Friday, February 10, 2012

After Hunting Season Rut????

During a "normal" hunting season, everything seems to revolve around "the rut".  Maryland has a pretty late deer hunting season, with late bow season closing out the season for the last few weeks of January.  Normally rut behavior begins toward the beginning of October and is in full swing, peaks in November, and winds down in the beginning of December.  Although, sometimes there is a "second" or late rut that occurs for a brief time in December.  Maryland's gun season is in full force by then, so often rutting behavior is replaced by survival behavior and, as a result, seldom observed in the field.

By late season, most hunters probably believe that the rut is over, and, up until recently, that included me.  We're used to seeing colder weather and the deer yard up in larger groups.  By the end of January, sometimes we witness deer that pass our stands that, at first glance, seem like big does until it's realized that those big red spots on their brows resulted from their antlers dropping.

Hunters know that sometimes the antlers don't drop for maybe a month past the end of bow season, so we tend to focus our shed hunting activities a few weeks later.  However, my learned notions of deer rutting behavior changed for me a week ago when I witnessed something that may change my hunting tactics and outlook forever.

My work locale is a completely fenced in facility with guarded gates, and has been that way since the years following 9/11.  The environment is much like a college campus with some limited wildlife habitat scattered about, with the entire complex embedded within a suburban setting just fifteen minutes from the Washington, D.C. line.  It's not exactly known as a haven for observing a deer population.  A few years ago, we began seeing a few does that found their way on campus.  I asked a couple campus police how the deer were able to access such a tightly guarded facility.  The response was something like, "They walked through the gates.  What should we do?  Ask for their IDs first?"

A year or two after that, the first bucks started showing up.  Since then, the population grew.  We've had the luxury of observing deer behavior in a closed setting, including rut behavior and breeding.  I pretty much see deer every day right outside my office window or near any field or wooded area on the property.  Sometimes they simply walk around or among the many office buildings.  As a hunter, I can't hunt these particular deer simply because it's not legal.  However, the deer behavior that I observe here provides me with valuable clues as to what the deer may be doing on the properties that I hunt, only an hour or so away near my home.  Deer are deer everywhere, right?  Well, this approach seems to work for me. 

But, on February 2nd in Maryland, while on my way into work, after parking my car in the parking garage, I observed something that people only see once in a while in the wild, but even more strange, something that never happens this late in February (for crying out loud)...and if it does, it has to be a pretty rare occurrance.  Or, is it?

So, what happened?  I looked out of the back of the garage that caused my jaw to drop.  I nearly scraped my chin on the floor as a result!  I witnessed three bucks and a doe.  Two of the bucks, a large racked eight point and a smaller six point, were locking antlers in a shoving match.  And it wasn't just sparring, they were going at it.  On top of that, a medium sized eight point strutted over to join the fun!  The sounds of antlers cracked, leaves were rustling, branches were thrashed as the bucks wrestled for position to gain an advantage over each other.   Did I mention that this was February?
This was the bigger of the three bucks, from a picture taken a several months ago behind the garage.
As this happened, I'm scrambed for my cell phone to catch this action on film.  By the time that I had the movie feature ready, they were done.  Or, were they?

The smaller buck held it's own but was eventually chased off by the bigger buck.  The two eight points locked up and attacked each other soon after, but I missed that action too.  The good news was that the little buck worked his way back for more.  I only had about fifteen more minutes to watch this spectacle because I was due in the office soon, so if I was going to capture some sort of proof on film, it had to happen fast.  I figured that nobody would believe me.  I needed proof.  Meanwhile, the doe was standing there observing the whole thing, almost amused that she was the center of all of this activity.

After a few minutes, while the bigger buck worked his rack over a sapling, mangling it, the smaller buck snuck back toward the bigger buck.  The bigger buck turned, and the smaller buck approached, and they locked up again.  They fought for a good ten minutes before I had to leave.  I'm sure that they went at it for a short time after I left.

The good news is that I captured some of the event on film!

Once in the office, every now and then I'll get up to stretch my legs, to get the blood flowing after a few hours of performing my sedentary duties.  Of course, I have to glance out the window to observe any other deer behavior.  Upon doing that, I observed that the bucks were all bedded down together near that one doe.  By the way, there were four other does in the field directly behind my office, but the bucks had no interest in them.

After my tour of duty ended, I returned to the gargage to access my car and head home.  But, of course, I had to check behind the gargage and see if anything else was going on.  And, there sure was.  The bucks kept following that doe, nudging her behind with their noses and racks, and in some sort of pecking order (but not quite fighting), tried to assert each others dominance over each other.  They were actually in a late rut!  I couldn't believe my eyes!

