is far easier on a 60 degree fall day than a 10 degree winter one.  Yet it’s surprising to see so few anglers take advantage of the easy ice-scouting that presents itself in our fall months.  In all honesty, I never stop thinking about ice, and no matter when I’m fishing during the open water months, my mind is racing to determine locations that look “fishy” from an ice-angling perspective. 

Many times, these locations are consistent producers during all months, yet others are specifically good for ice and not during the bulk of the open-water period.  The latter types include shallow transitions from mud to sand, or sand to rock, as well as small gravel or rock patches marooned again in shallow weeds or non-like surrounding substrates.  Early ice fish push to these places, especially after sundown in clear-water systems.  Spots that are no larger than a kitchen table can seem impossible to drill out and find, while they stick out like a sore thumb on a side-scan of any random shoreline. 

Side-scan technology could be the number one asset to an ice-angler during this time of year, as few things hide from it, even in heavy weed cover or timber.  Even if you don’t own this technology, chances are you know someone who does and you could get out for a day on the boat with them.  Spend time getting to know the system in either case, and make sure to idle at the proper pace to provide the very best image you can.  In general, harder bottom areas show up brighter or “whiter” and soft bottom shows up darker, and aside from timber, fish-cribs, or other sunken gems, you’re looking for any break or transition in the substrate.  The more sudden that change is, often the more valuable it can be. 

For the early ice angler, think first about how you access the water-bodies you like to fish.  Chances are, even if you’re walking out on slick-ice that sleds and gear slide neatly over, your spots will be within a ½ mile of your access point.  So focus on the areas immediately adjacent to shore that are within a half-mile ice shuffle.  Shallow water usually provides the first opportunities to fish on safe ice, so don’t worry about anything more than 15 feet at first.    

That’s a great starting point, but realize that eventually you may head out with an ATV, snowmobile, or other ice vehicle.  As ice-thickness progresses, so too does the season and fishing locations.  The first-break off of shore is now another focus area and reason for a completely separate scan.  Stay within 100 feet or so of that break and complete another pass or two until you feel you both understand the variation in that break, and identify key points along it that may concentrate fish activity. 

If you know you won’t be pulling your house onto the lake until vehicle traffic is safe, you’re looking at mid-winter fish locations.  Off shore reefs, rock piles, or islands can be key locations to drop a wheelhouse, and are typically well-marked with many of the contour mapping options we have today.  That said, the devil’s in the details, and small changes in that structure are readily visible again with side-scan technology. 

The mistake many ice-anglers make at this point is marking the spot “generally.”  Just because you can find the underwater point, or even the spot on the rock-pile where boulders are largest, doesn’t mean you’re located on a part of the structure that gives you the best chance for success.  From experience, I can say that this kind of knowledge comes only from scanning it from a boat via multiple angles, dropping waypoints in various locations to pinpoint what you feel is the best location, then following that up on ice with underwater camera work to ensure you’re dropping down on fish. 

If all of this sounds quite involved for a few fish, I would agree.  That said, if you’re the kind of angler that always wonders what they’re biting like “over-there,” you can put much of that uneasiness to rest with a thorough accounting of what you’re looking at well before you drill the first hole of the season.  That type of inventory is without a doubt, best done without ice on the lake.       

Fall Walleye Transitions

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The word “transitions” may be one of the more overused terms in fishing today.  We hear about mud-to-sand or sand-to-rock transitions, seasonal transitions, and bait transitions; to the point where the word tends to lose its meaning.  Yet, it’s highly appropriate when discussing fall walleyes, as there are few times of year where everything can change as quickly as it can in the fall.  Which is why you’ll need to be flexible in your approach if you’re going to catch fish during this stage of the game.

“Transitions” to fall walleyes means fish that are behaving differently in terms of their location.  Warm spells and resultant increased water temps push fish back to more summer areas, often deeper than 20 feet of water.  Cold bouts, and especially prolonged cooler temperatures have the opposite effect they do in the summer.  Walleyes push shallower, feed more aggressively, and should be welcomed by anglers, even if they need some bulkier clothes and more cold-weather stamina to handle it.  Nothing kills a great fall bite like an “Indian Summer” that hits as water temps are slowly but surely otherwise dropping nicely.

