Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Rain, Rain, Go Away.........

Original plans to get out Friday and put a few miles on my snowmobile were squelched by 2 weeks of a prolonged January thaw making the trails less than desireable.  In fact it began raining on Friday night and didn't stop until Sunday afternoon.  Our snowcover took a hit however the good news is that the lakes shed most if not all their snow.  As much as I wanted to make it out fishing on Saturday, the rain was too much to deal with.  As intense as a June soaker, I did not want to deal with the mess.  Sunday  held a better promise of fishing without getting soaked.  My neighbor Tom is always ready to go so we hooked up and headed west to try the crappie lake one more time.  Heading out after lunch we stopped at the hardware store in St. Micheal and loaded up on a scoop of minnows and a couple boxes of waxies.  Tom was cautious as he was unsure of the ice conditions after 2 weeks of 30 degree temperatures.  Assuring it would be fine, I offered to drive.  Figuring about 20 inches of ice, it would be certainly be sloppy and needing a new truck, if I did go through it would be the perfect excuse. 

I started with a picture of my Suburban parked on the ice.  I have many good friends in California, Texas, Florida who think I am crazy for driving on the ice.  Sunday morning found me setting up a new Direct TV receiver, talking to a service center in Oklahoma.   While waiting for the system to run through it's paces I struck up a conversation with the technician regarding his location and what does he do.  He asked how cold it gets, responding that we can drive on the lakes.  The guy thought I was pulling his leg!  On Lake Mille Lacs along with other large bodies of water in Minnesota the resorts rely heavily on the winter ice fishing business by creating a sophisticated road systems often totally over 30 miles.  These roads provide access for ice houses pulled out onto the lake as well as revenue from guys like me who buy day passes for around $10 per car to use their systems to drive to our favorite locations.  Mille Lacs has no less than 20 resorts and business's creating roads and maintaining them.  I bet if you totalled them all there would literally be hundreds of miles of ice roads ranging from the main corridors over 100 feet wide to smaller side roads running to the various structures and favorite fishing spots.  GPS's have been a game changer as now everyone  has their favorite spot and can dictate the resort provide access to them.  Years ago when Liberty Beach would plow a road to the flats, it would be close and you took what was available.  Today they can strategically plow roads on the perimeter of the flats, offering a better idea of the layout and where to fish.  Back then we would simply looked for the dropoff where it would go from 25 feet to 35 feet in a very steep drop.  It could be anywhere on the flat, we just drilled on the top and bottom regardless.  I am not sure fishing is any better knowing exactly where we are at these days.

Back to Sunday our strategy was to fish until around 6:00.  We figured the Viking game would be close contest so getting home before half time would give us a chance to see Brett Favre hose it up for the Purple and Gold (BTW, this was my prediction before the game).  It was still fairly warm so we decided to drill a few holes and see if there were any active fish before setting up the house.  About 5 minutes into fishing I caught a nice crappie.  My next hole about 10 feet away yielded a nice sunfish.  2 nice fish in the span of 15 minutes, it was time to set up.  The ice was covered with a watery slush and the wind had switch to one of those damp, cold bone chilling winds from the west, it felt good to get inside.   Mentioning the wind switch allows me to have an excuse for the next couple hours of fishing.  We did catch a ton of 3 to 6 inch sunnies, another good sunny and closing in on dark, Tom caught a twin to my first crappie.  Thinking that would be a start to the crappie bite, nothing could have been further from the truth.  The picture is my attempt to imitate the great fish pictures that are featured on  MT Bucket's blog.  Stating he uses a standard point and shot camera, I tried his technique and it turned out almost as good as his.  You know what they say, imitation is the best compliment!  My apologies to MT.