Prior to observing this, I thought for sure the antlers would be dropping soon.   When the bucks made contact, and especially in the form of battle, I was sure an antler would drop off.  In fact, I was hoping that one would so I could run back there and nab it!!!!!!  But, they held strong.  No shed antlers for Fat Boy on that day.

So, was it the weather causing this?  In a large doe population, I can understand why the rut could extend until all does have been courted, which could take a while, but this deer population is rather small, about twenty to thirty deer at most.  Plus, five of those deer were bucks.  I thought this was such a weird event that I had to share it here and on some of the forums that I frequent.

What does this mean for my future hunting plans?  I can tell you that, during late bow season, I won't leave my rattling antlers, grunt call, or scents at home.  I'll be using them!

For your enjoyment, I've embedded the videos below.  I apologize for the lack of quality, but all I had was my cell phone.  The first video shows a few minutes of the larger and smaller buck locking antlers and fighting.  It's hard to see at first, but about half way through the video you can see them quite easily.

This last video shows the bucks following and nudging the doe.  Looks like rutting behavior to me!  There was a full moon last week.

I hope you enjoyed this as much as I did.  Just when I think that I understand Odocoileus virginianus, they throw me for a loop with something like this.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

On the Hardwater - Jigging Spoons and Blade Baits

A basic staple of cold water fishing is to toss chunks of metal into deep water where flash, vibration and flutter draw a reaction strike from some sort of predatory fish.  Many years ago, a resourceful angler, Julio T. Buel invented a fishing lure called a spoon, somewhere around 1821 and finally became the first to commercially manufacture them in 1848 (see footnote 1).  It's believed that he fashioned his first spoon lure from an ordinary tea spoon, possibly by severing the handle and attached a hook to it.  Spoons have been catching predatory fish even since, especially through the ice.  For the most part in ice fishing, we use two types of spoons, slab style spoons that wobble and flutter, or blade baits that vibrate in a similar manner to a lipless crankbait.  Both are affective through the ice.

Of course, spoons come in a wide variety of shapes, sizes, colors and styles.  I'm going to touch on some of my favorites simply because I can show you physical examples of them.  By all means, there are many brands out there that are equally effective.  Of course, the spoons that will work for you depend on the species that you target.  In this post, I'm going to cover spoons that work on lunker panfish as well as larger predatory species like bass, walleye, pickerel and pike.  I'll also cover some tactics and tips that work with these lures.

Ken Askins, a.k.a Bean on  Iceshanty , sports a nice walleye that was fooled on a Northland Buck-shot Rattle Spoon.  Photo courtesy of Ken Askins.
Jigging Spoons
The most popular spoons used through the ice are collectively known as jigging spoons, and as the name suggests, are designed for vertical jigging.  Jigging spoons are equally effective  when fished in open water by fishing vertically or cast and jigged on the retrieve.  In this post, the focus will be on techniques used with these lures that are effective though the ice.

Larger spoons like these will take big fish through the ice.  From left, two Luhr Jensen Crippled Herring, Northland Buck-Shot Rattle Spoon, Hopkins Spoon, Hopkins Shorty, Hopkins Smoothie, and a Bass Pro Shops XPS jigging spoon.  Use these to bounce from hole to hole and cover water.  Big spoons catch big fish.

The results speak for themselves, just look at this fat walleye caught by my good friend Mark Sirko of Pennsylvania that fell for a large jigging spoon.  Photo courtesy of Ken Askins.

Mark displays a pike that fell for a large jigging spoon.  Catching pike while jigging spoons through the ice is a real thrill.  Nice fish Mark!  Photo courtesy of Ken Askins.
The spoons pictured above are similar in design to the original one invented by Mr. Buel in 1848.  They are, in simplest design, a slab of metal with a treble hook on one end, and a line tie on the other, then painted or finished in such a way as to attract strikes when jigged.  Some are concave, others are thin, others thick, and each type will have a different action.  They come in many shapes that also affect the action.  It's up to you to determine which shape or style will work for you.

These smaller jigging spoons are popular with ice anglers as they catch both panfish and predators.  When searching for big crappie, jumbo yellow perch, and plate sized bluegills, try one of these.  Top row from left, Northland Eye-Dropper Spoon, Lindy Techni-Glo Rattl'n Flyer, two Northland Buck-Shot Rattle Spoons (showing rattling chamber), Northland Forage Minnow, Hali Sukkula Jigs (showing different chain droppers).  Bottom row, Bay de Noc Swedish Pimples, Acme Kastmaster, and Bass N Bait Rattle Snakie spoon.

