Bonus June Boom

Photo Credit - Sam Larsen

Photo Credit - Sam Larsen

I’ve written before about what I consider to be in June, the most favorable month of the year to fish period.  It’s nature’s perfect storm of conditions that begin a new season each year in the upper Midwest.  Biological activity is at an all-time high, with fish, bugs, birds, and beasts of all kinds hurriedly carrying out early season rituals in your average lake or river.  Predators, of which even panfish could be considered, eat other living things by definition.  As winter and spring’s hangover begins to wear off, everything is hungry.  To make matters better for you as an angler, only the first few hatches of the year are coming off, and there’s little to no availability for young of the year perch, minnows, or other prey for these post-spawn fish of all species.  Sure, any body of water is going to have some supply of baitfish, but the point is that we’re not to July and August where a fish’s next meal is just a flick of the tail away. 

This year, we’re in a bonus round of June fishing, because not as much of it happened in May.  Cooler than average air temps and fronts brought resultant water temperatures, and with them, fish that didn’t play ball as well early.  That means, for those of you caught up in school, graduation parties, and lots of yardwork, there’s less excuses this year.  Pretty much anyone should be able to catch a fish now and in the coming few weeks. 

That’s not to say it’s always easy, as there’s still cold fronts, tight-lipped spawners and the like.  That said, no matter your quarry, now may be as good as it gets to cancel other plans and get some fishing in.  Typically, phenological indicators tell me when fishing can be good for certain species in my neck of the woods.  Tip-offs like blossoming lilacs signal spring crappies spawning in the shallows, and blowing cottonwood seed has usually meant some great topwater bass fishing.  Well those same indicators are happening this year as they always do, just later.  All of which may call for a change of tactics should annual fishing trips and traditional spots not produce the same way they usually do. 

If you do anything this season, consider turning back the clock a few weeks and think about what your species of interest started off their season doing.  Whether it be crappies, pike, muskies, or walleyes, the answer is likely spawning.  If you’re not finding those fish in their normal haunts, consider backtracking to likely spawning sites and just off of them.  Most of these species should be post spawn in all but the most northern extreme areas. 

When it comes to bass and bluegills, there’s the real possibility that they may just be spawning.  If water temps are exceptionally cold still for whatever reasons, they may still be pre-spawn even.  Much differs north to south, and especially lake to lake where water temps can vary drastically, even between lakes next door. 

For that reason, let this be the year that you start a fishing journal and record some of those surface water temperatures.  Bear in mind too, that water temperatures can vary a great deal throughout an individual day, and then drop again with clear skies and frontal conditions.  Water temps measured at the end of a bright, still, sunny day may be elevated as much as 10 degrees from a morning reading.  For that reason, it’s good to note a water temperature range if you’re out on the water for more than a few hours.  Even better, note what you were finding in which water temperatures.  One bay for example may have spawning muskies in 60 degrees, paired up and nearing post spawn, while another bay in the same lake with more rocks and less weeds may be mid 50’s and fish are pre-spawn roamers.  

If you’re not familiar with the spawning and post-spawn movements of your favorite species, never fear, the internet is here.  You’d probably be unsurprised to hear that not everything you may read there is spot-on, but by paying careful attention to reputable sources, many of you can take five minutes and a sandwich to figure out what stage of the game your species of interest may be when out on the water.  Of course, still nothing beats old fashioned observation on the same body of water year after year.  Sure, nothing is the same from year to year, and you can have a lot of confounding variables, but experience is the same thing that made grandpa as good as he was. 

So fish fearlessly, even quickly.  Know that given even reasonable weather there’s biting fish somewhere on the lake you’re fishing.  If not, switch lakes, as this time of year is too good to pretend like it’s August.  Whether it’s toothy critters or what they’re eating, enjoy some bonus June boom time this year as I’m thinking it’ll extend well to the end of the month, and maybe even July in northern portions of the Midwest.  Take a kid out fishing, and try some new baits, spots, lakes, and species.  There was never a better time to gain confidence in anything new than this month.

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.

Fishing Rod Selection - Power and Action

Fishing Rod Selection – Power and Action

Take a trip to any sporting goods retailer, and you’ll find arguably too many options. Design, materials, and basic function can take a backseat to outward appearance and marketing, and of course there’s always the price factor. Among the bling, heavy decoration, and in-store specials, are just a few basics to purchasing a fishing rod. Understanding the terms “power” and “action” will help you separate hype from helpful to pair you with the best tool for the job.

The art of selecting a quality fishing rod is a time-honored tradition that takes place across the country every spring.  Anglers flock to spring sales, weary of winter’s woes, dreaming of the first cast of the season.  They pull a rod from the display and perform their tests of choice.  A shake, a bend on the ground, or a dreaded “grab the tip and pull down” are what most folks use as criteria for determining their stick of choice. 