Packing up and home by 6:30, I headed for my neighbors to finish watching the Viking game.  Dressed in my usual game attire of Green Bay gear, the insults started immediately upon walking through the door.  Although my neighbors like me, on game day all bets are off, especially when you are the only Cheesehead in sight.  After I reminded them how their success seems dependent on ex-Packer players, we settled down to watch Brent do what he does best, throw the game losing interception as his last play of the season.  Mourning their loss, I reminded my friends that we went through the same thing in 2007, 13-3 and the last play of the game, an interception to the Giants to end the run.  I truly understood their pain.  Frankly nobody sympathized with me as I grinned through the whole discussion.   Luckily the fact the Vikes beat the Packers twice this year was not even mentioned.......thank God! Check out Neenahpete for an interesting clip on our current hero. Hopefully next week I can get up to Mille Lacs and look for some big perch as the bite should be starting to pick up somewhat.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Lack Luster Weekend

This weekend was pretty calm despite being about as perfect a weekend to be ice fishing as I have seen. Unfortunately I was relegated to taking it easy recovering from an angiogram on Friday. This is an interesting procedure where they insert a catheter into your femoral artery and go take a look at your arteries from the inside. Usually this is done if you might have coronary blockages however in my case it was to look at my aortic aneurysm. The males in my family have been known to suffer from this genetic anomaly and when told that we all should have this checked out, like most of us, I ignored the advice. A few years ago while fighting pneumonia, a sharp doctor noticed the problem on a CT scan. Although no laughing matter, it's a heck of a lot better discovering it now rather than on the autopsy table! The results were as expected with my coronary arteries being as clean a whistle, it's probably time to fix the aneurysm. A normal aorta is about 1 inch in diameter and mine is almost 2 inches. Doctors orders were to lay still till Saturday evening as well limit lifting to a max of 10 pounds for a few days. Well that means my ice auger, loading my house, and with a little luck holding a fish fitting that description. There are still a lot more opportunities to get out and hopefully the weather holds off this weekend. The above picture is one I took Tuesday morning behind the house. A heavy fog overnight and temperatures below freezing created this stunning hoar frost on the trees. One of the delights of winter, it was a great reminder how beautiful life is. 

The St. Paul Sportsman Show was last week. It is the first major show of the year and although not as large as the Northwest Sportshow at the Minneapolis Convention Center, it's a good chance to get in the mood. Frankies, my dealer, is the largest Ranger dealer in the world and he had 18 boats on display. It was good to see Frankie and his wonderful wife Deb as they always treat me as their number 1 customer. I spent some time with Keith Holtan of Beaver Creek Cabins and Guide Service, Kenai, AK. Keith was our fishing guide out of Jeff King's in August of 2002 that I wrote about last August 18, 2009. It was great to share war stories as well reconnect with him and hopefully we can get together again before he heads north. One of the things I love to do at these shows is check out all the new products and did I find a gem. Pictured is one of those "Why didn't I think of that" gadgets called the EZ lube. Based on a garden sprayer, it has a bottom hose attached to heavy duty valve with a rubber cone end. It's purpose is to make refilling your outboards lower unit a snap. Simply drain the gear lube out, fill the EZ Lube with good quality gear lube, screw in the pump assemble and pump it up. Hold the rubber end into the bottom fill plug and squeeze the valve. No messy pumps, no squeezing tubes like toothpaste, no almost having all the gear out of the tube yet it's still not full......I just had to have one. As a bonus, Steve Carney, one of my favorite Outdoor News writers and local guide was working the booth. It was great talking with him and hopefully I will win the free trip with him they were giving away. Anxious to test, I will definitely post it's usefulness some time in the future.

On the left side of my layout is a list of Blogs I follow as they are my favorites. I have mentioned Jeff King's Mile 14 in the past and his recent posts have been nothing short of fabulous. Jeff and his wife MP spend a number of weeks in Mexico each winter fishing, relaxing, and escaping from the cold and darkness of Alaska. Jeff fishes every morning and his fishing reports give the feeling of being right there next to him, casting for rooster fish, corvina, and toro. Jeff and his friends work the shorelines along the beach like I work the reefs on Mille Lacs. It's a welcome break from staring out the window looking at the snow! Check out mile14 and experience the thrill of surf fishing in Mexico. Here is a picture from one of Jeff's posts featuring the first rooster fish he caught this year. Although not the largest he has bagged, they certainly are an interesting looking fish. This picture also features the rare evidence of needing a jacket in Mexico.

