When a Picture is Worth a Thousand Lures

Ever lost a tackle box?  I’m pretty good at it as it turns out.  So are my kids I’ve come to learn, they’ve got too many of my own genes.  I’ve lost them tragically to a canoe capsize, which is a rough story I’d not like to recall.  I’ve lost one to theft, and of course it was a box full of crankbaits.  I’ve left them on the banks of rivers, in buddy’s cars and boats, and even lost them in my own messes.  Those are the worst, when you lose an ice-fishing box in some other coat you rarely wear, only to find it a few years later.  If you’re like me, you know the lump-in-your-throat feeling that comes with not just the initial loss, but the cost and time it takes to reassemble what you own.

So it was this past week when my youngest son was granted my primary open-water panfish box, and lost it.  It was loaded with stuff, which to a casual observer may look to be only a couple bucks, but careful examination and the rising price of tackle meant a few hundred dollars in every kind of panfish rig under the sun.  As you might imagine, reassembly of 30 some years of panfish tackle is like telling a baseball card collector to just go out and replace his coveted McGuire and Griffey Jr. rookie cards.  Some of that stuff they just don’t make these days.

I’m lucky to work in the industry and at times am privy to deals on select tackle and brands, which certainly makes reacquiring tackle easier, but rarely is anyone showered with free goods just for being who they are.  Usually, anything free is really payment for services, or with an expectation of services later.  The same is true for discounts.  Which of course, turns a simple jig into currency; a thought not lost on someone who just misplaced said jigs.     

Life goes on, and crappies and gills still call, so I went about putting that box back together.  Step one was a nearly forgotten photo I’d taken a few years ago.  I’ve been convinced by a buddy or two in the insurance industry to photo catalog everything I own at one point or another.  Sage advice for a number of reasons, and while I was never planning on using those shots, I’m sure glad I had them.  It was pretty easy to see each of the lures, colors, quantity, and other items in the box.  It was even a great way to take inventory on what I “thought” I had vs. what I now feel like I could use some extras of.

These days, it’s easier than ever to catalog your tackle.  Most of us have smart-phones, and whether we know it or not, access to cloud storage.  That could mean Dropbox, Google Drive, or any other number of storage solutions that don’t involve having those photos only on your phone or point-and-shoot.  Those pics are subject to any form of chaos like fire, water, or simple loss as well, so just having them on your phone isn’t the best way to ensure you’ll always have them.   

Start by laying out all of your tackle boxes at once, or in groups, and snap an overhead photo of everything.  Then, get in close for multiple photos of the same box each.  It’s amazing how different angles and shuffling the tackle a bit can reveal some new items previously unseen.  Then, make sure at the end of the session that you move those photos offsite somewhere.  I use Dropbox and with an app on my phone, can easily shift the photos I’ve taken to Dropbox online storage.  It means I can access them from my phone again, but also from any other device should I need to look at them on the fly or when buying more tackle.

Of course if you never lose anything, and can completely rule out fire, water damage, or any other general form of destruction, by all means forgo this step.  I’m not that lucky, and also have a way of putting my stuff in harms way from time to time.  That makes me (and my family) prime candidates for a photo-everything day. 

At this point, I’ve nearly restocked all of the panfish tackle save a few items that have been discontinued or I otherwise haven’t purchased yet.  I put everything in a newer, larger box, and though I dreaded the task, my oldest who has lost his fair share as well did some penance and helped.  We had fun dumping out the tackle here, there, and everywhere, generally playing fishing as we went. 

Fast forward to last night when I received a call.  The old tackle box has been found.  All of which means that this has simply been a training exercise, but it’s good to have that now and again too.  It’s also good to know that it’s worth the time and effort to take a few photos, should (when) this ever happen(s) again.  That and I have at least twice the amount of panfish tackle I’ll need for years to come.   

Picture1.jpg

Spinners for Bluegills?

It’s pretty easy during the dog days of August and even into September, for bluegill and crappie anglers to lull themselves into a rut.  Fishing can be tough during the hot, sunny part of the day, and the productive times are usually limited to early and late.  Admittedly, if I’ve only got an hour or two to fish, I’ll take dawn or dusk as well.  Still, panfish are at their most active during the summer peak and will usually eat better than most species, especially if you put the right baits in the right places.

