Monday, September 29, 2008

Fishing With the Boss

The boss. It sort of makes one think of Bruce Springsteen when you first read it! Sorry, in this case I am referring to my weekend boss, Bill Lundeen of Lundeens Tackle Castle on Mille Lacs Lake. I help Bill out a number of times a year guiding his clients on weekends or evenings when he might have a larger corporate outing needing a extra boat. I meet Bill over 10 years ago when I moved to my current house. Previously my trips to Mille Lacs would bring me up to the east side of the lake, however when we moved closer to 169 I started going up on the west side. Being the person that supports the "little guy" I began to stop at his shop to buy my bait. I was impressed how Bill, his wife Kathy, and their daughter Amanda worked the shop with uncanny precision. Running a bait shop is a complicated business. Having the right amount of bait at the right time, counting on your water treatment system to keep it all alive, and tending to the leeches that toward the middle of September want to start dying at a rate quicker than sub prime mortgage default is a definite challenge. Bill has figured it out. He may very well be the only shop on the lake that has nice leeches coming into October. Bill's year starts out in January, at the peak of the ice fishing season lasting about 6 weeks. March brings Maple Syrup time with April about the only time they can take a vacation. May is fishing opener and through September is guide time. Fall brings the full moon crowd and deer hunting. The remaining time is spent getting ready for the lake to freeze over. Sort of like farming, the business falls on the whims of the weather and how well the fish are biting. This year has certainly been a challenge in that department. It is also a political job! Imagine 100 people coming to your shop and wanting to know where the fish are biting. If you told everyone to go to 7 mile flat, it would be pretty funny and crowded. One has to have the ability to help your customers yet be able to contribute to a pleasant experience. We have become very good friends as we share the same values, sense of humor, and the love of fishing. I remember asking Bill one time if he liked tea. "I love it" pointing to a couple of boxes of Lipton on the self. I laughed and gave him some real green tea from one of my China trips. Now half my cargo returning from China is various tea varieties for him. It's something I love to do as well.

This Sunday Bill got away and we went fishing together. This was going to be a special trip as we were going to fish out of his boat, a 25 foot Proline with a 250 hp Merc. Although not as versatile as my Ranger for on the spot fishing, it is considerably more comfortable. The boat is a walk around type and is perfect for the 4 man guide trips, whereas more than 3 in the Ranger poses problems. We started fishing a shallow bay for perch drifting the area and picking up a couple in the 8 - 9" range. I decided to cast a small plastic jig and just as I was about to lift it out of the water this nice northern came out of nowhere and slashed at the jig. I had my ultralight and the battle was on. Unknown to me the fish was actually hooked right behind the head. After 10 minutes we finally landed this beautiful fish. We snapped the picture and I let it go, hoping it would help put a dent in the bait fish problem. Bill got a nice 12 inch perch before the bite stopped. We headed to an east side reef and casted a bit before we went to a offshore reef for some bobber/leech fishing. 5 minutes later I caught the first keeper walleye in over 10 weeks and it felt pretty good. Wanting to try for some crappies after sunset we headed to the proverbial secret spot, and they were biting. Within an hour we had 9 beautiful 11 - 12" crappies, the first I had ever caught on purpose at Mille Lacs. Having caught a respectable mess of fish we headed to the dock and called it a night. A couple of bowls of Kathy's homemade chicken wild rice (real wild rice BTW) and I headed south. I am truly blessed to have friends like the Lundeens. Stop in next time you head to the lake.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

An Evening With the Redtails

Growing up in the dairy country of Wisconsin, when someone said redtail it generally meant a type of common hawk found in the area. After moving to Minnesota the term became synonymous with Northwest Airlines who's planes were know as "Redtails" because of the red paint scheme on the tails of those planes. Today redtails mean only one thing, smallies! Saturday my good friend and neighbor Tom decided we should hit the Mississippi River north of Monticello. He as a nice 16 foot Lund Pro Angler with the old style 50 hp Mercury 4 cylinder 2 stroke and would be much more practical than my Ranger. Back in 1987 I bought a boat just like his. At the time is was state of the art in aluminum. The 5o hp Merc was a smooth running machine and it would idle for hours without as much as a hickup. It was also a gas hog, but in those days it didn't really matter. That boat really caught the fish, from the 8.5 pound walleye I have in my office to downrigger salmon fishing on Lake Michigan. Using Tom's boat brings back many good memories.

