Enjoy the Chase

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I’ve been trying to figure out the best way to write about a recent trip I had to Northern Wisconsin, where I caught zero fish, and had an absolute blast doing it.  I know, it sounds odd stated like that.  Sunset and scenery pics must mean the fishing was poor right?  Amidst the pressure of always trying to stay on top of the bite, I’ll be the first to admit that fishing can be tough no matter who you are, or how much experience you have.

But this bite, wasn’t really even a bite, and I wouldn’t describe anything I did that day as “tough.”  It was my birthday, and though I’ve been making it a practice of always wetting a line each year on that day, work took me to Hayward, WI for a meeting.  That was fine by me, as the drive was beautiful, and it gave me a chance to scout a few spots for the return trip.  Where I would fish, for how long, or where I’d end up was anyone’s guess, and I was satisfied to let the day take me wherever it led.  That alone is refreshing in today’s day and age of chock-full online calendars and commitments.     

I didn’t have a boat hooked on back, no fancy electronics, scores of rods, or hundreds of pounds of tackle.  I had a small travel rod and a single river box I’d put together.  Staples from jigs and plastics to #5 Shad Raps, and a few terminal tackle pieces.  It would likely be tough to find fish, trying places I’d never been before along the Namekagon, and small lakes I’d seen dotted along my route.  Heck, I wasn’t even targeting a specific species, I was just casting to cast half the time.  Explorer fishing, without a plan or purpose, really suited me that day. 

I started along a river, watching canoers plunge through some rapids as I fished back-eddies and current seams from my shoreline perch.  Poor planning and overall ambivalence to the days fishing plans left me without proper footwear or clothing to even get in and wade, so I was fine with creeping down back-trails and sneaking wherever was dry.  As the well-worn lanes narrowed to paths, and eventually just game trails, I was lured further by the thought that maybe, just maybe, no one has ventured this far in years, and I’d come to a miraculous pool of unfettered smallmouth just around the next bend.  No such pool was around the corner, but I did see a number of smallies blowing up on dragon-flies.  They didn’t like what few topwater options I had in my river-box, but it sure was fun to try.

Next stop was a river bridge with too much current, and the one after revealed too much shallow water for my liking.  I was looking for something in between, but fishing new places always involves some strikeouts.  Like the next two spots, which were just boat landings that had some small gills and crappies visible from the dock, but nothing going elsewhere.    

This kind of fishing is about checking on new leads too, so I headed north and off my route home to a lake rumored to have some gargantuan gills from this past winter.  I found the lake, and even fished it from shore a bit, looking for any sign that might confirm or deny their presence.  Another miss, and time for a break, so I stopped at a small corner bar near the lake to see if I could chat up any locals.  Aside from the bartender who’d heard that “there’s fish in there” but had no idea as to the size or speciation, there was only an old man sitting at a picnic table. 

He offered only vast generalities, and a bit of red-herring to throw any self-respecting angler like myself off the trail.  That said, he did lament the fact that the lake at one-time had a fishable walleye population, at least until “somebody probably caught two of them and called everyone they knew.”  I suspect he was talking about the bluegill bite in code, but it was fun sharing a birthday beer with him somewhere in the middle of Wisconsin nonetheless.

I pointed the car towards home, tempted to think poorly of the overall fish-count from the day, and disappointed at first that I hadn’t brought the boat, made a call to some friends in WI, or otherwise just prepared better for my excursion.  But I had a great day, and really enjoyed the break from constantly being “on-point.”  I fished casually, enjoying the pursuit without letting it dominate the day.  I didn’t cast gruelingly till last-light as mosquitos feasted on my blood-smeared face, grimacing in focus for the next heroic fish-hoisting moment.  I flicked a few ticks off me and just fished, then drove home.  Anti-climactic, perhaps, but it’s been the best fishing trip I’ve had this year.         

