Friday, March 8, 2013

On the Hardwater - A Short 2013 Season

Now that I’m an old man, one of the things on my bucket list was to visit my buddy, Jim Cumming, for some ice fishing.  So, on Friday, I made the trip North after stopping and paying a visit to my friend, Geoff Cerrelli in Pennsylvania, who graciously gave me some maggots.  I added that period for humor’s sake, maggots are also commonly known in the ice fishing world as spikes, which make for a very effective bait to tip lures, spoons, and ice jigs with to catch hungry panfish through the ice.  Since then, I’ve passed on the maggots to their new owner who will get some use out of them, my Maine host on the trip, Jim Cumming.

The ice conditions were sloppy to say the least.  It snowed every day, not much, but enough to be annoying, especially when I left my tennis shoes at home and wore Crocs during my leisure non-fishing time up there.  Temperatures ranged from the upper twenties during darkness, to mid thirties throughout the day with periodic snow squalls and light winds.  Fifteen miles per hour plus winds in Maine is considered light apparently, and about the only thing good about slush and snow on the ice is that your portable shanty won't blow away.  On the ice, we found a good five inches of snow on top of about four inches of slush, on top of about twenty inches plus of mixed white and clear ice, all of which made mobility very limited.

Mobility is the key to my ice fishing strategy.  Meaning, if you aren’t on fish, you move to find them.  First, you have to get to the area that you’d like to fish, then, in theory, you cut a bunch of holes until you find the fish.  Then, when they stop biting, you repeat the process.  Usually, productive holes when the bite stops will once again be productive after a short while, especially with yellow perch as their schools move around quite a bit.  You can bounce from hole to hole and keep on the school that way.
However, the conditions described above really do limit your ability to do much of that.  This is especially true when you’re old, fat and out of shape like me.  First of all, to get to Jim’s prime spots, we had to trudge through all that slush and snow while dragging our sleds that were heaped full of ice fishing gear gear nearly half a mile or more.  Needless to say, I had to stop and rest several times, even taking a seat to catch my breath and the scenery at the same time.  I guess you could say that I found the scenery breathtaking

Jim, on the other hand, is like the energizer bunny, and scampered out to his spot in no time.  All I could do is watch him pull away, and try to stop, rest, and regain my ability to breath before gathering up enough energy and will to trudge forward.
That's Jim off in the distance.  As you can see, you'd think that I couldjust follow his footprints for easier walking, but Jim apparently doesn't believe in walking a straight path!  Actually, sometimes you have to improve your own mobility by finding less sloppy stuff to walk through, and that's what he was doing.
Like many guys, Jim’s approach is a varied and effective one common to many ice anglers, to set tip ups, or “traps” (as they are referred to by Mainahs), to catch larger predatory fish, and when time permits, use a jigging rod to catch smaller panfish or anything else that wants to bite while waiting for “flags”.  Although this limits mobility in some cases, it does allow the ice angler to fish the best of both worlds. 

For those of you that aren't familiar with them, tip ups basically wooden or plastic stand fitted with a line filled spool that fits across the hole in the ice, with the line having a leader, perhaps a weight, and a baited hook dangling to tantalize potentially hungry fish.  The tip up has a spring loaded mechanism that, when a bite occurs, allows a flag to shoot up and alert you that a fish has taken your bait.  The videos below show Jim in action working tip ups to catch some nice predatory fish, filmed on our first day this past Saturday.

My approach is a bit different, I prefer to jig.  Although I lack experience in using them, I’m open to using tip ups.  In fact, I actually did try them on our second day at a trout lake.  Jim showed me how to use some and I promptly caught nothing on mine.  In fact, that day, we both got skunked, so not much detail will be provided except that the sloppy conditions were a bit better, only we trudged twice as far to get to the spot where we were skunked, and I was twice as worn out at the end of the day.  Jim summed up that second day quite nicely, the fishing stunk, but the company was awesome.  The cool thing about tip ups is that you really never know what you’re going to catch.  Any predator that lives in the lake could be on the other end of your line, in that lake, it could have been pike, brown trout, brookies, splake, lake trout or big bass.

On that first day, I think Jim caught fifteen warm water predators (chain pickerel, largemouth bass, and smallmouth bass) on his “traps” and jigged up about as many other fish in between flags.  Those other fish included yellow and white perch.  I caught about half as many fish jigging, a mixed bag between yellow perch and white perch, and one other species that I’d never caught before, a smelt.  It was my first fish of the trip.

My first Maine fish through the ice...a minnow!  As it turns out, this baitfish is also a highly coveted delicacy, the smelt.  People try to catch these guys by the bucket full, bring them home, smoke or fry them, and feast.

Here's Jim working a tip up.

While Jim kept watch of his tip ups, I jigged.
The tip ups do catch big fish, the pictures below are evidence of their effectiveness.
Jim sports a fat Maine chain pickerel.

