Monday, February 3, 2014

Hot Start to a Cold Winter...Hardwater Heaven!

Call it Polar Vortex, call it unusual, call it whatever you wish.  I call it winter, a normal winter that reminded me of winters past, where our local ice fishing opportunities lasted two to three months.  No matter what it's called, I'm thankful for it.  The mild winters of the past few years were painful to ice anglers like me, who had to travel further to find ice.  Now, my inner conflict, the open water musky angler in me, yearns for flowing rivers free of ice, but part of me is happy now!

As an ice angler, I couldn't have been much more happy about my first four trips on the ice.  I had the opportunity to meet new friends and fish with old friends.  And the icing on the cake, or on the lake, was that we caught a bunch of fish in the process.

My first three trips took place at the lake where it all started for me too many years ago to mention.  Yeah, I'm the guy that I used to call "old".  This lake was home to my first ice fishing adventure of my life, as detailed in my previous post, "Remember Your First Ice Fishing Trip?"  Jeff Redinger turned me on to this gem of a lake along with the sport of ice fishing.

My old friend Glenn Cumings met me up there, the same guy that hosted Jeff's ice fishing workshop that got me addicted to this past time.  Glenn is as equally responsible for my ice fishing exposure as Jeff is.  The ice was anywhere from four to eight inches thick where it looked “safe” that first afternoon.  The lake was drawn down about ten feet for the past few years because the dam needs
to be repaired.  The usual twenty something foot deep hot spots were now ten feet shallower.  But, the fish were there.

My first trip always seems like an orientation for me, not only to find the fish, but also to get the rustiness of not being on the ice a while out of me.  My hook setting reaction time seems to get slower each year, yet improves daily the more that I get out and fish.

I fished near an old spot where twenty foot depths were ten, hoping the fish wouldn't care about depth and remain on the structure.  I picked up a few fish here and there, but it wasn't a banner day for me. I finished with eleven medium sized crappie, seven nice bluegills, and five decent sized yellow perch.  I was only on the ice for just a few hours, so it wasn't all that bad.  In fact, it wasn't the fish, it was me.

One of my favorite rod and reel rigs for fishing soft plastics is my tandem Ratso rig.  I rig two Ratso's in tandem, one about eight inches higher than the bottom one.  The rod is an ultralight inexpensive fiberglass rod with a broken rod tip.  Being the cheap person that I am, I converted this to my ultralight jigging rod for these baits by adding a homemade “spring bobber” as a replacement tip top.  If you've read my other ice fishing posts, you know how much I rely on this rig.  It's my bread and butter panfish catching set up!

This rig really shines during that night time crappie bite.  Usually, when a fish bites, you see the spring move down with the fish pulling on the line.  Sometimes crappie will hit and the spring, normally loaded by the weight of the jig, actually rises and the line goes slack.  When fish hit like that, they’re pushing the bait up.  Crappie are notorious for that behavior.

Glenn introduced me to one of the guys on the ice, Tanner, who also frequents Iceshanty.  He fished with two of his buddies that had never ice fished before.  He let his buddies use his flip over shanty, tackle, and sonar units.  That's a true friend right there, hauling all that extra gear out just for them.

Since I didn’t arrive at the lake until about four in the afternoon, I didn’t bring my underwater camera onto the ice simply because of the lack of daylight.  I relied on the sonar to detect the fish and observe their behavior.  I may have missed some fish during the night bite because my lantern wasn’t working properly, and I didn't have the right tools to fix it on the lake.  Glenn and the other guys did well, maybe slightly better than I did, possible because of that.  I thought at the time it was because they were using bait, but that wasn’t the case.  I wouldn’t discover why my limited success until the next day.

All of my fish were caught on glow Ratso 1/64 jigs with blue glow 3/4 inch Ratso soft plastic finesse tails (stinger style) made by Custom Jigs and Spins.  On this lake, glow blue or glow pink are hot colors for some reason.  That day, blue worked much better than the pink.  As far as color goes, I'm not convinced that it makes a difference as it's more of a confidence thing, but the glow does make a difference in my humble opinion.  I think that how you work the lure and the lure size are far more important factors.  But it was a fun start for my ice season.  The fish weren’t big, but not quite dinks either…mediums I’d say.
It looks cold, but it was actually pretty toasty inside my shanty.  I had to peel off a couple layers of clothing to keep from sweating inside there.  The lantern provides both light and heat inside, even in frigid temperatures.
I fished the same lake the next day, starting around mid-afternoon.   The bite was slow at first.  I only caught one bluegill for the first hour.  I spent quite a bit of time searching for active fish, cutting holes and checking them with the sonar.  Every hole I cut seemed to be the same, eleven feet and featureless, and not marking many fish.