This week is the Minneapolis Boat Show. My brother Steve has threatened to by a new boat for the last 10 years now and I have reminded him he'd better do it soon before he needs a lift to get in it. The boating industry has seen better times and I have been encouraging Steve to do his part to help the economy. I am sure he appreciates my advice! With my weight lifting restrictions off my goal is to get back out fishing soon.  I know the fish are missing me for sure.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Wheel House Get Away

Last Saturday my friend Mark Applen had called to see if I was heading up to Mille Lacs. Along with the call was an invitation (actually it's a standing one) to fish with him if I wanted to. He had been in his wheel house since Friday, parked near the Highway Bar, about 4 miles from shore. Not sure what I was going to do, it dawned on me that he had Direct TV and was watching the playoffs and fishing at the same time. A quick call back and it was confirmed, I'd be there by 9:00, too late for the dusk bite but maybe a few walleyes would stick around till I got there. Stopping at Lundeens to pick up some shiners, a bonus hunk of smoked ribs came as a nice surprise. Mark is based out of Fisherman's Wharf, located on the south shore of Big Point and has a nice set up for wheel houses. Paying my $10 road pass, I finally arrived ready to do some serious fishing. Wheel houses are hard sided fish houses that are built on a trailer frame. They have the feature of being able to disconnect the axle allowing the house to be lower to the ice. They have many of the same conveniences of a permanent house with the portability factor. You can spend anywhere from $6000 to over $30,000 on this type of shelter. Mark's is a 6 holer with 2 bunks, a table, chairs, satellite TV, furnace, and a extremely quiet 2000W Honda Generator for all the comforts of home. I think after a 24 hours of being there alone, he welcomed the company.

Within 10 minutes of getting myself set up a nice 15 inch walleye slammed my lure. Too excited to take a picture, I immediately dropped the lure back down the hole, 29 feet of water to see if it's twin was there. Within another 5 minutes Mark caught this nice eater walleye. We were in business. Well, business started strong but died faster than Tiger Woods career! That was it. We fished till 1:00 in the morning before setting the rattle reels for the night. We hit the sack with Mark graciously giving me the bottom bunk. There is something about sleeping in an ice house overnight that is magical. Mark claims we had a few rattles go off but you couldn't tell it by me, I was out like a light.

I woke up to this beautiful sunrise on Mille Lacs. If you look hard you can see the moon in the upper right hand corner, it was a nice addition to the scene. Notice the road that is plowed. The resorts plow a loop off a main road so one can pull their wheel house around and have a reasonable way to pull it out when you want to move it. Breakfast consisted of pancakes and eggs as we continued to jig for the now elusive walleye. Putting the camera down, we saw fish but they were extremely skittish, nosing the bait then darting away. This pattern continued until we left at around 5:00. Counting the 2 we caught and 1 Mark had nailed before, we were stopped by the DNR for a creel survey. The survey guy commented how well we did as it was not only the biggest catch of the day, it was the only one of all the cars coming in. Little solace, we accepted our success and headed home.

Mark Applen is an incredible man. Losing his 17 year old son to cancer 7 years ago, Mark and his wife Jan turned this tragedy into an unbelievable work of charity helping children and their families cope with this horrible disease. Through the Eric Nicolin Applen Fund, Mark and Jan raise money through an annual golf tournament held each June. Since it's inception, the ENA Fund has raised over $150,000 by ordinary people who believe that Eric lives through helping others. I invite you to check out their website and truly look at it to see all of the good that has been done. http://www.eric-nicolin-applen-fund.com/enafund.html I quote Eric's motto, "Courage doesn't always roar. Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying I will try again tomorrow.", MaryAnne Radmacher. Myself and a number of people volunteer our time and I would say that it is the most rewarding thing I have done in my life.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Ice Fishing Equipment Today

Now that we are in the heart of ice fishing season I thought it would be nice to share my equipment and get a better understanding of how we ice fish today. When I grew up, ice fishing was a simple cup type auger that drilled a 6 inch hole. By the time I turned 20 the Mora Swedish Auger came on the market and really changed the game of drilling holes in the ice, if you keep the blades sharp. Poles consisted of a simple stick with a nail in the end to secure in the ice. There were no reels and the line was simply wrapped between 2 posts on the handle. There were no portable shelters or electronics and most serious fisherman had a simple hard sided permanent shelter with a wood stove. Today's ice fisherman have a wide variety of equipment that rivals their soft water counterparts.