If walleye locations change, it should be no surprise that the techniques to catch them should transition as well.  After water temps are in the 50’s to stay, you can put away the leadcore gear you used all summer to target scattered deep fish, and look for fish to congregate.  For the most part, cool weather concentrates fish, and often does it shallow where walleyes like to feed heavily.  This is especially true with prolonged wind events that stack fish in shallow, predictable locations.  Cool, windy days in the fall can see the biggest fish in any water body actively feeding during daylight conditions. 

That’s all well and good, but rarely in the fall is any one water body locked into a specific depth and individual pattern that works well for walleyes most of the time.  In reality, fish move at back and forth, with these depth migrations being gradual over time, with all kinds of smaller movements throughout the days and weeks of fall.  They relate to water temperatures, light conditions, and major weather events.  All of which sums up the truest sense of the term “fall transition,” meaning that walleyes in the fall are ALWAYS in flux.

Knowing that, then we have the challenge of determining details in targeting them.  First and foremost, start shallow, and start aggressive.  Crankbaits, both lipless and short-bodied shad diving baits, along with swimbaits, jig and plastic combinations, and even stickbaits are great choices for this type of fishing.  Fish wind-driven points, rock piles, and ledges in as shallow as a few feet of water, and give it a good hour or more of your time.  Make the fish prove to you that they’re not shallow before abandoning that bite, as when it’s on, it’s on in a big way. 

Next, move to the first break, and let your electronics be your guide.  Often, especially in clear bodies of water, fall transition fish will move below the edge of the first pronounced drop-off from shore during the day, still feeding occasionally, while waiting to push to nearby shallows for a night-time feeding session.  These fish may require a bit more attention and subtlety, and large, live minnows are a great presentation for them.  Free-swim a big chub behind ample weight on a larger than average rigging hook, and wait for the thump-thump of the minnow to be interrupted by a “smash.”  Pay the fish ample line and give it some time to get the bait in his mouth before setting the hook, and you’ll be surprised how well fall walleyes are into big minnows.  With some patience, many minnows lost, and some practice, you’ll also be wondering how even eater-sized walleyes can eat these extremely large minnows. 

If live-bait isn’t your game, it’s a great time to try Jigging Raps on these intermediate-depth fish.  You’ve got the combination of concentrated, aggressive fish, along with a bit of distance between you and the fish, such that Jigging Raps really have the space to dive, dart, swing, and work their magic.  I know more than a few anglers that fish this bite from 60 degree water temps all the way until lake ice-up. 

Finally, if fall walleye locations are confounding you, and you haven’t found anything at shallow or intermediary depths, consider going back to what worked in the summer.  This could be live bait rigging deep structure, or even pulling leadcore.  A few years ago, I did really well pulling leadcore, at night, in 25 feet of water in October.   The fish shouldn’t have been there, especially then, but they were and they ate.  It could be due to warmer than average weather preceding your visit to the lake, exceptionally clear water, or a number of other factors including turnover, but know that you’ve always got the patterns from the previous weeks to fall back on. 

Stay mobile, be flexible with your baits, and fish the fall walleye transition in order from shallow to the depths.  Let the fish decide what they want and where they want it, then realize that each fall day can act like a new season altogether as you repeat the process with success.

Full Circle Fall Jig Fishing

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It seemed like only yesterday when we buried the jig box for more “summery” walleye presentations.  The lead heads and sharp hooks we favored around the walleye-opener have given way to live bait rigs, cranks, and spinners with bottom bouncers.  Some of us, especially the river-anglers, never put away our jig offerings, but for the most part we’ve moved-on.  As fall water temperatures and fish locations begin to mirror spring, the jig bite comes full circle, once again being a productive strategy as it was in the spring.  This time however, there’s fewer anglers on the water you’ll have to share the bounty with.