Most never give a thought to how they’ll use it or for what.  Instead, they’re motivated by feel, price, marketing materials and large numbers after the letters “I-M” that would seem to indicate sensitivity and/or quality.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Here’s the first of a two part series on rod selection that’ll put the right tool in your hand for the job at hand, no matter what price point you’re looking to spend to.

Any good story starts at the beginning, and for fishing rods, that discussion gets off the ground with the terms “power” and “action.”  Contrary to popular belief, the terms are not interchangeable, and mean drastically different things.  Before you think we’re getting bogged down into an engineering debate, know that “power” relates to the amount of pressure it takes to impart a bend in the rod, and “action” is the part of the blank that actually deflects.  That’s a big distinction, as I’ve heard pro after pro relate to rods as a heavy or medium action, knowing full-well that they mean “power” here, as I’ve made the same mistake myself. 

While power is an easy concept to grasp, as we’re used to purchasing the appropriate power for the species we like to target, “action” is a more abstract notion.  That is, until you look at a rod chart and see that actions start at moderate, bending closer to the mid-section, and progress all the way to fast, then extra-fast actions that bend far closer to the tip of the rod.  

It’s important to realize that you’ll need to understand both terms, as two medium power rods can have completely divergent actions which will benefit drastically different styles of angling.  It’ll also help to know a bit about a few other variables as you decipher which rod to buy, namely rod length, materials, components, and a bit about the manufacturer you’re purchasing from.  Did I mention that not all rod companies mention the action, and there are few universal standards by which the entire industry grades their powers and actions?  We’ll make it simpler, I promise.

Start with the power, knowing that your ability to impart extra leverage on larger fish will hinge on it.  Powers range from Ultra-Light, to Light, Medium Light, Medium, Medium Heavy, and Heavy.  Choose wisely based both on the species you’re targeting, but also the lure weight you’ll be using to target these species.  If you’re angling for a good number of species, Medium Light and Medium powers handle the largest swath of lure designs and fish species. 

While you’re thinking of lure types, know that the fastest of all actions like Extra Fast (XF) will excel when you need to move the rod minimally to set the hook fastest.  Baits like jigs that rely on extreme sensitivity and feel find huge benefit with these XF actions, as you get to the backbone of the rod that much more quickly on a hookset.  XF actions are so often paired with the highest end carbon fiber rods at the peak of sensitivity and price.  At the opposite end of the spectrum, you’ve got moderate actions, which most of the cheaper rods already exhibit and truly excel for things such as crankbait fishing where you want some give to account for the bend that the diving crankbait’s bill will impart on the rod.  A crankbait rod without the proper “give” sees you missing far more fish on account of hooks pulling out of the mouth of the fish.

Rod length can be a function of personal preference, height of your casting platform, or any number of customized factors, so be sure to choose what you like here while observing a few generalities.  The trend has been towards longer rods in the 7 foot region and longer for a number of reasons.  Longer rods offer a number of advantages from casting distance to leverage and coverage, and as rod storage in boats gets more accommodating while rod manufacturers build increasingly lighter rods, I don’t see this reversing itself.  For that reason, I’m a big fan of shorter rods primarily for vertical jigging, and longer rods moving longer for most applications outside of this. 

Materials are harder to decipher, as all companies offer different marketing strategies to endear their version to you.  Most rods however are made in the same factories, offering the same technologies branded differently for different importers.  Very few rods are vertically manufactured, offering the customer a product that was custom made from scratch to solve a specific fishing problem.  Know that more technology, better components, and lighter materials make for more expensive rods.  It can also make them more brittle and prone to breakage as engineers push the limits of the goods at hand, making a solid warranty a necessity when purchasing a high end rod.

In the second part of this series, I’ll offer some personal suggestions for common species and techniques, as well as a few shopping pointers to make sure you get the best rod for the money.       

Getting to the Bite - Deep Snow Strategies

Photo Credit - Ben Larson - In-Depth Media Productions

Photo Credit - Ben Larson - In-Depth Media Productions

I’m staring at some heavy flakes right now out the office window, and like the rest of my ice fishing brethren, I’m thinking about how it’ll impact my ice journeys during the remainder of our season.  It’s a reality of February, and especially March, that especially when traveling to different bites across the ice belt that you’ll contend with heavy snow.  Mere days ago we had open ice travel on many lakes in central and southern Minnesota, a rarity for this time of year for sure.  Now we’re settling in on a more traditional portion of winter that involves dealing with limited travel and the consequences that go with it.