Without a doubt the most valuable piece of equipment today for ice fishing is the portable depth finder. My first depth finder was a Heath Kit model. Heath Kit was a company that basically sold unassembled electronic equipment at a substantial discount over comparable finished brand named product. This included a variety of unassembled products including televisions, radios, and a host of electronic test equipment. The difference is that you had to solder together the circuit boards, assemble the product into the chassis and do all the electrical calibration. The finished depth finder was almost identical to the Classic Lorwance Green Box. Although it worked good, the 0 - 60 foot range was too deep for the waters we normally fish. Reading an early InFisherman magazine, they talked about using these summer depth finders for winter fishing. Quickly converting it for winter use, I was in business. My next depth finder was another flasher, the Hummingbird Super 30. Again a box type it worked great as a winter fish finder and worked excellent until I saw the Micronar FL-8, 3 colored LED flasher (now Vexilar). This was the ticket and could be used on my boat in the summer. Building a special mounting box with a motorcycle battery and my own transducer mount, it still is being used by my friend Jack Taylor. Upgrading I got the new FL-8, then a FL-18 and now a FL-20 pictured. It has all the bells and whistles and are truly my eyes on what is going on beneath my hole. I am spoiled for sure.

The next most important piece of equipment is the power auger. Today I run a Strikemaster Lazer 9 inch. As mentioned before I started with the Mora Swedish 7 inch hand auger and still use it for early ice. Once the ice gets past 6 inches it's time to produce some CO2! My first auger was a used Jiffy I found in the newspaper. At $100, it served me very well for many years but was starting to get weak. Bill Lundeen carried the new 3 bladed Laser 9 inch and I just had to have one. It was nothing but trouble. The red handle broke twice and the 3 bladed auger was worthless as Strikemaster had replaced it once already. Taking it back to Strikemaster once they seen me standing with it the first thing the guy said was "having trouble cutting?" They knew and put a new 2 bladed 9" auger and it's been perfect ever since. The auger is 42 inches long and at our Lake of the Woods trip in April we need another 12 inch extension to get through the ice. It certainly makes hole drilling easy, especially if your drilling many holes. I find that the 9 inch hole is a perfect size, especially with a transducer floating in it.

High up on the list is the ice shelter. My first portable was a small one man dome tent you set up on the ice. It was quite small and could be heated with a small single burner Coleman portable camp stove. I often would feel sorry for the guys fishing with me as i was always snug and warm while the others were forced to stay outside. My best day ever ice fishing on Mille Lacs was in that dome as we were right by Doe Island and the fish went bonkers. I must have caught 18 walleyes in 45 minutes. That's a challenge with an open flame stove inside the tent with you. My others included a Frabil, 2 Insta-tents, 4 Otters, and finally this Clam Thermal X fully insulated portable. Abet heavy, it is roomy and extremely warm inside. This will be my third year and it is the best shelter I have yet to own. Once you get a good seal around the outside flaps, you can comfortably fish in short sleeves even if it is -10 below outside. The inside was designed with the fisherman in mind with heavy duty poles, sown in pockets for storage, and I found some real neat Frabil velcro hooks that make organizing a breeze.

Too keep the house warm I use a Mr. Heater Big Buddy propane heater. This baby puts out a whooping 18,000 BTU's. A lot of my friends have the standard size Mr. Heater 9000 BTU however I'd rather have the big output and be able to turn it down as opposed to just being able to stay warm. Prior to this I was a big fan of what we call a Sunflower Heater. Screwed directly to the propane cylinder, they do a great job of heating but are a definite burn hazard. Having burned a number of good bibs and shirts as well as my friend Jason's Otter Ice house I sold it to him a few weeks earlier, the Big Buddy is expotentially safer. It has a number of safety shutoff features including a tip sensor as well as a low oxygen sensor, which in the confined space is a real plus. The other advantage is being able to leave my propane tank outside, using a hose to connect the two. I love the extra room. The only issue has been the water puddle from the heat melting the ice in front of the heater. This was solved using a custom made piece of treated plywood cut to fit the corner and keep the ice in it's frozen state.