Veteran guide Tony Roach needs little introduction, and it’s likely no surprise that he wields a jig like you and I use the air to breathe.  On an October trip with him a few years ago, we pitched jigs exclusively, and threw them in many places you might not expect.  “I start in 6 foot of water and shallower,” says Roach.  “I see plenty of guys focus on 8-12 foot rocks and sand, but in the fall you can find big concentrations of fish up shallow.  When they’re up tight, they bite, it’s as simple as that.”  Bite they did, with us finding pods of fish scattered in shallow rock situations that “felt” too shallow.  Arguing with the fish and where they “should” be is futile as I’ve come to find, so we stayed in shallow clear water, made long casts, and continued to catch fish.

We didn’t hesitate to slip out to deeper spots for other fish at the same time.  Again, fish where the fish are, and understand that not all fish in any one system respond to the environmental indicators of wind, water temperature, and bait equally and simultaneously.  Fall can be confusing that way, with all the dynamic changes that are occurring, fish location can be scattered.  Walleyes coming out of their summer patterns can still be quite deep during this period, with other fish transitioning shallower hour by hour.  The point to understand however is that no matter how many fish may still be at depth, those fish up shallow, when found, are likely biters.

Among all of the signaling factors that can push fish shallow, water temperature is the most consistent bellwether.  “I’m looking for surface temps in the 55 degree range to really trigger the begging of the strong fall pattern,” says Roach.  “I fish aggressive early, power fishing the reefs and rock ledges, and then as surface temps hit the 45-50 degree range, I’m dragging the bait with a few slow pops mixed in,” offers Tony. 

Just as spring live-bait situations eventually give way to more aggressive plastics presentations, the same happens in the fall but in reverse.  Tony says, “I’m starting with plastics earlier, to pair with the faster fishing I do.”  Surely, the action and colors available aid in this aggressive fishing approach, making the bait more appealing from a distance.  The combination of shallow fish, and a strong jig and plastics bite can make for some of the fastest fishing of the year, allowing anglers to cover water while fishing quickly and getting bit along the way.  Big grub imitations, or longer ring-worm baits work favorably, with minnow-style baits working well later in the fall. 

As fall progresses and water temps slow a fish’s metabolism, it should come as no surprise that live bait offerings become the order of the day once more.  The same jig and shiner combination that was so deadly this spring, is once again the best selection for getting shallow fish to commit.  Fishing these live-bait offerings slowly is once again the key, with some fish preferring the bait almost motionless.  Less is more during some of cold, late-fall excursions, as the liveliness of the minnow is what often ends up sealing the deal for the few walleye anglers that have chosen the boat instead of a tree-stand.        

That’s not to say that fish are always inactive and prefer a crawling presentation that time of year.  “A warm afternoon sun and flat conditions can actually bring up the water temperatures a good deal,” says Roach.  Experiment with plastic offerings in these situations as fish become more aggressive.  Don’t be afraid to move more quickly from spot to spot, while fishing more quickly.  Let the fish be your guide and choose accordingly. 

If water temperature is the primary driver of this migration of fish locations, wind is surely a close second, often taking a good situation and making it even better.  Many of the best trips I’ve ever had are when water temps hit the low 50’s, and a 15mph-plus wind stacks bait on shoreline rocks and sand.  Tony agrees.  “There’s lots of times when I’m throwing baits in those situations right up against rocks and reed-edges, and the bite happens almost instantly,” says Roach.  Fish fast in these situations, as you’re playing with a deck stacked in your favor.  Fish won’t be everywhere, but key shoreline points with any structure whatsoever will hold actively feeding fish.  All you need to do is put a jig in front of them.

What once became old, becomes new again, as spring gives way to summer and finally fall again.  Dig out the jigs, and fish them with plastics or meat depending on the temps you’re seeing.  Just remember to start shallow and fear not the water less than 6 feet.  You might be surprised to find yourself at the end of the season, in the very same locations that you started it.       

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