Thursday, January 30, 2014

Lake of the Woods

George's winning walleye
This weekend I had the pleasure of accompanying my wife's side of the family to celebrate her uncle Andrew's 75th birthday.  Andy's son Jason Rombalski and son-in-law George Wimmer came up with taking a trip to Lake of the Woods for some fishing and asked if I could fill out the forth spot.  Not a hard job, I gladly accepted as I really like hanging with these guy, especially Andy.  It was nice to have someone else make all the arrangements for once and all I did was bring my expertise with.  Jason settled on booking with Slim's Resort on the Rainy River, just as it empties into Lake of the Woods.  Although I had never heard of Slim's a little investigation explains that it's the new owners of the old Shuster's Resort, a Lake of the Woods icon.  It was actually a pretty good deal as the plan was to arrive late Friday night, fish Saturday and Sunday while staying at the accommodations at the resort.  Sounded good to me!  Arriving at around 10:30, there was a note at the front desk, Rombalski Cabin 15, be ready at 8:15, Nick will pick you up in front of your cabin.  After a few congratulatory toasts it was off to bed, ready to hit it hard on Saturday.  The ride out was typical Lake of the Woods as the driver stopped with his 1940's model Bombardier, no longer made, a throw back from the past.  Driven by a rear engine, it accommodates a driver and 6 - 8 passengers, and is driven by 2 tracks with skis on the front end.  They are quite a machine and only in northern Minnesota will you see them still working as they did 70 years ago.  Loud and somewhat slow, they do the job as we piled into the wood Bombardier, getting its name from the construction of both interior and exterior surfaces, wood paneling!   I guess anything to keep them running.  Our destination was house # 1 at the end of the line of rentals, a 30 minute ride from the resort.  Dropping us off along with a cooler of fathead minnows, we were on our own.  It didn't take long to start fishing and settle on the day's contest, first fish, biggest fish, most fish...a chance to win $15.  As Lake of the Woods goes, it wasn't the greatest bite but we did get a number of walleyes and saugers along with a few tullibees.  In the end it was George who came from behind to win the biggest as he already qualified for the first.  George isn't much of an ice fisherman so we ended up coaching him through the day.  I guess all of that training paid off as he nailed a nice 26 inch walleye a half hour before the bombardier was scheduled to pick us up.  One last lesson to give George was how to take a fish picture.  Being a good student of the game, as you see his walleye was pretty nice. Of course he got the $15 with that fish.   After our reunion with the guide we headed back to the cabin to clean fish, make supper, play a little cards, and reflect on the day.  Because the guides go out in two shifts, we were relegated to the early shift on Sunday, 7:15 was the pickup time as we headed for bed.

Huge Tullibee!
Sunday was definitely on the downside as far as the weather was going.  Strong north winds prompted blizzard warnings for the entire northwest portion of Minnesota.   Showing up at 7:15, we boarded the bombardier, picked up a couple of guys from Iowa and headed back out.  The resort rotates times and houses so you get a chance to fish something different each day.  After making sure our house was clear, the guide allowed us in, admittedly I liked the previous day's house a lot better.   For one thing, the hole setup was quite different as one had to constantly step over the slots in the floor to move.  I could see a real problem if you had one too many beers.  The second thing that made it uncomfortable was the furnance's thermostat never shut the heat off.  Although the heat is appreciated, it must have been at least 90 degrees unless you kept the door cracked.  Seems like a waste of propane, but hey we were fishing.  The irony was that the fishing wasn't so hot in the house.  Although we managed a few walleyes and saugers, they were few and far between.  One bonus fish was the tullibees we were catching.  The action was neither fast or furious but considering the slow walleye bite, we appreciated the occasional hard fighting silver fish.  I did save the ones we did catch hoping that maybe these didn't have the parasites the previous tullibees caught on Lake of the Woods but it wasn't the case.  Once filleted you could see the opaque worms embedded in the flesh, it just didn't look very appetizing.  Managing to catch the largest walleye of the day, a plump 18 inch fish, it was good enough for the big fish of the day and I got my money back.  Beyond that, we probably ended up the 2 days with 6 walleyes, 8 saugers, 77 tullibees, and a nice perch.  On Saturday I did have something big on my line, it gave a good fight before throwing the hook.  Maybe a big walleye, maybe a big eelpout, who knows but it would sure have been nice to see.  The guide came by around 2:00 and announced the whiteout conditions will force us to cut or trip short, fine with us as it was getting pretty bad out.  What normally took 30 minutes to shuttle us back to the resort turned into an hours as we crawled back on the trail.  Quickly filleting the fish we finally got on the road and headed south.  One interesting note, we met a family in the cleaning room who had the same luck as we did on Saturday.  On Sunday it appeared as though they were fishing a different lake with a nice bunch of walleyes including a 29 inch hog.  Oh well, that's the way it goes.