Jim with a chunky iced largemouth bass caught on a "trap", released to fight another day.  Jim uses circle hooks that greatly reduce deeply hooked fish and allow for clean healthy releases.  They nearly always are hooked in the corner of the mouth.  Don't "set" the hook in the traditional way.  Instead, apply steady pressure on the fish as you hand line them up, which moves the hook to the corner of the fishes mouth.

Jim's tip ups brought many fat bass like this to the icy surface on our first day.
Day three, March 4th, measured up to what I had hoped, and basically turned out to be my ice fishing season.  Honestly, I'm not picky about what I catch through the ice, as long as I can get on a good jigging bite and the fish put up a decent fight on my light tackle.  As it turned out, I couldn't ask for a better day, with a great bite, on the same lake as day one, but with a much closer hike to his spot.  The bad news was that the sloppy conditions on the ice were even worse. 

Snow insulates the slush and water between it and the ice, and the weight of the snow pushes down on the ice, allowing water to seep up through holes cut in the ice throughout the lake, making it even worse.  Despite the sloppy conditions, higher winds, constant snow, rain or drizzle all day long, the fish didn’t care and bit all day long. 

Jim, early on, stepped into and old eight inch hole that someone had cut perhaps a few days prior, and had a wet foot which could have ruined his day had temperatures been a bit colder.  There's nothing more miserable while ice fishing than cold wet feet.  Warm insulated boots and wool socks that even insulate when wet helped Jim remain somewhat comfortable.  But, even after that, and also having to battle a stomach ache, he hung in there and stuck the day out.  Good fishing can put some of that at ease, and that was the case.  This was our two hundred fish combined day, a mixed bag of bass, pickerel, perch, sunfish, and fallfish. 

It was my kind of day though.  We found fish quickly, and I think that I cut three holes all day long, and it was all that was needed.  In addition to trudging through all that slop, cutting a hole with a hand auger through twenty plus inches of ice can wear and old fat guy like me out quickly.  Well, I actually cut seven holes, because once I was on fish, I had to cut holes for my electronics too.  I do this to keep the fish from tangling in the camera cable or transducer cable of my sonar. 

I was able to handle the elements easily, tucking myself inside my cozy Fish Trap portable ice fishing shanty.  Not only does it protect me from the elements, it also allows me to view my camera monitor much easier, providing a dark house of sorts, with just enough light inside to see what was going on.  My Fish Trap also has windows where I can view what is going on outside.
Shown here is my hiding spot, out of the wind, comfy, and able to easily view my underwater camera screen.
I offered as often as I could to invite Jim to either join me or take my place inside to warm up now and then, and to try out my electronics (which he did for a bit) especially since he wasn’t feeling well.  But, Jim’s a tough guy and put up with what Mother Nature dealt him, and having good fish bite all day long helped him cope, I’m quite sure.  He seemed to be more focused on me having a good time than his personal well being.  What a great host and a great friend!

This is the view of my set up while inside my comfy portable ice fishing haven.  The hole on the right was for my electonics.  In this picture, my sonar wasn't being used to conserve the battery as fish were moving into camera view for a long period of time.  This hole was home to my camera cable, with the actual camera down the hole positioned to look down on the fish toward the bottom, where you can see weeds scattered alogn the bottom.  In the center of the screen is my jig.  Where you find weeds while ice fishing, fish are usually nearby.
I typically use my sonar to locate the fish, checking hole after hole until they are located.  Then, I’ll drop a jig down the hole to check if the fish are active and will bite.  On the sonar screen, you can actually see your lure sink toward the bottom, and see the fish rise off the bottom to your bait (or move in from the side).  Once the bar on the sonar (flasher) representing a fish moves even with the one representing your lure, you take your eye off the sonar unit and focus on your rod tip and watch for any movement of that rod tip.  If it twitches, set the hook and you most of the time will catch a fish.  Sometimes the bites are very subtle, and all that might move is your line.  If anything weird like that happens, set the hook.  Crappie are notorious for doing that.

Actually, to be effective on the ice, sonar is really all you need.  You can most certainly use the sonar all day long to put you on fish, watch your lure and the fish, and get a sense of how they are reacting your entire day.  Sonar can give you enough information, but it can't tell you everything.  What you don’t know is what kind of fish they are or how big those fish are.  You can read the sonar to determine the type of bottom, hard or soft, and even read weeds or other cover.  If you are on a good fish bite, this is where the camera comes in handy.  You can see what the bottom is like, even what kind of weeds are present.

Personally, I view the sonar and the camera as separate tools with different purposes.  The sonar puts me on fish, the camera refines and improves my ability to catch them.  They are simply effective tools to fish.  Do you need them both?  No, but they both really do improve your odds.  In addition, I find it extremely fun.  You can drop the camera down, see the fish, how big they are, what the bottom is like, what kind of weeds are there, stumps, branches, whatever.  And, you can watch the fish actually inhale or bite your lure.  Not only that, you can see the fish that aren’t after your lure at the time too. 

It’s so much fun, like watching an interactive TV show with you and the fish as stars.  I'll sit there and watch the fish inhale my lure and then set the hook and the fight is on, all day long, with me giggling like a kid the entire time.  The advantage the camera gives you is that you know exactly when to set the hook.  There is no doubt when you have a bite, and even the most subtle bites aren’t missed unless you’re too slow to react.  The result is that the hookup percentage is higher.

