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.      

2018 - The Year to Buy Big-Ticket Items?

Photo Credit - Ben Larson - In-Depth Media Productions  Products featured:  Strikemaster Solo Lazer , and the  Otter XT Pro Resort

Photo Credit - Ben Larson - In-Depth Media Productions

Products featured: Strikemaster Solo Lazer, and the Otter XT Pro Resort

Big expenditures in hunting and fishing tend to be rare for most people.  For the most part, the outdoors has always been a rather humble sport, available to all in some form regardless of social status or financial means.  Growing up, squirrel hunting economics were driven by the best deal you could get on a brick of .22 ammo.  Trout and panfish didn’t seem as picky as they are now and crawlers were free to pick.  Even deer hunting was done with a hand-me-down Bear with poorly fletched aluminum 2117’s that flew just as crooked as they were bent.  

Today, we spend more on that which we enjoy, and I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing.  Gear and gizmos that expand the experience or otherwise make for a more enjoyable outing aren’t taboo in my mind, provided they don’t determine the pleasure you take away from doing what you love.  The trick for almost all of us is always getting the most for your buck, and doing without until the time is right. 

Given what I’m seeing in all aspects of the outdoors industry, that time may be now or at least very soon for big-ticket purchases.  I’m talking about the many-hundred or multi-thousand dollar ones.  Boats, fish-houses, trailers, and even rifles or bows.  While I’m not involved in the day-to-day operations of all categories of outdoors manufacturing, it doesn’t take somebody plugged-in to know that the world is looking to be more expensive for years to come.  Here’s just a few of the indicators and reasons why. 

Anything metal from deerstands to augers like this  Strikemaster 40V  will be more expensive by this time next season.

Anything metal from deerstands to augers like this Strikemaster 40V will be more expensive by this time next season.

Raw goods and materials costs rise over time, and tariffs are at least in the short-term, influencing prices of steel and aluminum.  That is not an indictment on anyone or a political stance; it’s a material reality that makers of anything metal are facing right now.  When their costs go up, yours will inevitably creep upwards as well, the degree to which depends on timing, inventory, and a host of other variables that are more difficult to predict.  While these source materials may drive the largest portion of future increases, there’s other factors at play as well.     

Consumer buying behavior has also changed from what we’ve come to know over the past few decades, even the past few years.  The brick and mortar retail market has contracted somewhat, and online sales have shifted business models for retailers everywhere.  Amazon and other internet power players have aided in an overall loss of retail floor space, and in-turn our local hunting and fishing re-supply efforts have changed as well.    

With consolidation comes a lack of choices, and typically increased cost of all products.  Many goods that ship well or are relatively low-cost will always be somewhat price-protected, but larger, more expensive items you’d likely want to see in person before buying will still need to live in the retail spaces we’ve always purchased from.  Even those that buy shotguns, ice augers, or fishing electronics online have likely spent some time in person with that product, whether out with a buddy or in taking the time to stop by an industry show or sport shop.

LOW-0037.jpg

Especially with larger items, service provided by retailers is still vital to the help that consumers need with those products.  These days you can buy anything anywhere, but not knowing how, when, or why to use it defeats the purpose of purchasing it in the first place.  There’s also the fact that things don’t always work as advertised and may require additional work or maintenance that keeps people happy with shops that do a good job.  That said, even though your average hunter or angler may be buying at an independent retailer or other local store for whatever level of service they provide, the product itself is not immune to price increases due to overall market consolidation.         

Lastly and perhaps most importantly is the topic of financing a large purchase.  We live in a time where borrowing money is extremely cheap, especially compared to previous decades.  Especially in boats and fish-houses, financing options will play a big role for customers everywhere.  With recent indications that the Federal Reserve Bank may increase its benchmark borrowing rate several times in the next few years, you’re likely to pay higher interest on any large item you finance moving into the future. 

All of which is not a cry to dig up the coffee can in the yard and throw your money at a large hunting or fishing purchase!  I will however, make no hesitation in saying that if you are buying in the foreseeable future, you’ll likely pay more the longer you wait.  It’s true that no one can fully predict the future here, and markets are fickle, with complex factors at play which can always reverse trends.  Not to mention, often the best time to buy something big is simple.  Do it when you’re ready. 