Next are the lures. Here is 2 of my very favorites. The Jigging Rapala and Lindy's Rattlin Flyer. The Jigging Rapala has a clear plastic tail piece that is glued to the lead body. This causes the lure to move forward as the lure is jigged. It can move horizontally up to 18 inches when you quickly pull the line up. This action mimics a minnow darting around, giving that injured look. On the bottom center treble hook I always put a minnow head for an attractant. Many times the fish will just hit the minnow head however if in an aggressive mode will literally inhale the entire bait. As you see with hooks on either end it does an excellent job of hooking those fish that attack it. The other go to bait is the relatively new Rattlin' Flyer by Lindy. The center is actually a hollow chamber with a couple of hard BB's inside that rattle when jigging. The wings on either side help to give it a random action, moving to the side. It has a red treble hook on the end, a color that has become extremely popular, and one that I personally think is worthless as red is the first color to disappear 5 feet under water! Again my favorite presentation is with a minnow head firmly attached to the hook. That rattle can really call them in.

Last but not least is my latest investment. Although Ice Armor specialized Ice fishing suits have
been around for a few years now, I have resisted the "Geek" factor and ignored the benefits. My trusty old Carhartt's have served me well yet not being water proof I guess I just got sick of
getting wet knees from kneeling on the ice. My brother Steve gave me a generous gift of a Cabela's Certificate for a job I had done a while back. Although not expected, one never looks a gift horse in the mouth. Deciding to treat myself to a Christmas present, I drove over and picked up this suit. It is really very nice for the person that tends to fish outside a lot, which I like to do. In fact it even says on the label, "Like wearing your own portable shelter". Well I don't know about that but with a ton of pockets and water proof fabrics I should not have been so stubborn when they first came out. Ice Armor has an extreme model however I believe that it would probably be too hot sitting in my shelter.

Well there are other things like specialize ice rods with spring bobbers, reels filled with braided line for positive hooksets, clamp on rattle reels for positive alerts to a set line bite, underwater camera's, and a menagerie of tried and true baits for all occasions. Either way having the right equipment can make your time on the ice much more comfortable. If you have any questions please drop me a comment below and I will try to help. As far as fishing this week, I just got home from a night on Mille Lacs with my friend Mark Applen. Having Direct TV in his ice house was a great incentive to spend Saturday night and Sunday afternoon jigging and watching the playoffs. We caught a total of 3 walleyes, which by the comments of the DNR creel survey guy who interviewed us as we drove off the lake, was the best catch of the day! I will do a short update on our fishing trip later in the week.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Second Time Around

Sometimes tempting fate the second time guarantees little or nothing. On the other hand it is often said it's sweeter the second time around. New Years Eve Day was a decision point, work till 5:00 when 90% of your customers are off or return to see if the mad bite of 2 weeks earlier was still going on. My neighbor Tom mentioned earlier in the week that if I had an empty seat, he'd like to be in it. A simple phone call and we were set, Mille Lacs here we come! The Christmas snowstorm dumped 12 inches on the lake and getting to my spot was going to take more than my ATV. My friend Bill has a nice older two up sled with a hitch and in a pinch it makes great transportation to those far away spots. Arriving at Lundeens my first job was to get the sled started. Being idle for about 9 months only guaranteed it was there. These Polaris 3 cylinder engines can be interesting to get started and this one was no different. After draining the battery the next step was to pull the plugs and dump gas into the cylinders. After reinstalling the plugs, a quick pull of the recoil and she fired right up. Getting our bait, we hooked up my portable and began the 7 mile journey.

