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.   

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.   

Muddy Water Magic

Just about everywhere in the Midwest, it’s been the year of the monsoon.  Continuous thunderstorm action paired with seasonally high water levels have brought about some spotty fishing, depending on where I’ve been fishing and for what species.  Of course, fishing dirty water is always a reality during certain times of the year, but we’re more often used to seeing it in the springtime as meltwater combines with spring showers to both raise water levels and make them more turbid.  Big rainfall events can certainly happen during any time of the year, but by the end of July and into August, we’re looking at max evaporation and typically both lower lake and river water levels.

I’m still hoping for lower river water into August, but it remains to be seen whether we’ll ever get it.  I’m a big fan of chasing smallies and walleyes on smaller rivers during the later summer and into fall.  Most years, those fish have limited options for where they can be, based so often only on water level.  This year, it seems that just as levels start to approach “normal,” we see another gully-washer that muddies up the moving water and shuts down fishing.

While it’s usually sound advice to user louder baits, both from an audible and visual perspective, there’s more to muddy water than simply throwing a rattling crankbait.  Another play altogether is to avoid it when you can.  In bowl shaped lakes especially, shoreline runoff and debris can be a shock to any fish’s system.  Evening thunderstorms can often foil the following morning’s fishing in the shallows.  Not only is the fishy waterscape rearranged, but water temps have often changed, requiring fish a bit of time to recuperate.  In these scenarios, I like to move deeper, where local fish are less likely to be affected by all of the rapid change.    

The exception to that rule is in moving water, especially in lakes.  Rivers all the way down to small trickles that output into a lake are now alive with flow.  The resulting current breaks and seams create logical places for fish to rest, while having a steady conveyor of food headed their direction.  This is even more true when there’s access to deep water.

River fishing can be a different scenario, as more underwater real estate means more possible places for fish to hide.  It also means the upsetting of the norm and puts fish off of the daily patterns they’d grown accustomed to.  In these scenarios, just like in ponds and small lakes, I like to head to the depths to mess with fish that aren’t as bothered by the fish in shallow that see so much difference from day to day.  Another play however, is to look for those same current seams as in lakes with rivers dumping into them.  Mudlines setup in some systems, and stream color variation can often mean gradients in temperature that draw in certain fish. 

Case in point would be river pike that appreciate cold water, but love the security of a little color to the water.  Cold, spring fed streams adjacent to larger rivers can be a hotspot for big pike during any part of the open water period, but are especially attractive when a good mudline sets up.  It allows them to hunt well and be comfortable doing it.  Walleyes and smallies are much the same as they can position themselves in cooler, slower water while having access to what the big muddy is moving downriver. 

Dirty water in river situations usually means higher water, but it also means faster water.  You need to consider what your bait is doing when moving along much faster.  It often means re-tuning crankbaits so they don’t blow out, and selecting slightly heavier jig sizes to stay down in heavy current.  That’ll usually influence your rod selection too, as most medium light walleye rods won’t handle the weight of a ½ oz. jig or more very well.  That’s when some specialized sticks can really yield dividends.

Live bait gets a bit trickier in river situations too when there’s so much current.  Most often, fast water means more snagging up, both on the new debris being washed down and the fact that your bait ends up settling in to more sticky situations when you have less control over it.  Minnows are heartier than crawlers, and leeches do pretty well in current as well if that’s your persuasion. 

That said, fast, dirty water is a great time to try hard and soft baits alike, given the vibration and colors they sport.  Crankbaits are great search tools in lakes and rivers both during dirty water periods, as fish have an easier time finding them then traditional lures and more subtle offerings.  Even plastics give off vibration, especially boot-tail and large curly-tail varieties.  Of course, both offer the advantage is really bright colors that can also help fish find your offering. 

The next time you show up to the landing and find all kinds of floating debris up shallow from the previous night’s storm, consider a few refinements to your approach before focusing on your traditional summer tactics.     

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How Deep is Too Deep for Mid-summer Walleyes?

Walleyes spend the better part of their summer season in deep water.  Provided there’s enough oxygen at depth, they happily enjoy cooler water temperatures and the bevy of bugs and other bait that congregate on deep structure.  Older fish in certain lakes, learn to key in on larger bait stock.  That could mean ciscoes and whitefish, or suckers and even bullheads or rough fish depending on where you’re fishing.  That still puts them deep, maybe coming up occasionally to feed before sinking back down.