I dropped my camera down for a horizontal look around, and saw nothing but mud and a clump of algae here and there, with no fish in site.  I checked four separate holes where I caught fish the previous night and found nothing.  Then, I found one spot that was about two feet deeper and marked a fish.  I didn’t catch it, but did mark it.  I figured this spot was different.  Later, that hunch would prove to be the reason that the fish were there.

I dropped down the camera for a quick 360 degree scan, and saw several bluegills.  This was a good spot to set up.  I cut one hole for my flasher, one for my camera, and one to fish out of.  Within a half hour, I had a few nice bluegills iced, not great, but a start.  I set my camera to look down on the fish at about six feet from the bottom.  This way, I could see them approach from any angle.  I could see my jigs and the bottom pretty clearly.

I spent most of the afternoon fishing inside my shanty.  It’s easier to see the camera in a dark house.  Of course, inside the shanty, you're also comfortable and out of the elements.  Every now and then I'd flip my shack open to chat and not be an unsociable hermit.  Tanner had arrived with his buddies, Ricky and Chris.  They also began to take advantage of the late afternoon bite.
Pictured here are Tanner to the right, his buddy Chris in the chair, and Ricky inside the other shanty.  The guy furthest away is named Rich.  I met Rich the day before.  He’s a nice guy and really tore up the bluegills both days.  As you can see, not only can you catch a lot of fish, but it’s pretty sociable out there too!
While using the camera, when the fish moved in, I could see them inhale my lure, and I’d set the hook. That extra time made up for my slow old age hook sets and allowed me to land the light biters that gave me fits the day before.  Bluegills are notorious for being finicky light biters.  The camera helps to see them bite.

Later, even more fish showed up, and showed up in bigger numbers.  The fish chased down my jigs as quick as I could get them down there.  They competed with each other to get to them.  At one point, the bluegills pecked at my camera!  Then the crappie moved in.  They used my camera as structure!  I’d jig right up to the camera and a crappie would appear right there and inhale it.  They looked huge right in front of the camera like that.  They were extremely aggressive.  You can't see stuff like that on a flasher, which makes ice fishing with an underwater camera that much more fun.
I watched this yellow perch show up suspend right below the camera and engulf my offering.  You can see the Ratso firmly embedded in its upper lip.  Also, you can see my set up, the flasher and camera both in use.  During daylight, the camera was effective.  Deeper fish that were out of view had to be watched on the sonar until the camera could pick them up.  As daylight diminished, the camera's effectiveness did as well.
As we lost daylight, the camera became less effective.  My camera doesn’t work well at night.  The zooplankton are attracted to the camera lighting and they show up in huge clouds after dark.  Plus, it's an old undewater camera and the lighting isn't really all that great.  I've heard that the modern cameras work much better at night.  So, as it became dark, I had to focus on the sonar.  It didn't matter, as the bluegills and crappie stayed aggressive most of the evening.

This particular lake isn't open all night.  In fact, they will ticket you after a certain time.  There was a slow spell about an hour and a half after dark, but wouldn’t you know it, when it was time to get off the lake, the crappie showed up again, more aggressive than ever.  We managed a few bigger ones to close out the evening with some over ten inches long.  But most were mediums like the previous day.
Here’s a typical bluegill from that trip, measuring about six inches (average was 6-8”), with the Ratso in the upper lip.
That night, I finished with 44 crappie, 31 bluegills, and 5 yellow perch.  I caught my last crappie to round out eighty fish just in time to pack up and get out before getting ticketed.  Tanner was using maggots on a small moon glow jig and easily did as well as I did, and better than I did the previous night.  The difference for me between the two nights was that slightly deeper depression in the bottom that seemed to hold the fish.
The last crappie of the night, a small one.
Of course, after those two afternoons, visions of ice fishing danced through my brain all week at work.  I had the day off this past Friday, and went back to the same lake, this time toting Glenn with me.  We hit a local tackle shop for bait to pick up some spikes, just in case the fish were finicky.

We arrived at the lake and were fishing by about one in the afternoon.  A week after my first outing, the ice had more than doubled, now over ten inches thick.

Glenn heard about a spot that had a hot bite of bigger fish from a buddy of his, so we cut holes in that area and searched for fish.  I marked fish in every hole that I cut.  This area of the lake was nearly the deepest at fifteen to eighteen feet.  The fish actively checked the baits and nipped at then.  This behavior is typical of smaller fish, or very finicky larger fish.  You won't know for sure until you catch one.