The fact that the very most active periods are early and late actually presents somewhat of a problem.  If they’re only fired up during low-light, how do you find fish to target during these periods without spending all of your time looking?  For me, it’s with a trolling approach that’s effective during all times of the day, such that you can pinpoint locations of panfish and catch them the way you want to in the early morning or evening.

As a kid running the boat for the first time, I remember being frustrated with the number of crappies we caught pulling spinners on deep weedlines and breaks for walleyes.  Any walleye angler that pulls crawlers will tell you stories about bruiser gills too that inhabit many of the same spaces.  Panfish weren’t “cool,” and bigger, rarer fish like ‘eyes certainly were.  A small spinner rig with crawler pulled off of weed edges can be so deadly for gills, it has given rise to the use of plastics for many walleye folks that are sick of constantly re-rigging bait.  Later in life, I’d be reminded that casting for panfish, with or without live bait, wasn’t always as effective as pulling spinners at a constant pace over variable cover, depths, and locations. 

So it was a few years ago then that I re-discovered, remembered, or otherwise re-visited pulling spinners for crappies and gills on account of a guy we were fishing with who couldn’t keep them off his line.  It’s been a go-to from that day and many others since.  The rig was simple as I remembered it; 1/8 – ¼ oz. bullet-nose sinker above the spinner leader’s swivel, back to a smaller hook or crawler harness tipped with a smaller section of worm or other live bait.  Bigger hooks up to size #6 or #4 mean less hookups and more bait thieves, but overall larger average fish.  Anything size #8 or smaller means more fish hooked up so long as you don’t put too big a chunk of crawler on.  You choose whichever suits you best.

Blade sizes and colors don’t seem to matter as much, provided they aren’t oversized enough to attract more predators and less panfish than they were worth.  Generally speaking, bright colors perform well in murky water and more natural colors do well in clear, but the vibration of a Colorado blade especially I feel does most of the work.  Butterfly spinners have made the technique even more deadly as they offer more flexibility in the speed of presentation.  Slow down to offer nipping fish an easier target, or speed up to clear of weeds or other hazards; it doesn’t matter as they spin at 0.25mph as they do at 2mph plus.  It also means that if you’re snagged or busy unhooking fish, all lines are still performing well for you. 

The presentation part of it is equally simple.  Find a weedline, set your trolling motor anywhere from 0.5mph or higher, and follow a contour.  If the wind is conducive to a good weedline drift, that works well too.  Literally, this technique is all about dragging around until you get bit, and refining from there.  Along the way, depending on the lake, you’ll catch walleyes, bass, and certainly pike mixed in, but the goal is finding crappies and gills to target however you please.  Or to continue to pull spinners on. 

Don’t forget the inside weedline either.  In many systems, especially predator-rich ones, the outside of any weedline can be a scary place.  Cooler water exists for bigger fish that prefer it, and the perfect ambush curtain is drawn to cut down smaller prey species.  That’s why the inside gets little attention, though you’ll have to downsize your weight, and depending on clarity, even consider a panfish planer board.  Without complicating an easy technique too much, I’d likely only consider this in gin-clear water when after trophy crappies.  Gills don’t seem to care as much about you driving over them with the electric motor anyway.

Similarly, don’t avoid the sparse cabbage edges.  These rigs are surprisingly weedless, and both cabbage and coontail can be exactly where you want to target.  It tends to be where you’ll catch the majority of your walleyes mixed in as well.  Along the way, you’ll likely learn a great deal about the layout of weed structure, as well as bottom content changes that are fish magnets during all times of the year.  Don’t hesitate to go heavier on the weight either if you’re trying to focus on the depths during mid-day.  Truth-be-told, many of the crappies I’ve caught over the years this way have been on bottom bouncer rigs tight to bottom.  My guess is that many of these fish were focusing on bloodworms and other invertebrates along the base of the weedline and into the mud. 

Cover some water and take advantage of aggressive, summer spinner-fish.  Find them before evening, and you just might find that the catching is as good during the daytime as it is during primetime.