Mike Bushey, a.k.a. adkRoy on Iceshanty from New York poses with some fat jumbo perch that took a Hali Sukkula Jig.  These jigs are hot for panfish and predators alike.  Photo courtesy of Mike Bushey.
Jigging spoons work well because they give off vibrations, flash, and some sort of fluttering action on the fall, to provoke a reaction strikes from aggressive fish.  However, tipping them with bait will also draw strikes from fish already on the feed.  Some jigging spoons sport internal chambers that contain shot or beads that rattle, adding to the attraction that may provoke strikes.  Others are painted in bright colors or even extremely realistic fish imitating patterns.

My buddy Ken posing with a huge crappie that nailed a Northland Buck-Shot Rattle Spoon.  That is one slab crappie!  Photo courtesy of Ken Askins.
Blade Baits
These spoon type lures are designed for a horizontal presentation fished vertically, with the line tie on one side, and two or more hooks on the other.  Most of the time, the line tie is merely a snap inserted through a hole in the blade (spoon).  Some models have multiple holes that provide different action on the lure depending on which one you choose to use.

When you jig these lures up off the bottom, you'll feel the lure vibrate rapidly on the pull.  On the drop, these lures flutter or spiral down.  When sitting motionless, they resemble a fish or a minnow.
Blade baits are great for targeting big predatory fish through the ice, but also work well on jumbo panfish.  From top to bottom, left column, Silver Buddy, Luhr Jensen Rattlin' Ripple Tail; middle column, Heddon Sonars; right column, Reef Runner Cicadas, Bass Pro Shops XPS Lazer Eye.
Fishing Spoons and Blades
When on the ice, I carry a couple rods that are slightly beefier than my panfish rods to jig small spoons and blade baits.  I use four to six pound fluorocarbon line with a small snap tied to the end, or a No-knot Fast Snap, so that I can change spoons easily until I find one that the fish will hit when targeting panfish.  For bigger spoons, my set ups are on eight to twelve pound line depending on the lake, species that I'm targeting, and the weight of the spoon.  Typically, I'll have one that has a rattle rigged on one rod, and a totally different style rigged on the other rod, like a blade bait.  This way I can try different presentations until I can get some sort of response from fish, perhaps bites or reactions that I can see on my camera or sonar.

When fishing jigging spoons or blade baits, most anglers prefer graphite rods with some backbone so that they can easily feel the strikes, and also work these larger lures a good responsive action.  If the rod is too "whippy", the lure action, especially in deeper water, isn't responsive enough.  In other words, your rod tip may be moving and working much harder without the result you're expecting thirty feet under water.  If you want your spoon to travel a foot on your jig, you won't want to have to work your arms and shoulders three feet to get that result.  More importantly, when a fish hits, you want to have a good hook set and a whippy rod won't effectively do that.

Here's a jigging rod set up with a Northland Buck-Shot Rattle Spoon that allowed Ken to ice this fine walleye.  Photo courtesy of Ken Askins.
Another thing that ice anglers do to draw strikes from inactive fish is to tip their lures, or sweeten them, with some sort of bait.  You can use waxworms, spikes (maggots), minnows, and where legal, fish eyes, minnow heads or belly meat.  In addition to tipping them with bait, you can also use Berkley Gulp Minnows or Minnow Heads. 
This jigging rod is rigged with a Buck-Shot Rattle Spoon tipped with a Berkley Gulp Minnow Head.
There are a couple ways to work a jigging spoon or a blade bait.  You can fish them aggressively or finesse them.

The Aggressive Presentation:
Drop the spoon until it hits the bottom, then reel up the slack until the line is tight.  Then, raise the rod tip to the eleven o'clock position quickly to draw the spoon off the bottom, then lower the rod tip slowly and let the spoon fall.  It's important to drop your rod tip at the same rate that your spoon falls to keep the line tight.  Watch the line closely because if it goes slack or twitches, set the hook.  Fish often hit these lures on the fall.  Sometimes, if fish are on the bottom, they'll hit as your lure reaches the bottom.  You may not see these hits, but you'll have a fish on when you raise your rod for the next jig.  By raising the rod, sometimes you actually set the hook on a biting fish. 

When you find the school and the fish are aggressive, spoons are good choices because, after catching a fish, you can get them back down quickly to target your next one.  When the schools move often, it's important to get that lure back down there before the school moves off.

Try first without tipping the lure with bait.  This gives the spoon it's best action which will draw reaction strikes from big panfish and predators alike.  Sometimes the strikes are quite violent!  When doing this, you can hit a bunch of holes and not really need your sonar or camera, assuming that you know the depth that the fish are holding.