After cutting a few more holes and having the same thing happen, I downsized to a tiny ice jig tipped with one maggot.  I had to catch one to see if they were worth fishing for or not, just to be sure.  I caught one fish after another on that rig, but they were literally three inch bluegills and four inch yellow perch, confirming my suspicion.  So much for the magic hole.

I didn’t want to waste time feeding baitfish, and moved further up the lake to the more shallow thirteen foot depth that had been productive the week before.  Again, every hole marked fish, so I had to fish them to see what those fish were.  I wasn't satisfied with my catch, so I kept moving, cutting and checking holes. Up until then, I had a dozen fish under my belt that wouldn’t have weighed half a pound collectively!

I moved toward the creek channel, out of the thirteen feet and and back to fifteen, but further up the lake.  My first drop resulted in good hit on my tandem Ratso soft plastic rig.  The bite resonated up to my elbow!  I set the hook and immediately pulled my flasher transducer out of the way.  I back reeled and the fish took drag, and I didn’t want to lose whatever it was, even if I was using one pound test.  Finally, I brought it to the hole, head first and lipped it, yanking it onto the ice.  It turned out to not be a monster, but a nice bass at fourteen and one half inches long!
This chunky fourteen and a half inch largemouth fell for my Ratso tandem rig.  Here you can see my modified broken inexpensive rod with my home made spring tip top.  Not bad for one pound test, huh?
Well, I figured that was the hot hole.  But, maybe there were more like him down there.  My flasher marked a lot of fish, so I dropped something that usually tempts the bigger fish like this one, a Salmo Chubby Darter, which looks like a lipless crankbait but is a vertical jigging lure.  You lower them to the bottom, then rip them up about three feet or so, then let them drop, keeping your light tight as it falls with the fluttering lure, but not so tight that it kills the action.

After jigging the Chubby Darter three times, my sonar showed the marks moving up for the bite, then, a big hit!  Fish on!  "Whoooo hooo", I’m thinking, "I figured out the bass here!"  But, only to my disappointment, it was a bluegill, albeit nice one. That gill thought he was a largemouth!
This bluegill thought he was a largemouth, jumping all over my Salmo Chubby Darter!
After that, the fish vanished and I stopped marking fish.  By now, it was the magic hour, four in the afternoon, and too late to pull out the camera and set up.  The week prior, this was the hot bite time, and it wasn't happening for me now, especially since the fish had vacated.  It was time to go in search mode again.  I thought, “What a difference from last week when they were so active.”

So, I moved up the channel a little ways, cut another hole.  This time, I marked fish from literally the bottom to about three feet under the ice, and it remained like that the rest of the afternoon and evening.  I dropped my Ratsos down there, and the fish were shooting off the bottom to hit them.  At first, it was bluegills, not big but bigger than before, maybe a six inch average, and some decent yellow perch, males mostly.  Mixed in were some medium crappies.

But the bite never stopped.  In fact, it intensified.  I hit the thirty fish count and pulled out my golf counter so I wouldn’t lose track.  I could remember in my head the perch and bass count, since they were less numerous.  All I had to do is let the golf counter count the total, and remember the crappie count, and deduct that to calculate the bluegills.

My jigs wouldn’t make it to the bottom without fish inhaling them.  They literally hooked themselves.  If I missed on a hookset, another would shoot up to bite before I could lower the bait down.  I caught two at a time on a few drops.  This action, out of one hole, took place from four until about seven in the evening when my lantern ran out of propane.  During that time, my fish count went from a dozen fish to seventy one in total!

My lantern ran out of propane during the hot bite.  On my way back to my truck for more fuel, I ran into Tanner, who introduced me to his Father and Uncle.  They offered me a can of propane to get my lantern working again, so I could get back on the bite.  Thanks guys!  But, by the time I had the lantern fired up, the bite had slowed drastically.  For the next hour and a half, I caught only five medium crappie, but did miss a few bites.  All of the crappie were seven or eight inches long with a  few nine inchers mixed in.

Of course, we had to be off the lake their closing time.  With a half hour to go, talked about packing it in.  Then, like clockwork, they turned on again.  Those fish knew that we had to get off the ice!  All of a sudden, they chased my Ratso’s again.  But now, the crappie were bigger, averaging nine inches, with two fat ones that were over ten inches long.  It was really hard to quit fishing and avoid getting fined, but we did.  I finished with 86 fish, 35 of them were crappie, the one bass, five fat yellow perch, and the rest bluegills.