I was surprised how much the snow had settled and how hard it had become. Expecting a sea of deep powdered snow, I think if you could trust the ice thickness below, you could drive anywhere with a 4 x 4 truck. Of course this unknown keeps most anglers away form offshore structures. It was definitely cold and I was happy to arrive at our destination no worse for the wear. Having decided to both fish out of one house, we drilled 3 holes and set up. I drilled an additional 10 holes outside the house to provide an outlet when the fishing slowed. The fish started biting immediately. Although not fast and furious the bite was steady. What was different than 2 weeks ago was the absence of the hordes of 8 - 10 inch fish and replaced with ones 13 - 17 inches. We never caught a fish over 17 inches. Tom and I ended up with 7 walleyes however a couple where nice enough to keep yet we got greedy thinking we could get a larger one. Because I had the Vexilar and Tom didn't, the advantage went to me for fish caught. After catching my limit I gave Tom my depth finder and it made the difference. He ended up with the largest fish of the day, and it was the classic fish that you see on the Vexilar that shoots up from the bottom to slam the lure. It certainly confirms the need to have those eyes keeping track of your lure and the fish below.

Fishing walleyes under the ice requires figuring out where they are and then determining if they are aggressive, neutral, or negative mood. In Mille Lacs there are many different areas that walleyes hang out. As in the summer, during the winter walleyes can be found throughout the various structures whether it is deep gravel, the mud flats, or reef areas. It can be a guessing game as to where you think they will be. Personally I enjoy off shore areas that are 4 to 10 feet shallower than the surrounding deeper water. The edge of flats can be particularly interesting as you can fish 25 feet of water and 10 yards away it will be 35 feet. Once set up I like to determine the mood of the fish. My first go to bait is the jigging Rapala with a minnow head attached to the bottom hook. This bait along with others like it are a favorite for aggressive fish. I define aggressive fish as those that literally slam the bait as though it was their last meal. You can easily see this on your depth finder as the fish will come up 2 - 5 feet to hit the bait. A number of years back I was fishing a deep area on Lake of the Woods called 16 mile reef. At the edge in 30 feet of water the fish went crazy. On my line was a 1/4 oz flat jigging spoon with a minnow. It fell rather slowly to the bottom, such is the desire when the fish are in a neutral mode. At 20 feet you could see the fish come up from the bottom and met the lure at 23 feet, slamming it hard. One problem with the depth finder is as you see this happening it can become easy to pull the lure away from the fish. Hooking only 1 of 3 strikes, it was obvious the fish were extremely aggressive and for me, it took to long for my bait to sink so I put on a heavier jigging Rap. It fell twice a fast and with more hooks, I caught almost every fish for the next half hour. It was a good move. Other good aggressive baits are the new Chubby Darters, Puppet Minnows and any other swim type baits.

The fish we caught this trip were in a fairly neutral mood. This means that they are present, curious, but hesitant to hit the lure hard. Often on the depth finder you can get them to follow a bait slowly up and in a flash they are gone. When the fish are in this mood I like to use either the new Rattlin' Flyer, either a rattle or plain Hawger Spoon, or something flashy but less action. The rattles provide enough noise to bring them in, giving you time to work the fish. Tipped with just a minnow head these fish will decide to bite the hook after looking at it for some time. Often this bite is a simple inhale and if one sees a nice red mark overshadowing the lure a gentle 1/4 inch movement of the rod tip will let you know if there is any resistance.........set the hook! Negative fish are another story. Usually it means a live minnow on a plain hook or smaller bait. These fish may simply grab the minnow and pull down the bobber and hold it for minutes before deciding to finish it off. I always like to have a minnow down the hole in case something swims buy. The great news is that at some point if the fish are there, they will turn on and become aggressive. When this happens hang on as it really doesn't matter what you have on the end of your line, walleyes will hit about anything then.

With -25 below both Friday and Saturday nights and highs around zero, I decided that football was in the cards for the rest of the week. The cold weather takes a toll on the equipment as demonstrated by the propane hose which froze to the tank then kindly snapped off. The weather gave me the opportunity to get everything back to working condition for the coming weekend. Maybe a threepeat is in the works.