Northern portions of ice-fishing-land had their snow early, around the Christmas Holiday, which is always tricky given the propensity of heavy snow to sink ice and create slush conditions.  No matter your machine or manual travel methods, slush is a killer.  On a bite in Hackensack around New Years, we high-stepped through a foot of snow, only to stand in inches of water.  Drill the ice, and you only make situations worse as water flows onto the ice and under the snow, only to create more of the slush that hampers foot and vehicle travel alike. 

So how to best attack conditions like this?  Well the answer depends on how you’re fishing, what equipment you have at your disposal, and ultimately the amount of work and effort you’re willing to put into the finding vs. the fishing.  Of course, there’s some shortcuts learned over the years that’ll hopefully help as the snow continues piling on over the winter. 

Foot Travel

I’ll start with the toughest portion first, but also the simplest.  Advantages lie in this modest mode of ice travel, particularly in the fact that you’ll have to have less gear to haul around.  Stuff a light sled with a simple auger, several rods, and a flasher, then carry some small tackle boxes on your person as you trudge to spots.  Given your limited range, you’ll be forced to fish more strategically, and this especially applies to how you’ll be accessing spots.  Flee from the busy accesses where trucks are streaming onto the lake, and focus on secondary access more associated with first ice.  County parks, water that touches public road rights of way, and private access with permission is a great way of going after fish that haven’t seen a lure all winter, or at least since the beginning of winter. 

This is also a great time to focus on small bodies of water.  You’ll know from the tracks left in snow whether or not it’s been getting pressure, and the smaller the lake, the less deep snow trudging there is by default.  This is also a great time to focus on walk-in-access lakes, Scientific and Natural Area accesses, and catch-and-release only lakes like the one I fished a few weeks ago.  We drug sleds a ¼ mile through a snowy access, and fished hard through the day, but were rewarded with some quality gills during the last 20 minutes of the day.  I live for this kind of fishing.

ATV

The ATV vs. snowmobile debate has raged in online forums and Facebook user groups for many years, and over the years, it’s mother nature that makes the final choice as to what will operate better on the open ice.  Most years, an ATV’s effectiveness wanes through February, and especially into March, though ATV chains can extend you a few more weeks.  Still, eventually, you’ll high-center and be hung up on the frame by thick snow that no longer allows passage.  ATV’s once again have a great late-ice applications as snow melts and opens up lakes a bit in late March and April.  While slower than snowmobiles, they’re smoother and typically have better storage solutions for holding your ice gear and keeping it out of the bottom of your sled.  That said, during the heart of winter in a snowy season, it’s best to save your frustration and leave the ATVs at home.

Snowmobile

For long pokes and fast travel over deep snow, nothing beats a sled and flip-style fish-house combo.  It’s how you need to fish in much of Canada and extreme northern portions of the US.  There’s simply too much snow, for too long of the season, to expect good travel with anything else.  Still, slush is just as much a killer for snowmobiles as it is any other means of travel. 

That’s why I’m a big fan of packing down your fishing area ahead of time with a snowmobile or group of them.  Unhitch your shelter, and run back and forth between the access and all around your fishing area.  Think of it as laying a track for all of the fishing you hope to do throughout the remainder of your stay.  For long trips into the back country, this doesn’t make as much sense for the ride out, but it certainly does once you reach your fishing destination.  10 minutes spent packing down “landing” makes all the difference in the world when hole-hopping the rest of the day, and when you combine your runs with underwater contours from a GPS, you’re effectively marking out your spots before you fish them.  That makes drilling, AND fishing a much easier task, so before you ever wet a line you’re increasing the likelihood that you’ll fish longer and better. 

Truck (With/Without Wheelhouse)

Vehicles are the most limiting means of travel on ice during these conditions when you think about it, but they’re a necessity if towing a wheelhouse.  Unfortunately, they’re also the most dangerous, so good planning on previously scouted roads is a must.  This past weekend we avoided a better portion of one lake, and two accesses at another, simply because of unsafe and unproven travel.  Be especially mindful of lake neck-down areas.  So often there’s flow and thin ice in these areas, even during the coldest dead of winter.  Even a path over shallow water can be an expensive date, so consider driving on plowed roads only. 

Of course, a buddy with a plow is a huge asset in this instance.  So is a resort with a plow-driver that will work for cash.  A premium during this time of year is uncharted waters that haven’t seen any pressure, so it’s worth some dough for a custom plow-in.  Remember however, that your safety is your responsibility alone when it comes to getting out and off of the lake.  Too many people consider this plow payment an insurance policy should poor weather, additional snow, or further drifting strand you.  My advice?  Leave before it gets bad, have a “Plan B,” and check with the driver about fees to get off or out should you decide to stay if conditions suddenly change. 