We headed to the bait shop in Anoka to see if they had any of the fabled Redtailed Chubs and as luck would have it they had a few left. At $9.95/dozen ( a bargain these days) we bought 18. The baitshop owner was kind enough to sort the largest ones for us ranging from 4 to 6 inches and gave us exactly 18. We headed northwest to a landing about 40 miles upriver which after arriving found the water level very low and extremely clear. One could see 4 feet down and sitting on the bow as we headed down river was amazed at all the fish I could see scattering in front of us. We managed to get the boat hung up only once on the way down, which of course did not bode well for our return trip. Once through the shallows we found our first run, a stretch of water near shore that rund 4 - 6 feet deep and extends for at least a quarter of a mile. Not wanting to use up all of our bait right away I started casting a tube. I immediately lost 3 fish. I was fishing with a ML spinning rod with 8# test and I soon felt I did not have enough umpf. Because I was in with Tom's boat, I did not have the luxury of rigging 4 or 5 poles for various presentation. I decided to rig my power rod with a short plain hook and bell sinker combo after Tom landed 2 with his bobber rig. One technique is to suspend a redtail about 3 feet under a bobber and let him do all the work. It was amazing to see the fish actually hit the bait as the water was that clear. Determined to make our bait last we tried a number of artificials and did catch a few fish but the clear ticket was the redtails. We ended the night at 7:00 PM knowing we had to get across the one large shallow area. The fish tally was well over 20 smallies for the 3 hours we spent fishing. The largest were around 18 inches and I would not even want to guess how many grabbed the big minnows but spit them out after a short but intense battle. It was a beautiful day on the river despite Tom having to get out and pull the boat and me through about 200 yards of shallow water. The cooperative fish, eagles soaring above us, and great company made for a wonderful evening on the river. Fall fishing with redtails can mean only one thing, ice fishing is not far behind!

Thanks again Tom.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Wet in Wisconsin

Jason called me this morning with a sense of concern. We were to meet his father in Amery Wisconsin and spend the afternoon fishing Wapagasset Lake. According to him there was a 60% chance of rain and wanted to know if I was still interested. My weather guy claimed the big area of rain to the west was going to drift south and we would be lucky to get a sprinkle or two. Seeings I never trust any of them, it was a 50/50 chance we would have great weather so we stayed on course with our original plan. I loaded the boat, picked up Jason and his wife Abby and headed for Amery. Now this trip was actually 2 years in the planning as Andy (Jason's dad and my wife's uncle) had been trying to get me to fish one of his favorite lakes. Andy lives in Eau Claire and it was a perfect meeting point for all of us. I subordinated myself to Andy letting him be the lead guy on this trip. After getting some night crawlers, I suggested that we launch at the marina on the SE side of the lake. After 20 minutes of driving it became obvious that I did not know where the Marina was. I decided to follow Andy as he had been here before and we would go to his landing. He seemed to know where to go, so all was good. Some 20 minutes later we still driving around and not in the water. We had wasted about the same amount of time as it did for me to drive to Amery. Now 10 years ago this aimless lack of planning would have drove me crazy. I generally had little patience and often let my feelings be known. Today I just look at it as a minor inconvenience as there are many things a lot worse than being lost for 40 minutes(Bill, pay attention!). Having finally found the landing we proceeded to load the boat. I backed the trailer into the water as always and shoved the boat off yet this time it just swung to one side.
Figuring the landing was super shallow I backed up to the point where the exhaust was gurgling under the water with no avail. Apparently someone forgot to take off the left boat tie down.................. namely me. I have had these situations before however with a lady present, I decided against stripping down and wading in. The boat would not go back on the trailer straight so we carefully pulled it up and with enough slack unhooked it, another 15 minutes! Finally getting to our first fishing spot, 3 casts and I nailed the biggest bluegill I have caught in 20 years, pushing 10 inches. Boy I thought we were in for a super day. How many times have you been in that situation? More than I would like to admit. We ended up with a northern, 3 more small sunnies, a number of small bass, a totally unexpected white bass, and a crappie. The big sunnies never materialized however the rain certainly did. It started about 3:00 and was still raining when we left. Although wet, the rain did not dampen the wonderful time with Jason, Abby and the most important, Andy.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

The Dead Sea Lives!

It's 2 days before the full moon and it should be prime time for the big mama's on Mille Lacs. In years past one could count on a 10 to 12 fish night with a number of them being over 25 inches. The pattern is pretty elementary, find a reef next to deep water, troll or cast the 3 - 5 foot tops and hang on. The witching hour begins about 1/2 hour before sunset and usually last for about 2 to 3 hours. Having missed the full moon period in August (pre-occupied with salmon and bears) I was really looking forward to this weekend. My strategy was to leave work early on Friday, hit my milk run, and if successful possibly head up again on Saturday. My neighbor Tom shares my enthusiasm about the fall bite with the possibility of a bonus Muskie showing up on his line. It was a perfect night. A soft southeast wind allowed a comfortable ride yet strong enough to allow us to drift the reefs with minimal adjustments from the trolling motors. The water was surprisingly murky which tends to bode well for the shallow bite. Everything was perfect however someone forgot to tell the fish! There is no picture associated with this post as there was no opportunity to take one of our catch. Sure, the sunset was beautiful but if you must see one again, just look at one of my previous posts as they are pretty much all the same. I pulled shads, rouges, and a number of other lures however all we could muster up was a foul hooked perch about 4 inches long.