I am getting ready to head back up to Red on Friday with Mark, my brother Steve, friend Kevin, Mark, and Keith Holtan.  Our plan is to get there in the afternoon and fish till Sunday morning.  It will be the maiden voyage of my newly acquired fish house and were anxious to try it out.  With all the comforts of home, all we need is the fish to cooperate.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Back in the Deep Freeze

Iowan Pro on Mille Lacs!
So I woke up on Tuesday morning to a now "this is getting old" temperature of -20F.  You would think that this weather should be making ice like crazy on Mille Lacs yet there is only a few resorts with roads yet and if one wants to fish the flats such as 7 Mile, 9 Mile, Sliver, you need a snowmobile to get around.  As cold as it has been there are still areas with only 10 inches of ice and 4 inches of slush.  For sure it's been tough on the business's around the lake as 2013-2014 ice fishing on Mille Lacs is heading for a bust.  On the other hand my new friend Terry, previous owner of my new Salem Ice Cabin has taken the time to send me some pictures of the walleyes he has been catching on Mille Lacs.  Using a snowmobile, he has been able to get out to the offshore areas and by his pictures, hasn't done too bad.   Terry is from Iowa and has a place near Garrison, MN.  He and his family fished both Saturday and Sunday and although wouldn't say that they killed them but considering the reports, it's nice to see someone is getting fish.  Although I never asked, I assume that this is his boy and you have to be impressed with the photo, the next Al Lindner for sure.  Just when I'm planning trips for the next 2 weekends, I have to admit that a few days on Mille Lacs would be nice by the looks of things.  On the other hand Lake of the Woods is going and Red Lake is still putting out fish.  Having committed to the next couple of weeks, I guess Mille Lacs will have to wait.  February is looking good and hopefully the weather will be better, at least Terry has inspired me to get my snowmobile running and ready to go if  needed.  It sure would be great to get into some of those big walleyes that are swimming around in the lake these days.  Rumor also has it there are a few jumbo perch being caught as well as some nice tullibees, which make great pickled fish.  It amazing, every year is different on Mille Lacs, 2 years ago we had large patches of open water into January, last year was great, this year is proving to be challenging. 

Sunset on Pelican
I did get out this weekend deciding to fish Pelican Lake which is close to home.  Friday night saw 6 inches of snow so all day Saturday was spent cleaning up the mess.  Sunday's temperature was pretty nice for a January, in the 30's so I decided to fish outside.  Having waxies from my last trip I simply drove out to the east side of the lake and used the access right off the road.  The snow was a little deeper than I figured but staying on the trail, it wasn't a big issue.  I've installed a Navionics App on my cell phone, it cost about $14 but it's pretty cool. The amount of lakes and information is pretty incredible, especially having it right on your phone.  Running off the GPS, I have all of their lake maps at my disposal, including a huge number of ones that feature 1 foot contours, including Pelican Lake.  With my phone its easy to simply drive to the underwater structure you are looking for as I simply picked an area that looked productive.  And productive it was.  After drilling a hole to check the depth, put in the transducer and was marking fish right away.   The first one came withing 20 seconds of the lure getting down to 9 feet, a nice sunfish around 7 3/4".  Pelican has some big sunnies in it but if you want to take some home it pays to be less fussy.  Sorting through about 1 fish per minute I ended the day with 12 big enough to fillet.  Staying after dark to see if the crappies would bite wasn't as productive as expected although I did get a few little ones.  The plan was to pack up and head back in time to catch the last half of the San Francisco/Seattle game at my neighbor Tim's.  With everything loaded, put the truck in drive and didn't move an inch.  A half mile out, nobody around and the truck just spins.  Something seemed different but that wasn't my first concern, heck getting out there wasn't hard, I should have been able to walk right out of my spot.  Having a shovel with I cleaned about 2 feet behind each wheel, backed up and got back on top of the snow however success was short lived.  After jacking around for 15 minutes I finally broke free and was able to get off the ice.  What a pain.  Looking back it was as though my 4 wheel drive wasn't even working.  Well, it wasn't!  Apparently the new computer controlled trucks get confused easily and the remedy is to shut the truck off for about a minute, let everything reset itself, then restart and go.  My neighbor Pete has the same truck and he confirmed this happens to him when he plows snow.  I guess your never too old to learn something new, its just remembering it all that's a problem. Off to Lake of the Woods and hopefully the reports are true.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Not Much Happening