Pictured here is a medium sized yellow perch that fell victim to my set up.  The fish was released unharmed after his photo op.  This was my last spot, my third set of holes on the day, that proved to be the most productive spot.  You can see on the camera that this spot showed less weeds than that other spot in the previous picture, and it was a mere fifteen feet away.  You can't see the fish in this picture, but they were moving through often, like a highway following the weed edge.
I landed sixty nine yellow perch, and at least fifty of them were between ten and thirteen inches long.  In addition, the sunfish were active.  Jim caught a ton of them, and I finished with twenty one of chunky sunnies, a mix of pumpkinseed and red ear sunfish.
Here was my biggest sunfish of the day.  All of them were nice, but this one was a brute. 
In the picture above, you can see the camera on the ice.  I had to pull it, my line, and the fish out all together because this guy wrapped himself around my camera cable.  You can also see the sonar or flasher at work here.  Sometimes it helps to use both, to use the flasher to see what’s outside of the range of your camera, to gain a clue that fish are approaching.

Jim didn’t have much tip up action that last day, but did manage to land a dandy fat largemouth bass.  It took a lot of line too, as you can see it strewn across the ice in the picture below.
Nice bass Jim!

While Jim jigged away catching sunnie after sunnie, I hammered perch like this one all day long.  I'm sitting on a modified bass boat seat installed in my Fish Trap, pictured here with the shanty in the open position.
Of course, jigging is an effective way to put panfish on the ice.  But, you can also jig up predators.  I also landed two small chain pickerel and three largemouth.  At one point when the perch action slowed, I was watching my Berkley one and a half inch Gulp Smelt Minnow on my 1/32 ounce Ratso glow jighead, putting myself in a trance while jigging.   I set my rod down to take a drink of my Pepsi Max, when, what looked like a submarine appeared on my camera moving right up to my jig.  I picked up the rod and gave it a twitch, and the submarine opened its mouth and sucked in my jig.  It was a massive largemouth, at least for ice fishing in my world, and probably was in the four pound range.  It took off, taking drag while I was backreeling.  I fought this fish for quite a while as I didn’t want to break this fish off.  I had to be careful because my perch jigging rod was set up with only one pound test.  Things were going well but I took one hand to pull the camera and cable up and out of the hole to keep the fish from wrapping around the cable, while the bass took drag, and it broke me off.  Well, that explains why the panfish dissappeared!

Not too long after that, I had a repeat performance, only this time I successfully landed the fish, a largemouth bass, not quite as large as the first one, but a healthy fish that was eighteen inches on my measuring tape.After a quick photo shoot, I released it back to the depths under the ice.
Here was my biggest fish of my trip, a nice eighteen inche largemouth bass.  Not bad for using a perch rod and reel combo spooled with one pound test!
So, that was my last day on the ice, and it made my ice fishing season.  I’d say, in fact, it was my ice fishing season.  Jim and I had hoped to get out on Tuesday for one more go at these fish, but the approaching storm caused me to reevaluate my plans and cut my trip short one day.  I just couldn’t risk leaving my wife stranded at home without power.  I considered staying an extra day to wait it out, but the storm was due to hit New England the next day, so that option was out.  Nevertheless, my first ever visit to Maine to visit my good friend Jim proved to be very memorable.  It wasn't much of a season, but it was one that I'll never forget.  Now I want more!  I will be back.  And, in addition, next time I hope to meet up with some of my other Maine Iceshanty friends.

I can’t wait to get back up there again on the ice or open water.  I purchased a yearly Maine license, so more than likely it will happen.  I owe a huge thank you to Jim Cumming for being such a gracious host, fantastic guide, and most of all a great friend.  Also, a big thanks go out to Geoff Cerrelli for helping me out with some last second bait.  It was great to meet up and talk with him again, and we will hit the softwater together before long.  Perhaps that adventure will result in a future blog post!


Anonymous said...

Hey Kevmaster! That was a fun read. I'm happy to see you made it up to see Jim. I guess that's the type of conditions you get up there in March...sloppy. I've trudged through that stuff too and it does give you a workout! I was beat after three days on the did you feel!?

tight lines


Fat Boy said...

Thanks Jeff! I was exhausted, but would have loved another bite like that last day! I'm still sore! We'll have to reunite on the hardwater some day. It would be fun to fish with my ice fishing mentor again!!!!!

Jim C. said...

Great article, Kev, and a great visit. After a warm week and a 19 degree night to tighten things up, the travel on the ice was much easier yesterday! The fishing, so-so. I got 3 largemouth in 3-4 LB. range, but missed a batch. The jigging bite was fairly slow.

Jim C.

Fat Boy said...

Thanks for the feedback Jim! Glad you got some more nice fat ol' bass at least despite the slow jigging bite. It's all fun. Now I'm going to have to go back and watch those videos of ya over and over at lunch!