Depth however is a relative term, depending on the lake you’re fishing.  On Minnesota’s Upper Red Lake, 10 feet of water and deeper is considered quite deep.  The same is true in the prairie pothole region where there’s plenty of great little walleye holes that never make even 20 feet.  Then again, there’s great walleye lakes like Vermillion, where walleyes can be found in excess of 50 feet of water.  Of course, your favorite walleye lake may be at either end, or anywhere in between.

While the depth of walleyes may be relative to the system in which they live, their ability to survive summer capture at those various depths is not.  Most fish caught in 30+ feet of water will likely die as the result if water temps are at their peak.  Brandon Eder, Assistant Area Fisheries Supervisor for the MN DNR’s Waterville Office confirmed this in a recent conversation while adding, “No matter how slowly you reel in fish from that depth, there’s still likely going to be some trauma.” 

Throughout the walleye-belt then, there’s plenty of catch and release fishing that might as well be catch and kill.  Not that there’s anything wrong with eating a walleye either.  I love ‘em, and prepare them a bunch of different ways.  However, there are plenty of lakes that mandate release of walleyes a certain size, and anglers should know some ins and outs of how depth can affect the release of walleyes during the summer.  Eder suggests, “Be prepared to keep your first 6 fish regardless of size (depending on the regs) and then quit or go shallow.”

There’s a pile of factors that influence walleye mortality, with depth of capture being only one of them.  Hooking method, or how deeply into its mouth a walleye eats the bait is a big influencer, as is the use of live bait vs. artificials, but those are often related.  Water temperature is another factor, and warmer temps see fish that simply don’t release as well and survive.  It’s why catch and release walleye tournaments aren’t held as often in the deep summer, and why you should consider eating the fish you catch when water temps are the hottest of the year.  Extended or prolonged handling of a fish outside of the water is yet another factor that affects mortality.

Many of those factors an angler can directly influence, especially in the summer as you can’t control the water temp.  Without switching away from live-bait, circle hooks vs “J”-hooks, and pinching down all barbs, what’s a catch and release angler to do?  The answer is to change the depth at which you’re fishing, and to know what depths are likely lethal, and which are not.

Barotrauma is a big word with a relatively simple meaning, especially as it pertains to walleyes caught at depth.  It affects all living things, but with walleyes swimming rapidly from deep water, it refers to physical injuries caused by water pressure.  Quick ascent means a swelling air bladder, which can push their stomachs out, bulge their eyes, and ultimately cause deadly injury.  Releasing those fish at the surface, in extremely warm water may make the angler feel good as they swim away, but may not lead to survival.    

One solution to the problem of fish barotrauma has been “fizzing” – the act of releasing that pressure with an accurately placed hypodermic needle into the swim bladder of the fish.  Of course, “accurately” is the key, as stabbing a fish with a needle indiscriminately, can further exacerbate the problem.  Eder says, “I don't like the idea of anglers running around poking walleye with needles.  It's hard to get the right spot in perfect conditions and even tougher in rain, wind, or after dark.”

Another solution in the form of recompression devices may pose some freshwater promise, as they have gained greater acceptance in coastal areas.  These tools can simply be an inverted barbless hook secured to a line with a weight that takes the fish to bottom and releases it with a sharp snap of the line, or a jaw clamp that releases similarly.  The general idea of both being that the fish quickly gets back down to a depth that allows air bladder pressures to recede, and ultimately supports its survival.  For rockfish specifically, studies have shown 80%+ survival rates.  While I’m not aware of any similar research on walleyes, the decompression devices show greater efficacy overall.

Of course, you could always just limit your fishing north of 30 feet, or make sure that you are legally able to take and eat fish of any size for the lake that you’re fishing.  If a limit is what you’re after in those depths, stop fishing once you’ve hit it.  Eder also mentions, “If you are on fish over 20" you should leave so you don't kill more than your 1 over 20".”  All of which means that if you’re putting the hurt on big fish deep, consider switching tactics, locations, and potentially lakes.  Focus early and late when fish are more active shallow.  Break out some slip-bobbers and camp out on a rock pile, or drag some spinners or rigs along a weedline. 

There’s lots of ways to get your ‘eyes, but this summer when temperatures climb, do your best to respect the resource by going easy on those deep fish.