Work Sharp Ken Onion
With last weeks weather in the tank, this weekend was time to get a few things done before my flurry of fishing trips planned for the last two weeks of January.  We had a comfortable 40 degrees on Sunday, enough to get everything back in order including the fixing the snowblower and other neglected items.  Thursday night was the opening of the St. Paul Sportsman Show, the first of the season so Lory and I took off from work around 5:00.  Not the largest show, it's still fun to get out and start looking at things.  What has become a tradition is meeting my friend Keith Holtan and his wife Jane at their booth.  It's fun to hang around as they have developed a nice clientele of people that stop by and say hi. Thursday night tends to be slower so we head over to the Liffy, an Irish Pub in the Holiday Inn across the street to unwind.  Once there, one never knows going to show up, a reason in itself to go.  Keith went to school and met a guy who eventually became a lawyer in Minneapolis, starting his career as a public defender.  I don't think I've laughed so hard as he told stories, you can only imagine!  It was nice to see Keith and hopefully we'll get out fishing again this winter.  I do like looking at all the new gadgets at these shows and found a couple of things that were interesting including a device for helping to add line to your reel.   One of the best purchases I have made in the last 6 months has been the Work Sharp Ken Onion Edition knife sharpener.  Struggling with speeding up the process of sharpening my fillet knives as my old Lansky Sharpening system just took too long and I never really liked the results.  Years ago I bought a Leech Lake Fillet knife at the Northwest Sportsman show and one thing they offered was free sharpening if you brought it back to the show.  They uses a belt like sander with a very fine grit to give it an edge and a polish that was incredible.  The guy who made the knives passed away a few years ago so that service is no longer available.  Well, this device does exactly the same thing and coupled with a quality butcher steel, my knives are razor sharp and stay that way.  This is a fantastic product and can honestly say it really works!

Salem Ice Cabin
Sunday found me at Bill's on Lake Mille Lacs as I had been negotiating with a guy in Iowa to buy his wheel house for ice fishing.  For the last 3 months I have been trying to talk my brother Steve into go in half with me as the older I get, the more I like to be comfortable.  I understand he is 3 hours from me but I do like fishing with him.  Also, my recent trips to Red Lake and LOTW's seem much more enjoyable staying out on the ice.  Checking Craigslist each week a Salem Ice Cabin showed up, a 2013 and the price was too good to pass up.  Mark Applen and I have been looking at these for a couple of years now and he was a big influence in my decision, or at least I can blame him.  I have the whole thing tore apart right now trying to configure things the way I would like them as there are some things that are nice and others that need improvement.  The gentlemen I bought it from was a super guy and I can understand his reasoning behind it as it's a little too big for the areas he fishes in Iowa.  He does have a summer place on Mille Lacs and I hope to hook up with him this summer and maybe do some fishing.  The plan is to head back to Red at the end of the month and try it out, Steve and Lory, and possibly Keith will join me.  Otherwise my schedule is getting pretty crazy.  In February I head to California for a week and in March we are all set up to fish Louisiana for a couple of days.  Maybe look at going back to LOTW at the end of March if time permits and the weather cooperates.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Too Cold To Fish?

Monday Morning Wake up Temperature
Now normally I would not even broach the subject of temperature and ice fishing, for crying out loud, we need something to thicken the ice on Mille Lacs this year.  Well we got that something in the form of what is known as a Polar Vortex, a fancy way of describing the scientific phenomenon when a high pressure ridge forms in southern Canada which forces the jet stream to purge south which brings Arctic temperatures with it.  It all pretty humorous as every weatherperson is falling all over themselves trying to be the coldest.  I don't know if it's just me but growing up in Eleva, subzero temperatures in the winter seemed like a non issue, unless of course you were trying to start your old carburated automobile which had a tendency to flood quite easily when the temperatures dropped.  Eleva is in the Buffalo River Valley, about a mile or so wide and cold air sinks so we often had some of the most frigid air in the region.  We didn't do much ice fishing when I was young as the Eleva Pond contained trout which the season was closed until May.  Ice fishing for me started when I was about 17, I had a car and could drive to Alma, the closest place for decent fishing.  Along with the introduction of the Mora Ice Auger, things progressively got better, easier, and a lot more fun.  Now the Sunday after Christmas saw Mark and I woke up to -25 below zero temps on Red Lake, not a big deal as we were 5 hours north of home snug in our wheel house catching walleyes, besides the previous 2 days were a comfortable 30 degrees out.  Starting on Saturday, January 4th was the beginning of a 5 day run where temperatures would not get above zero at all.  I guess I am just getting older (some say wiser)  but with Sunday's high temp of -10 and Monday a whooping -16, it is just  best to let old Mother Nature build some ice for the rest of the winter. 