IMG_20170815_213507_02.jpg

Can One Camper or Fish-House Do It All? - 4-Season Buying Guide

A few years ago I took the plunge and decided to invest in an ice-house.  More specifically, a wheelhouse that could be taken onto and off-of any lake I decided to fish, for any amount of time I wished to stay.  At the time, ice-fishing was to be its primary use.  To date however, I’ve used it for family camping trips, trout scouting, turkey adventures, hunting-land reconnaissance, and yes, definitely ice fishing.  It’s even served as overflow sleeping for visitors when beds are full.  While I knew I’d use it for more than just fishing, I guess I was a little unclear as to the details.  Even though I did my research, I look back at how unprepared I was and what I know now.  Here’s what I wish I knew then, and how to get the most out of a 4-season fish house.

Whitewater014-2300.jpg

Versatility

As much as you may think this is your fish-house first, it’s hard to justify the price of a modern wheelhouse on a Midwestern ice calendar.  I’m not selling the wheelhouse short on its ice convenience, as its taken my family fishing to a new level, but even better if you can use it for all seasons.  As anglers, hunters, and campers, we tend to view our interests seasonally, and give disproportional credence to the immediate needs of that calendar month.  For example, ask me in May about ice-fishing, and I’ll find a way to turn it into a turkey hunting story. 

What does that mean for your wheelhouse purchase?  It means you need to train your brain to think on the year-round clock.  While it may be an ice purchase, modern wheelhouses are very much a 4-season RV, meaning you have to plan for spring, summer, and fall as much as you do winter.  With that in mind, make sure your wheelhouse is RVIA certified, which simply means it complies with RV safety standards adopted by law, and also means it jives with their liability insurance.  State parks and most private campgrounds require it, as I found out at a private campground full of massive RV’s and 5th-wheel luxury trailers.  As nice as my wheelhouse is, they looked down their nose a bit at our “fish-house.”  That certification eased their concerns and made our stay easy.

As I’ve come to find, it’s easier to fish out of a camper than camp out of a fish-house.  By that I mean it’s easier to swallow any slight fishing inconveniences for 3 months, than it is to do without for 9 months.  Of course, if you don’t camp, hunt, or otherwise plan to make use of it for any other reason than fishing, by all means deck it out as a fishing-only wheelhouse.  That said, before ownership, I would’ve said my priorities would be 75%/25% fishing over all other seasons, and now I’m 50/50 or even closer to opposite to what I thought when first buying.  Keep in mind that your motivating factors may change as well.

Features to Consider

Length and configuration are probably the first fork in the road, so think on this with some detail.  Longer is obviously more expensive and heavier, but also offers you the space you’ll likely want when camping with a family or hunting buddies.  That said, I own a 21 footer, and when hooked to my truck, the whole works is pretty long.  That doesn’t work very well in certain state parks, or even some northwoods campgrounds in tight quarters.  Many campsites are modeled for single-unit RVs, and while you can usually find a way to unhook the wheelhouse and back the truck in elsewhere, keep it in mind if you’re looking at a longer model and want to camp in more secluded places. 

 

Over 16 feet or so, and you’re probably looking at a hydraulic lift/drop system.  For ice and camping alike, this is a very worthwhile addition.  Make sure that the tongue has a hydraulic cylinder as well, so you can backup to it and easily hitch up, as well as drop and unhitch quickly too.  Mine runs on a key fob and is as easy as locking or unlocking your truck.

A big configuration concern is whether to go with a drop-down back door, or seal off that back end and add windows and a couch.  I’ve ran with both options, and this one really comes down to how much you’ll actually be towing an ATV or snowmobile in that toy-hauler back end.  Because I own an ATV, and it can go in ramps up on the truck, I can honestly say that I don’t miss my toy-hauler version save a few large ice-trips where it would be nice to take another sled or perhaps a UTV.  To each their own, but I have personally found the more roomy back end and a couch on that end wall to mean more space for fishing and camping.