20171228_133609-2.jpg

Crick-Fishing 101

20170804_173944(0).jpg

I grew up next to two “cricks,” one of them being closer to a trickle, the other maybe more appropriately named a creek.  The two eventually joined, but no matter where we fished along them, the experienced was a hands-on activity.  Worms were dug, grasshoppers were caught, and most of the fishing involved wading and an eventual swim.  It’s rewarding to see my boys enjoying the same parts of the crick that I did, as they dig some bait and head down to fish for whatever bites.

Most times, the quarry is simply a good time.  Meaning they drown some angle-worms they found in the compost pile, catch whatever array of stream minnow species they can find, and eventually find the deepest hole to jump in.  It doesn’t always happen in that order, especially when the burning nettles rake across uncovered skin, or the weather is plain hot and buggy.  Then the swim usually happens first, and fishing upstream happens next on account of all the muddy water running downstream.

Other times yet we’re after trout and the whole game is more serious.  We’re looking to make the perfect cast on a 45-degree angle upstream, as current washes our spinners along a grass undercut or current seam.  Most of our success comes incidentally while fishing for chubs and such, but there’s times where we catch a few trout actually trying to.  I’ve yet to show my oldest son Isaac how to raise the biggest browns during the day, covering ground and marking holes, only to come back during low light to catch them.  Mostly that’s because with trout especially, I think you have to walk before you run, as the slightest mis-step, bad cast, or wrong movement can end your chances for that specific hole.  Especially if the water is running clear.

Of course much of the fun are the adventures, stories, and days happenings that I hear from my kids when they head down to the crick themselves.  A few days ago, I had to visit a specific spot on the streambank to verify that there wasn’t a black bear in the area.  Instead, it was a few deer that stood near each other to drink in perfect alignment.  As their hooves splayed symmetrically side by side, the mud looked as if marked by claws. 

Dating back to my own youth, we’ve had run-ins with skunks, mad geese, even some upset beavers.  Perhaps the scariest was during the snapping turtle mating season, or so I was told, when we waded a small section to fish a deep hole below us.  Upon climbing up the bank to leave, we turned back to see two garbage-can-lid sized snappers, locked together shell to shell in a prehistoric embrace.  They were rolling in the river exactly where we were standing, probably too preoccupied to care what we were up to.  It was spooky nonetheless, especially to my kids. 

Probably what I enjoy about the crick more than anything is the simplicity of the fishing and self-reliance it requires.  Bad casts are typically rewarded with a free cool-down as the offender wades to retrieve the lure.  Deep snags or anything unsafely dislodged means you’re intentionally breaking the line and learning how to tie knots.  A cast in the weeds means everyone ducks and is glad they were wearing eye protection.  All these lessons from a simple cast. 

While not as challenging to catch as the trout, I’ve seen chubs, river shiners, and simple suckers reduce grown men to near tears as they fumble with micro jigs as mosquitos, tall weeds, and steep banks mess with them.  These minnows don’t live just anywhere along the streambank, they’re focused on outside turns, current seams, woody cover, and undercut banks like the trout are.  Reading water for me started as a kid both fishing and wading through areas that held these minnow species.

In those days, the small crick wasn’t a trout stream, so we were legal to seine minnows, something my own kids love to do as well.  They actually prefer the crayfish, taking turns to see who gets pinched first, daring one another to put one on their nose and the like.  It’s funny that later in life as a college student, many of my fisheries courses went back to wading in similar rivers trying to find those same species of minnows.  We were stream naturalists without even knowing it, learning as we went, at times even finding freshwater lampreys.  Of course, we had no idea what they were at the time, but spent some hours looking through old encyclopedias until we came across a similar looking sea lamprey. 

These days, the answers to so many of those questions we once had on what bug is this, or what minnow is that comes at the tips of our fingers.  Still, the process of uncovering something brand new to us at the time, then following the path of research to understanding is just as fun now as it was then.      Exploring the natural world around us is a great excuse to get out and do some crick fishing, if for nothing else but to get out and enjoy the outdoors.  Just make sure to wear long pants until it’s time to swim. 

Enjoy the Chase

20180614_133944.jpg

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.