Matt and Christina
Saturday saw on of our long time Team Walleye members, Matt Taylor get married to his long time sweetheart Christina.  Matt is the son of my great friend Mark Taylor, my adopted Minnesota family.  He has been with Team Walleye since 1991 when Mark Mayerich, Mark Taylor, Gary Ullom, and Ron Edberg all brought their 10 year old son's to the Leech Lake Fishing Opener to make sure the traditions continue and Matt along with Adam Mayerich have never missed a beat.  So Matt and Christina, after 7 years, decided to tie the knot, assuring that the moment would be cherished by their families forever.  Because of the circumstances their reception isn't scheduled till July, which works well for me.  They are quite the couple having travelled all over the world, he is a computer  systems guy and she teaches in the public schools system.  Both are very adventurous and have worked hard to get those things they want to do, out of the way before they really settled down.  Christina's one goal was to be part of the Minnesota Vikings Cheerleader squad.  She finally realized her wish and is on the 2013 rooster.  Meanwhile Matt has taken on the role of being his mom's James Bond guy.  That is pretty hard to deny.  The only thing I commented when they announce their wedding, don't schedule it on Fishing Opener!  My wife loves taking wedding pictures and she arranged this one using the flowers on the alter.  Not knowing much about Catholic protocols, she got a friendly push from one of the custodians about rearranging flowers on such a sacred place.  We got our pictures, put the flowers back in plenty of time, at least enough get this shot.  You have to admit, a pretty good looking couple, congratulations.

The weekend looks as though we might get a January thaw with highs in the mid 30's by Sunday.  The 55 degree swing in the temperatures will be welcome however it will cause some havoc with the ice.  Ice is at it's greatest volume at around freezing then shrinks as it gets colder causing cracks. When the temperature warms, the ice expands and has a tendency to cause heaves.  We'll see what Sunday brings as I am planning to go to Mille Lacs to do some business and stop at Bill's.  The Packers lost, somewhat disheartening but little I can do about it.  The game provided a good excuse not to go fishing in the cold however maybe I should have just went anyway.  My good friend Phil Gordon has season tickets and asked if I wanted to buy them if they were available.  We inquired at the prescribed 9:00 call time but apparently they were only selling so many to those who had not committed earlier and we did not get still would have been nice to go.  I know they had tickets available but they were nosebleed seats, the television is a better place to watch the game.  Thursday night is the opening of the St. Paul Sportshow, the first of the year.  My friend Keith Holtan has a booth representing his Kenai Alaskan business Beaver Creek Cabins  and guide service.  Stop by and see Keith, he would appreciate it.  I already have the end of January booked for trips as I leave with my wife's uncle and family to Lake of the Woods on January 24th then the following week go back to Red to pick up Mark's wheel house that's parked at JR's.  It's a tough job but somebody has to do it!

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Another Year Gone

Monster Northern
2013 ended on a positive note as Mark and I headed back up to Red Lake, our second trip within a week, hoping the good bite was still on.  Having spent Christmas Eve and Christmas in Wisconsin, the plan was to head up Thursday afternoon, enough time to clean up the 4 inches of snow that had fell the night before.  When we left JR's last week he told us not to arrive earlier than 2:30, anticipating it would be a busy afternoon, lucky we did.  Arriving at the resort you could sense the craziness of the hours before our arrival, some guys confirming that the line to get on the lake was almost a half mile long.  JR's does it right, he plows his roads then perpendicular to the main road are side roads with well spaced plowed spaces for your wheel house.  The houses are spread out enough so no one is on top of each other yet close enough to be by your friends as Russ Praught and Mike were joining us later.  Mark and I are patient guys and we knew it would be a while before JR would let us on the ice.  Fact is he was out of spots and needed time to plow a few more places for us.  We would wait as getting on the ice at 7:00 or 10:30 made no real difference in our plans as there was plenty of time for fishing in the next few days.  Just about the time Russ showed up JR said we're going!  Perfect timing.  Our patience was rewarded with a spot at the end of the road, 6 miles out, and had yet to be fished.  We were settled in by 11:00 and started catching fish right away.  After putting a few in the box, it was time to get some sleep as we had 2 full days of fishing ahead of us.  By Friday morning the the cooler had 4 walleyes waiting for the fillet knife as it was decided we would try to beat the evening rush and take our fish into JR's for cooking around 2:00.  About 9:00 that morning the walleyes suddenly disappeared.  Up to this point there were always fish on the Vexilar, coming and going, we catch a few, mark a few.  All of a sudden my rattle reel went down, a quick jerk and the line became limp.   All the signs pointed to a northern lurking below.....the disappearing walleyes, cut line.  Time to bring out the heavy artillery, my rod loaded with Fireline.  A few jerks of the lure and something inhaled the bait and the battle was on.  After about 5 minutes Mark gaffed this huge northern pike, it was about 39 inches and weighed close to 15 pounds.  We snapped a few pictures, put her back down the hole, and the walleyes magically returned.  I did catch another nice northern pike, a little over 28 inches, they are quite fun to catch but their sharp teeth certainly raise havoc with your lines and lures.