 

 

An Evening Fish

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Summer in the northern states is just this incredible phenomenon.  It cannot come soon enough, so immediately upon arrival we bask in its glory.  June for me is one of the fishiest months of the year and always goes by too quickly.  So we do our best to keep up with the fishing trips we have scheduled and by July and into August, we can be lulled into a sense of endless summer.  Hot days, thunderstorms, and life’s commitments cause us to get a bit choosy with our fishing, myself included.  Then predictably, summer up and goes south for the winter, leaving us bitter and remorseful of the many fishing days we chose to do something else “really important.”

Though some of the fishiest folks I know still complain about not going fishing enough, a few quick evening fishing sessions can be the very best antidote for that feeling come late fall.  Rarely has anyone regretted an evening on the water, and short sessions can be just as rewarding as all day trips.  That is, if you plan for them accordingly.  Here is a few things to keep in mind that will launch you out the door and on the lake with limited time to fish:

Boat – Fishing from shore can have its advantages for the after-work-angler, as a boat can actually be the number one deterrent to hitting the water in short order.  That is especially true if you have been neglecting some messes.  Whether it be simply storing your tackle and gear away, or anything from trailer light issues to nagging motor problems, having the boat in tip-top shape well beforehand keeps you from walking past it in the morning and throwing in the towel.  That’s why the best guides I know do their rigging and boat prep the night before, or well in advance of when they’ll be using their boat.  It is amazing how much a well-cleaned and clutter-free boat wants to be hooked up to the truck more often. 

Non-Essential Fishing Items – Too many short trips are bogged down by non-essential items like bait, the latest lures you want to throw, or even all of your rods.  If you approach it from the standpoint of any fishing is better than no-fishing, your world is colored a bit differently.  Sure, there will always be some bites that require specific gear, tactics, and styles of equipment to help you be more successful, but if you only have two hours to wet a line, you probably will not need 3 or 4 patterns worth of bait, tackle, rod/reel, and line setups ready to roll.  Keep the staples on hand and be ready to fish. 

Supplies - On nights like these, time is the one commodity you cannot compensate for.  That means that chock-full gas tanks, supper, ice-cold beverages, or sometimes-even snacks are things that can wait.  If you are with kids, add snacks and drinks to the mix for sure, but do your best to limit the luxury items and especially stops if you can help it.  I’ve been the guy that stops to top off the tank, then grabs a bite to eat, only to forget ice and drinks; putting me on the lake with about an hour to fish.  That is a letdown no matter what you are fishing for and how dialed-in the bite is.

Plan – I do my best to have a plan when I hit the water no matter how much time I have to fish, but that could be even more important when the sun is diving.  If it is a lake I have never fished before, I have two spots I’d love to hit in detail, and I study the contours to develop a mental plan of action.  Knowing the lake or river you fish certainly helps, but it can also hurt.  A similar plan of attack is best should you fall prey to “fishing a memory” and hanging in that location far too long.  Spend more time on different locations, being vigilant to hit even more spots in an effort to find fish quickly.   

On the Water - From a fishing perspective when I do hit the water, I am looking to do only one or two things that I will live or die by.  Personal experience, time of year, or other local knowledge certainly helps, but you can also turn it into an information gathering session or experimental bite night.  These short fishes can be the best way to dabble in new techniques or spots, giving you the confidence it takes to give it half or a whole day’s attention later.  Whatever you choose, do your best not to switch back and forth to too many different techniques or you’ll spend more time rigging than fishing.  Sometimes power fishing methods of trolling or active casting can be the best way to catch active fish and cover water in a short amount of time, and take that into account if you’re thinking about bobbering, rigging, or picking apart areas that can drain the clock. 

So do your prep ahead of time, have that boat ready, and keep in mind that there’s few things you’ll actually NEED once you slide off the trailer and into the water.  Have a plan but keep it a simple one, such that you spend more time casting the summer away, rather than once again regretting its passing.      