Water and bathroom are another early consideration with any wheelhouse you’ll buy.  A few years in on my end, and I still don’t have a perfect answer.  So far, we’ve camped in places that all have good shower facilities, and bathrooms are readily available.  More off-grid stuff, and the shower/toilet combo would be a no-brainer.  For me, water is really nice to have, and makes your fish-house much more like a camper.  In the private campgrounds we’ve been to, full-time water hookups pressurize the system, and especially when paired with an on-site sewer drain, the system is ultra convenient. 

Keep in mind, most state parks do not have water hookups or sewer at the campsite.  Some don’t have power either, though many do.  At which point, you’re filling a small water tank and filling a grey-water/black-water tank that needs to be emptied at some point.  If I was looking at camping primarily at state parks, I personally would not opt for a bathroom and water hookup in my fish-house, and just make use of the on-site facilities.  You’ll save money and the hassle of having to maintain the system.  That said, if you’re like me and doing a mixture of off-grid hunting, private/public campgrounds, and ice-fishing, water and bathroom is worth its weight. 

You could always go with the portable dry toilet systems too and forgo the water AND bathroom.  They’ve come a long way in terms of both cost and convenience.  You can also shrink your bathroom into just a closet and have more storage and shelving for the rest of the house.  My dealer tells me that interest in either is still split, and he sells about 50/50 between bathroom and water vs. none.

Once You Buy

WI 071-9824.jpg

Now that I’m an owner, I’m realizing that planning and organization is everything.  Effectively, my Yetti has two-seasons, fishing, and everything else.  Early on, I pre-measured most holds in the fish-house, and found small tubs and organizers that fit into each compartment.  I’ve got a set for ice and a set for camping.  Moving day in the spring involves getting all of the fishing tubs and baskets out of the fish-house and into the garage, while moving the camping organizers inside.  Rod holders and other fishing paraphernalia comes off the wall, and the water system is hooked up to a hose and purged of winter anti-freeze.  The reverse happens each fall as I prepare for the fishing season. 

You’ll find that no solution is bullet-proof, and you often sacrifice either convenience or money to find what works best for you.  Still, purchasing with versatility in mind, while organizing everything down to winter vs. all other seasons has truly made our fish-house a full season camper.   

Fencelines and Field Birds

Scouting fencelines is often the difference between being close, and close-enough.  Photo Credit -  Matt Addington Photography

Scouting fencelines is often the difference between being close, and close-enough.

Photo Credit - Matt Addington Photography

Early season turkey hunts usually require fooling more than just the big strutter of the group.  Toms are usually glued to their hens this time of year, and those jennies are quite the asset to any longbeard’s hope for a long-life.  The first line of defense is always their eyesight, which is sharp enough for a single bird.  Take a dozen or more of them in a group, each acting as a sentinel that’s peering with lazer-focus at anything, and I do mean anything, that looks out of place.  Add to that the fact that most hens who are attached to their men, don’t rather like another upstart female offering sultry squawks to their boyfriends, and you’ve got a challenging situation.

This challenge is multiplied in a field situation, where we so often hope to sit during the initial parts of any turkey hunting day afield.  That legendary eyesight is twice as sharp in the wide open or at distance, especially when bright sunny mornings offer few shadows in which to hide.  This makes it rather impossible to move on birds that may spend hours in front of you, but woefully out of range.  It’s also why you should choose wisely as to where you make your first stand on any field hunting opportunity.  Most times, that location revolves around a fence – a simple barrier that turkeys will cross at will, at least until you need them to.

Growing up in Southeastern Minnesota, most of my hunting experiences consisted of crossing several fencelines per day, just like the turkeys, as you went from woodlots, to pastures, to crop fields.  Over time, and through scouting, you came to find places in the fence where it was a helluva lot easier to cross, while torn pants and bruised egos offered proof to the spots where it was difficult.  Again, just like the turkeys, I crossed where it was easiest.  It’s amazing to me now, that after a few decades in the woods, how so many generations of turkeys have over the years crossed a fence at the exact same location.  However, it should come as no surprise as these are logical pinch-points that focus turkey movements across the landscape.