14" Crappie, My Largest Ever!
Both Friday and Saturday were beautiful days on Red with temperatures in the high 20's.  This was about to change quickly.  The temperature on Saturday started falling and by nightfall we were in full ground blizzard conditions.  Not wanting to miss out on our daily fish fry at JR's we managed to drive in before it got too bad out, too late as you could tell we had better make our visit short as it was going to be a long night ahead of us.  Driving back to the houses proved to be an adventure as the wind and snow continued to start plugging up the roads.  Arriving at the houses called for a shift in our parking strategies, it would be critical to keep our generator out of the wind, assuring proper operation through the night.  Finally settling in in for the night the temperature had dropped well below zero and the blowing snow made it all but impossible to see more than 100 feet, enough to make Russ's house disappear into the blizzard.   Luckily the walleyes continued to cooperate, they weren't jumping through the holes yet they kept things interesting.  One of the rattle reels went off, I got up and set the hook, something didn't feel right as it was a good fish but it fought differently than the walleyes and perch we were getting.  Up through the hole came the largest crappie I have ever caught, a 14 incher.  13 years ago Red Lake's walleye population was decimated by the commercial fishing on the lake and crappies like this filled the void.  I never was able to take advantage of the crappie bite however this fish was enough to tell me I really missed out on some great fishing action.  I still prefer walleyes to crappies but a limit of 10 like this one would have been pretty nice.  During the first trip to Red that we made before Christmas, 90% of the fish hit the rattle reels, with few on the jigging lures.  I caught quite a few more on Jigging Raps and Slender Spoons this time, my favorite way to fish walleyes.  There is nothing like seeing the mark on the Vexilar shoot up from the bottom to smack your lure, sometimes you have to have the patience to wait as it's easy to pull it away from the fish before it really has it.

Marks truck surrounded by a drift.
Our plan for Sunday morning was to leave early, getting home early in the afternoon however the previous nights weather caused a delay in our strategy.  Waking up to a beautiful clear sky, the road completely drifted in and the temperature was a crisp -25 below zero.  The wind was still contributing to the wind chill but everything certainly had settled down.  Unfortunately I had left my "warm" boots in the car back home which meant I had to keep moving to stay warm, luckily we had lots to do.  With a lot of water still coming up through the ice and considering the cold weather, the house cranked up pretty well.  Our plowed spot ran northwest from the road so Mark pointed his truck into the wind as stated before but caused a pretty good drift to form along side the truck.  We ended up shoveling a path for the truck, assuring we could at least get it hooked up to the house.  Of course the main road was completely plugged and even after a couple of passes with the truck, it would have been hard to make it through and even worse, we didn't want to be in the way when the plow came by.  By the time the house was hooked up we could see the plow truck heading our way, perfect timing.  A few passes and we were on our way off the lake, another successful trip which included a couple nice northerns, 2 wonderful walleye meals at the resort, a limit of walleyes for each to take home, and a great way to spend time with my friends Mark, Russ, and Mike.  Mark left his house at the resort, I guess another great excuse to go back up to Red Lake.  I am getting to like this wheel house fishing and am thinking about seeing what's available on the market, maybe if I buy one my brother Steve might join us.

We are headed for the coldest weather of the year next week.  Monday's high is suppose to only get up to -15 below zero.  Let's hope this next cold spell will start freezing up Mille Lacs Lake.  It is a sad sight for sure as the water and slush has prevented any movement at all on the lake. Some reports still have the ice thickness at less than 10 inches and when we drove by on Sunday there were no houses yet on the lake.  For being a top destination for walleyes, everyone certainly has to be hurting for business as there is simply no one around.  If the resorters can get a few roads started the cold should shore up the ice and get some action going.  Some of my friends are headed for Red this weekend and I am anxious to see their reports.  Here's hoping 2014 will be a great fishing year!