The Keys to Successful Jig Fishing

Few baits will ever be as successful as the plain lead-head jig.  As a bait-delivery method or a stand-alone option, it excels for multiple species throughout the country, moving water or stagnant, stained or clear.  It can be swam, hopped, plopped, dropped, dragged, shook, pitched, and fished vertically, among other presentations.  No matter how you choose to fish it, there’s a species that’ll eat it on every water body near you.  However, that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily easy to fish, and it can be downright challenging if you’ve never been much for jig-fishing. 

I learned to fish jigs on a river system in current, which is quite the curveball compared to natural lakes.  With moving water, you need to take into account more variables like sweep, casting angle, mono vs. braid, among others.  However, with a few pointers, anyone can catch fish with jigs.  Here’s a few to get you started in the right direction.

Use the Right Tools for the Job – Start with a lightweight, high-quality carbon-fiber (no fiberglass) rod in an Extra Fast (XF) action, along with a featherweight reel combination.  Jig-fishing, perhaps more than any other technique relies heavily on feel, and you simply can’t feel much with poor equipment.  While there are techniques that don’t require you to spend as much on a rod and reel, here’s one instance where you really get what you pay for, and better tech quite simply leads to more fish. 

Line – Start with braid and a fluorocarbon leader of a few feet in length, joined by an Albright Special or Uni-to-Uni knot.  This offers you the best ability to feel the jig, while still having some stealth with the nearly translucent fluorocarbon line up against the jig itself.  Mono can excel in certain situations, especially in current where the sweep and way it cuts through the water presents the jig differently, but braid offers you the best feel overall.

Map the Bottom – Your first couple of casts should be an exploratory mission, as you decipher clues that are telegraphed back to your rod-hand.  Cast out and let the jig settle to bottom.  Then slowly drag it back to you, hopping or with mixed-in quicker pulls along the way.  You’re actively figuring out substrate at distance, such that you can understand the big picture and where fish will be holding.  Like any experiment, start with a “control” retrieve, and compare various types of retrieves thereafter. 

No Cross-Wind Casting – No matter the orientation of shore or where you’re pitching, wind could be the single largest inhibitor to your catch-total for the day.  Position your back to the wind, or directly face it to enjoy far better direct contact with what your jig is doing.  Drift into a crosswind, and every fish in the lake could hit your bait on a single retrieve, and you’d never know it because of the huge bow in your line.  Wind triggers many fish species up shallow, so on these days, mitigate the effect by keeping your rod-tip close to the water and off to one side of the boat to reduce that problem.

Stay Back in Clear Water – Jig fishing can only be productive in the clear shallows when you’re not driving over fish.  In hyper-clear water bodies like Mille Lacs, this means fish spook in 10FOW or even more, meaning you have to stay over deep water and simply pitch a little bit further up to the zones you’d like to cover.

Fish From the Outside In – When fish are schooled up near cover, it pays to work your casts from the outside in.  As you pick off fish after fish from the outside, you have less chance of disturbing an entire school by casting up to the center of the most prime piece of cover.

When Vertical, Stay That Way – Vertical jigging works really well in deeper water, but only if you keep your rod tip directly over the top of the bait.  Poor boat control when fishing vertically leads to baits off bottom, and less ability to detect bites, especially when the bait is under the boat. 

Re-Bait – Whether plastics or live-bait, degraded or destroyed additions to a jig hinder the action and direct appeal.  Resist the temptation to leave it on for “one-more-cast” and put your best bait forward.  It’s amazing how selective fish can be at times, and at the end of the day you may only use a handful more minnows or plastic grubs.  Call that cheap insurance to a successful bite. 

Focus – Probably the single biggest deterrent to catching fish on a jig is distracted fishing.  If you prefer to doze off, drink coffee, or otherwise just relax, start trolling or bobber fishing.  The best jig anglers I know are machines.  They’re casting, processing bottom content, hooking walleyes, and positioning the boat for the next cast.  They’re mentally engaged nearly all of the time, as they pick apart pieces of structure bit-by-bit.  While it’s true that the more you pay attention for any fishing scenario, the more you’ll catch, with jig-fishing it’s absolutely critical.    

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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.

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