So what's wrong? Well the total post summer crank bait bite has been way off. I am always optimistic and just figured no one is using "my pattern" yet and I would be the first to be successful. So much for that theory! I have my own hypothesis dealing with the huge amount of bait fish in the lake (young of the year perch(YOY)) and the water level. The YOY perch are all over the place and the fish are simply not interested in chasing baits when dinner is so plentiful. I also believe that the water levels hurt the "typical" shallow fall bite as the lake is down over a foot from its historical average changing the entire environment of these reefs. Oh well. I am off to fish a lake near Amery Wisconsin on Sunday with my friend Jason and his dad Andy. Hopefully the events of a few hours ago will not be repeated on Sunday.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

An Incredible Journey

Salmon fishing in Alaska is an education in one of nature's most amazing events. Each species of salmon utilizes the various rivers and streams in completely different ways. The 5 different types of salmon one meets in Alaska are the Chinook (King), Coho (Silver), Pink (Humpback), Sockeye (Red) and Chum (Dog). The Kenai river has all five however the Chum are quite rare. Each species utilizes different calendar times and sections of the river that are quite unique. When the salmon enter the river to spawn, it is referred to a run. Reds, Kings, and Silvers have 2 distinct runs with the early run fish utilizing the upper stretches of the rivers and tributaries and the later runs utilize the lower part of the rivers. Kings come in with the first run in early June. By the end of June the run is done however the second an larger run is right behind starting about the end of the first week in July. Red's first run occurs right around the middle of June with their second run starting the 3rd week of July. Silvers start showing up around the first week in August peaking around the 15th with the second run starting the first of September. The Pinks only make one huge run and this occurs only on the even years, like this year 2008. And what a run it is! It is estimated that 3 - 4 million salmon enter the Kenai every year in a 6 week period from mid July to the end of August. The run timing is important for planning your trip as the first time we went we arrived the last week in June and about the only thing going in our area was the Red's on the Russian River and this sure wasn't the Alaskan experience. You can go to the Alaskan Fish and Game site and get quite a bit of information including run timing charts like this:
There is basically 2 types of salmon fishing, open ocean fishing and freshwater fishing. The picture to the left are of the 12 salmon were caught in the ocean. They include silvers (bigger fish) and pinks (smaller ones) which were caught in a bay which a glacier feed river emptied into. Notice the fish are very bright and silver colored. This is referred to as chromed. All salmon basically look the same in the ocean, and except for size may be difficult to identify. When salmon enter fresh water however, they begin to change almost immediately. The below picture is a Pink that Greg caught and it is one of the best examples of this change. This fish enter the river looking like the fish on the far right of the 12 and within a number of days they completely change to this prehistoric looking thing.
The picture on the right are Red's in Quartz Creek, which one crosses on the way to Soldotna. Again the fish enter the river chrome and quickly change to a deep crimson color with an olive colored head. Usually once the fish have turned to their full spawning colors, the meat is no longer desirable as table fare. When these fish have finished spawning they die and become part of the ecosystem of the river nurishing the next hatching of all the salmon.
Salmon enter the rivers on the high tide so understanding this relationship is important. On our flyover trip with the bears at Polly Creek, low tide occurred about 11:00 in the morning. The next high tide that day was scheduled at 5:20 and be 25 feet higher than at low tide. At low tide the river ran crystal clear, which made it easy to see the resident Dolly Vardon trout that come into the rivers to feed on salmon eggs and spawn themselves. There were few salmon in this section of the river although we did catch a few pinks and had a nice Chum on the line. At our location the tide would eventually raise the river about 4 feet higher than it was at 11:00. As the tide came in the river current slowed considerably. The water was still clear as the fresh water was essentially dammed up by the incoming salt water. While I was standing on the bank watching the water come up a school of about 15 silvers swam by as if on cue. A quick cast of my spinner and the race was on to see which salmon was going to get at it first. I landed that fish only to have my cousins hollar "bear!" We had seen the bears earlier and decided to move downstream to group together. With fish in hand I was wading toward the guys when one shouts "Dave, it's coming towards you" I was at the edge of the river and could not see very far beyond the bank. Being somewhat nervous and with a fish in my grip I figured it was probably not a good idea to play waiter to a brown bear located somewhere above me. Bear's have a great sense of smell and I decided to let the fish go rather than draw attention to myself. It probably was a dumb move but I guess you would have had to been there! We went on to end the day with 6 beautiful chrome silvers along with having caught and released about 50 Dolly's. The magic time for the salmon occurred for about 1 hour before the high tide muddied the water considerably. The plane was somewhat late however the pilot was concerned about having enough beach to land on as the high tide was reversing. We loaded up having experienced the effect of the high tides first hand.