In some of the plains states I’ve hunted, fences can be even more important, as a hunt years ago in Kansas taught me.  It took us a few days to catch on to the gig, but those birds offered us two chances to tag out – after fly-down and leaving the general roost area, and once again that same evening as they headed back to it.  The remainder of their day was spent in wheat fields larger than you could see across.  Birds worked in massive groups that utilized one of two different fenceline crossings, and though we observed the location twice daily, it’s amazing how similar one fence post looks like the other.  We found out the hard way that close wasn’t close enough, and we couldn’t call even the satellite toms away from that clan.  You had to be within gun range of the exact crossing, which sounds easy until you’re trying to figure this out from binoculars on a 1,000 acre wheat field where everything looks the same. 

That story holds true throughout the Midwest, and everywhere else for that matter, as the number one rule of field hunting is to be right on the birds as they spill out onto the open-ground.  “Fence-post-accuracy” is what you need when selecting a spot, and your scouting needs to be precise.  40-50 yards off is too far in big groups, as you need a clear shot of a tom among many hens, and so often I’ve been close but not close enough as hens shield their toms and they work into the fields further and further away from you.  Precision counts here in a very big way.  In the past, I’ve even flagged a crossing with nearby brush, a broken limb, or really anything to give you the visual clues you need to be in the right place at the right time come opening morning. 

Rule number two is to never make them cross a fenceline if at all possible, which is probably better known from a general turkey hunting sense.  Growing up on the family dairy farm taught me that lesson well, with a dad that strung a full 4-strands of barbed wire on every T-post he ever met, usually tight enough to make you afraid the whole thing was going to blow up and send shrapnel flying.  Yes, I’ve hung many a bird on the other side of a fence, but even the most formidable fencelines have a weak spot somewhere.  Trail cameras make scouting easier these days, but even before them it was pretty easy to see turkey tracks on the leafless areas where birds would scoot under those fences. 

If crossing one-fence is bad, two or more is surely worse, but I hunt in a few areas where intersections of fencelines meet, creating an “X” that forces you to choose one of four quadrants from which to expect turkeys.  Of course you can hunt near the intersection of all of them, but usually birds end up coming from the direction you least expect it.  At least you’re close to them in this scenario, but even in these kinds of doomsday crossings, birds will often have a method to their madness.  Nothing beats scouting for these tougher-than-normal crossings. 

As callers, so often we fail at getting birds to cross these areas because they’ve been attracted on a semi-straight line to a barrier at a location they’re not used to crossing.  That’s why if I can visually see them and they’re heading even remotely towards my location, I won’t call to them until after they’ve crossed.  Let them negotiate a fence on their own time, and they’ll head through a spot they know and like to cross.  Excite them with a call, and even if they want to get to you, they somehow lose their ability to cross where they normally do, and you’ll more often hang them up.  I’d rather re-position on him and call to a place he wants to be, than force him to travel through a wall he doesn’t want to move through.   

Of course, there’s birds that will defy the rules, like a Wisconsin gobbler that fell last spring after crossing two different fences, ready to cross another before we toppled him at 25 steps.  I’ve also had birds fly over fences, hop through the middle of them, and scoot underneath as if the obstacle wasn’t even there.  Each tom is different, and desperate birds will do crazy things. 

Early season isn’t one of those times however, as options for hens abound.  Spend some time glassing those fields before you hunt, remembering that if you’re there too late, they’ll already be in the field and you’ll have missed where they cross.  Chances are that even if they’re working a particular zone in the field, they may not be later, especially if the hens lead toms away from your calling or decoys.  Be where they want to cross, and you may just be punching a tag before the sun tops the trees.  

Fishing Rod Selection - Technique Specific Applications

In the last article, we defined the terms “power” and “action” while discussing the benefits of specific types of each.  Those terms are fairly objective, which makes the next part of the process more difficult. The perfect walleye jigging rod if you will, can often only be perfect in the eyes of the beholder. Still, there’s a number of features in any fishing rod which hold for the angler, key advantages in any fishing situation; shallow or deep, walleye or bass, with lures light or heavy. That is why I will offer a few popular lengths, powers, and actions along with typical applications so you can have the right tool for the job.  No matter what your price point, we’ll focus on finding the right fishing rod characteristics to handle the task at hand.