Good tires go a long way on a lake, but realize the limitations of your vehicle when deep snow hangs up on the suspension and frame.  Going off-road sounds great from a fishing perspective, but big drifts, slush pockets, and hidden ice chunks can get the best of all who Baja. 

Whichever method you choose, be safe out there, focus on fish that haven’t been harassed, and get creative with your bites and access to get after the best of late winter fishing.     

The Scout House Concept

The first time I’d heard of a “scout house” was in the late 1980’s on Minnesota’s Lake Mille Lacs.  I was fishing as a boy with my dad and his buddy in a converted camper that we comfortably spent a few nights catching fish in.  Action there was slow but somewhat steady, though we had word of better fishing through a man referred to as “Sanders” that had several permanent houses across the lake.  Some of those houses were more mobile than the overnight 5th-wheel style campers like the one we were staying in, and we eagerly headed to the edge of some mud flat on the north side of the lake to sit in the scout house one evening.

What happened next was a defining moment in my young ice-angling career, as we cramped in tight quarters to catch a mixed bag of walleyes and jumbo perch, literally one after the other.  No flashers, no GPS, and really no clue to the bite other than the intuition of a Mille Lacs Lake veteran whose name may or may not be real.  Maybe the more important “no” is that there were no other people.  No other trucks, no roads plowed to our location, and no other fish-houses within miles.  These days on Mille Lacs there’s fewer secrets, and more people, but the principle of a scout house is just as valuable there and across the ice-belt.

Last year was my first owning a drop-down style fish-house, and it really opened my eyes to that style of ice angling.  I’ve fished out of many of them previously, but until you own one and starting living the realities of where you’ll be fishing, how you’ll get on, and most importantly the safety of your rig on ice, it’s difficult to predict in advance many details of your winter fishing.  After spending the season in one, I must admit, the creature comforts along with the fact that your family is more likely to fish with you, can make it hard to get out on the ice in anything else.  In fact, I know a fair number of wheelhouse owners that have gotten rid of their old portable shelters.

That’s where the road forks however and I’m reminded of the scout house scenario above.  There’s quite the lull, especially early-ice, during the many weeks where wheelhouse anglers are waiting for driveable ice, yet there’s ice enough to walk and potentially use ATV’s and snowmobiles on.  That’s where even the most fervent hard-house owner should consider a flip or pop-up style portable shelter as their scout house of choice.  Owning one without the other seems a bit limiting to me, especially given the relative cost differences between the two groups.  It’s easy to spring for a small portable shelter after you’ve spent a big chunk of change on a permanent house of any style.

My experiences with the wheelhouse were unsurprisingly that the best fishing I had came on spots that I had put some time into scouting and fishing previously.  That was true for the spots I came to later in the season, but also spots that I fished within days of one another.  That means for anyone dragging a wheelhouse around, a portable shelter of some kind is just as valuable an asset, especially if you’re fishing a few days in a row. 

So many wheelhouses are dragged up to incredible fishing destinations, plopped down on a likely looking spot, and ridden out for the remainder of the trip whether fishing is good there or not.  With hydraulic or crank-up features, snap-in hole covers, and quick cutting electric augers out there, why not setup with the hope of finding something better?  Better yet, plan and expect to move.  We all know it’s easier to transport and setup a portable than to drop and bank a hardside, so hit the lake this winter with plans to explore the space outside of your hard-sided house.

Another alternative that makes the scout house such a deadly part of the 1-2 punch, is that you can use it for more than just finding fish.  I can think of many scenarios last winter when the hardside bite was all about camping out during low light periods, but fish could be had during daytime with a bit of mobility.  That way, you don’t have to necessarily move the big wheelhouse to stay on the fish, rather, you fish early and late out of it while enjoying a day-time bite elsewhere.  That can include other lakes for panfish, or even a break from the wheelhouse on shore.  My observations have been that too many people hole up in their drop-down fish house and miss out on all the other great fishing to be had in an area.

Of course, take heed to ensure that your mobile approach is truly mobile, as the last thing you want to do with the scout house is weigh-down that side of your angling experience as well.  Pack light, bring a smattering of what you’ll need, and make sure to make mobility the primary focus here.  Limit yourself to a lightweight auger option, flasher, a few rods, and one or two jacket sized tackle boxes.  More than anything, you’re looking for the presence of fish on the flasher.  Do your best to catch a few to confirm that they’re a target species so you don’t drag the big house over for a school of small perch.  From there, take cues on what the bite is telling you. 

With so many anglers these days are considering the jump to a wheelhouse, don’t forget about how both permanent and portable systems can work together.  Use each to their own advantage, and maximize the fun and comfort along the way.