If the fish aren't hitting the technique above, after a few jigging patterns, let the jig sit on the bottom of your jig for a second, maybe shake it a little bit.  Try different things until they strike.

When the fish are agressive, they'll hit a jigging spoon without bait.  Presumably, when finding your ice fishing spot, you've cut some holes and checked them with your sonar until you've located fish.  Then, you've opened up the area by cutting a series of holes, not just one.  Bouncing from hole to hole with a jigging spoon is a good way to get some quick bites on big fish and pick off the more active predators.  I've caught some of my biggest slab crappie this way along with walleyes, bass, chain pickerel and every now and then a pike.

I spend a lot of time jigging smaller baits and plastics for panfish, and sitting at one hole for any length of time tires out the old caboose and causes my feet to fall asleep.  So, every now and then I'll get up to stretch my legs and walk around.  You can either do this and not fish by visiting your fishing buddies on the ice to see how they're doing, or you can carry a jigging spoon rod with you on the way and hit a few holes.  You have to keep your lure in the water to catch fish.  So that's what I like to do when I need that type of break, to bounce around and hit some holes with my jigging rod, maybe catch a couple fish, and then visit my buds to see how they're doing.

Finesse Spoon Presentations
If your aggressive approach doesn't provoke strikes but you know that the fish are there, then it's time to try a more finesse spooning approach.  First, try adding a bunch of spikes or a minnow head to a treble hook and slow down your jigging.  Try shorter hops with an occasional larger jigging movement, then let the lure sit, maybe shake it a little.  Try different things to get them to hit.  This is when the camera or sonar comes in handy where you can see how the fish react and then adjust.
Mike teased his favorite fish, the rock bass, into hitting his Swedish Pimple.  Jigging spoons catch just about any willing fish through the ice.  Photo courtesy of Mike Bushey.
Even smelt will hammer jigging spoons!  Photo courtesy of Mike Bushey.
If you notice that fish are attracted to all of the jigging commotion but just won't bite, try changing the type of spoon, or color, or size, to see if that might draw a strike.

Sometimes aggressive jigging actually scares fish away.  You can see that on your camera or sonar.  When that happens, try a much more subtle jigging action.  If you've tipped your lure with bait, try jigging them as you would an ice jig with maggots.  On lakes that have larger panfish, jigging spoons worked this way might be worth starting out with, especially with perch and crappie when they're schooled up and moving around.  Often these larger baits will ice the biggest panfish in the school first, or at least the most aggressive ones.
Mike shows off a perch that he nailed on a Hali Sukkula Jig tipped with bait.  Perch just love these things and you can jig them aggressively or fish them like you would smaller ice jigs for finicky biters.  Photo courtesy of Mike Bushey.
Also, spoons are great for drawing the school in because of their visibility.  If the school moves off, jig your spoon aggressively to draw them back.  The flash, vibration and action in clear water under the ice often will attract schools of fish that are aggressively feeding.  If you don't attract the school in a reasonable amount of time, then maybe it's time to bounce around from hole to hole until you find them again.  Bring the sonar with you and your jigging spoon rod, check the hole for the school and if it's there, you can get that lure down quickly to hook up.
Mark shows that jigging spoons will catch a wide variety of fish through the ice.  He landed a jumbo yellow perch and a nice hybrid striper using a jigging spoon.  Photo courtesy of Ken Askins.
I can't tell you how important sonar is in this type of fishing too.  They aren't called "fish finders" for nothing, they will locate the schools for you.  Not only will they locate what hole to fish, but also they tell you the depth to lower your spoon to especially if the fish are suspended.

Mark shows that using jigging spoons will ice big fish like this fat walleye.  If you currently don't include jigging spoons in your ice fishing strategy, you may be missing out on your chance to ice some of the biggest fish in your lake.  Photo courtesy of Ken Askins.
If you don't have jigging spoons in your ice fishing arsenal, then you may be missing out on some terrific ice fishing action.  These lures can ice fish quickly when the fish are aggressive, even fish that seem finicky when fishing smaller jigging presentations.  In other words, sometimes bigger is better.  Try them!

I'd like to extend a special thanks to Ken Askins (Bean on and Mike Bushey (adkRoy on for their contribution to this blog post.  Both of them have also contributed some great info on Iceshanty, helping to make it the premier ice fishing web forum on the internet.

1.  Old Fishing Lures and Tackle:  Identification and Value Guide by Carl F. Luckey and Russell E. Lewis