It is surprising how many people select rods based on species alone, as if there were separate rods to use for bass or walleye or pike.  Instead, the focus should be placed heavily on technique and the interplay between length, power, and action.  Fishing rods perform best when fished with lure-types, and most importantly, lure weights, that fit the build and design of the particular rod in-hand.  This places an emphasis on situation-specific rods that place an emphasis on handling a certain scenario in the fishing world.  Again, you can use a screwdriver to knock out bolts, but a hammer and punch are far more effective.

Still, there are species-specific considerations, often based on tradition, that creep into rod design.  Take the split-grip phenomenon for example and how prevalent it is in bass rods.  Walleye anglers on the other hand, tend to lean more towards full cork handles that have typically been more commonplace.  Spinning vs. casting does also offer a few changes to the mix, as each of them fish differently for different fish species, with spinning being far more common for walleye, trout, panfish, etc., and casting rods getting the nod for bass, pike, musky, salmon, and catfish. 

There are far too many ways to fish for a list of all technique-specific recommendations, however, here is a few common ones that I feel will offer you a distinct advantage on the water, and get you thinking of the interplay between length, power, and action:

Pitching/Casting Jigs – Material – Carbon Fiber - Power – ML, M, Action – XF, Length 6’ 6” – 7’ - If there were ever a case where the best of the best makes a big difference, jig-fishing is where.  Better blanks have lighter, faster actions that translate to more hooks in more fish.  Pair common jig sizes fished to the range of weights that rod handles as listed on the blank.

Vertical Jigging – Material – Carbon Fiber - Power – ML or M, Action – XF, Length 6’ – 6’6” – Most anglers prefer the rod tip a bit closer to them when jigging over the side of the boat.  Line watching and overall management is far easier, while still having enough length to keeping big fish buttoned up.

Rigging – Material – Carbon Fiber - Power – ML or M, Action – Fast or XF, Length 7’ – 8’6” – Live bait rigging involves feeling a fish before it feels you, making Fast and Extra Fast (XF) actions perfect for the task at hand.  Riggers also have to manage the length of a snell boat-side as they net fish.  Longer rods do a great job of keeping the fish hooked up with a bouncing sinker and long leader lengths, though sometimes at the expense of feel in a big wind.  Choose accordingly.

Casting Crankbaits – Material – Carbon Fiber/Glass Blend or all Glass - Power – M - MH, Action – Moderate, Length 6’6” – 7’6” – Casting crankbaits happens for a variety of species, but the highlight of any good crankbait rod is some give in the middle section, hence the moderate action.  Crankbaits notoriously pull out of fish’s mouths if the rod (or line) doesn’t have enough give to let the fish engulf it in the first place.  The next key is pairing common bait sizes to the range of weights that each rod handles as listed on the blank. 

Trolling Crankbaits – Material – Carbon Fiber/Glass Blend or all Glass - Power – M - MH, Action – Moderate, Length 5’ – 10’ – Again, the key component of a good crankbait trolling rod is the moderate action and give that it offers.  You’ll see a very large range in lengths, and that’s because most trollers are trying to pair multiple rods at various lengths to cover the most water without tangles.  For example, many trollers pair 8’-10’ rods with a set of 6’ rods to be able to troll 4 lines un-tangled.

Finesse Jigging/Drop-Shot – Material – Carbon Fiber - Power –  L - ML, Action – Fast/XF, Length 6’6” – 8’6” – Fishing small baits for panfish, bass, or walleye, requires a blank matched to the weight of that specific jig.  Longer rods make for further casts of small baits, so consider going as long as your rod locker has storage for and you’re comfortable with.

These recommendations are only basic guidelines, as there needs to be some wiggle-room for hard-earned experience and personal preference to inform the process.  One last piece of advice is to buy the best rod you can in terms of price point, while adhering to the basic rules of length, power, and action.  Especially for light-biting fish, you get what you pay for in that higher price-point rods are typically lighter, more sensitive, and help you experience a technique in the best way possible.  With today’s materials and craftsmanship, you can get a good rod at a great price, but it’s not a sales pitch in saying that the net result of higher quality is more bites and more fish.