It was one of the hottest bites in such a short time frame that I can ever recall, even better than the week before.

The next day, I set my sights on another Central Pennsylvania lake further North, to fish the hardwater with one of the best musky anglers, check that, anglers, that I know, the founder of Keystone Outdoor Addiction, Jeremy Tyson.  Jeremy has been ice fishing most of his life, but never really gave using electronics a try, so he wanted to check out my system and see what it's all about.  My friend, fellow angler Wayne Chmielewski, also met us there.  Jeremy's friend Jay was also to meet up with us.  I hadn't met him yet.

When I was setting up, this guy walked out on the ice straight toward us.  He wore a green jacket and black hat, sunglasses over the hat logo, with a backpack and no fishing stuff.  I'm thinking, "Well, here's the game warden checking licenses, starting out with us, the furthest out first."  I figured I'd get it over with so that I could set up and begin fishing.  I walk over to him and showed him my license.  He said that everything looked in good order and asked how the fishing was.  As I was telling him about the fishing, Jeremy yelled out, "Hey Jay, you didn't just check his fishing license, did ya?"

It was Jeremy’s friend, Jay, who was coming out to fish with us…If I was an ostrich, I would have stuck my head down one of the hole in the ice to hide!

Usually, the panfish at this lake are on the larger side but more difficult to find and catch.  The trick is to find fish.  When you do, the size will come.  At least that's been the M.O. of this lake for many years that I've fished it.   We found fish, but nothing big, and they would turn out to be very picky all day.

We were fishing thirty four feet of water.  I gave Jeremy and Jay a tutorial on how to use the sonar as neither had used them through the ice before.  The fish were active enough to effectively teach them about the electronics, but the bluegills and crappie were much smaller than what I’d caught during my previous trips.  We did manage a few nice fat yellow perch though.

I also showed the camera set up to Jeremy and Jay, gave then each turns at attempting to catch fish with it.  They had fun with the system, but I think that they didn't want to infringe on my fishing.  I didn't mind, I was out to have fun.  Them having fun was rewarding to me.  But I admit, it's very easy to close the shanty and sit there and watch the camera and fish. It's mesmerizing, and time goes by.

At one point in the late afternoon, the fish showed up on the sonar in big suspended schools.  I then saw them on my camera.  They were crappie.  I'd watch them zoom in and miss my lures and aggressively attempt to eat them.  They’d surge to attack and miss, often, like they were blind!  But, it was deep, probably nearly thirty feet down down over thirty four feet of water, right under my camera, and there was snow on the ice.  It was dark down there.  I think that they had a hard time seeing the bait.  That does explain why at night they will follow and not always bite.  They may be trying to eat the lure all along and simply miss.

Later, I watched my jig while trying to entice a crappie below, when a big flash of a fish swooped in and engulfed my jig.  I set the hook and the fight was on.  It wasn’t as strong as the bass from the day before, but the fish was much bigger than I had been catching all day and I didn’t want to lose it.  Fortunately, it didn’t wrap around my camera cable, and I was able to get it though the hole.  As it turns out, rather than the big fat perch that I had hoped it was, it was another bass, but it was significantly smaller than the bass from Friday at about ten inches long.
Here's the little bass that attacked my Ratso rig, with Jeremy Tyson in the background.
Here's a picture of Wayne, searching for fish down by the dam.
Jeremy called it quits before dark. It was a good call, because his arrival at home earlier saves him brownie points with his wife for future trips, and these dinky fish weren't worth it.  We stayed in hopes that the bigger crappie would appear.

After dark, my flasher lit up like a Christmas tree with fish.  Looking at the round shape of the sonar in the picture below, the bottom is at about 8 o'clock.  All those marks to the right going counter clockwise are fish.  The bottom group were mostly tiny bluegills.  The ones the the right, at about ten to fifteen feet were small  to medium crappie, the biggest that we caught were nine inches, but most were only six inches long.  The fish about ten feet down over thirty four feet of water were the more active fish, suspended like that.  The ones toward the bottom were suspended and active too, but were too small to get even the tiny jig hook in their mouths
My sonar was lit up like a Christmas Tree!
I hoped the lake would have produced a hot bite with bigger fish.  There was enough action to keep us interested, but fish fish were very picky during the day and, other than the perch, were on the small side.  I finished with a six bluegills, two yellow perch, a largemouth, and twenty two crappie.  Not bad, but not great, and the size was a real disappointment, especially for this lake.  We could have stayed and caught more, but Wayne and I had a long drive home.  So, we made a pact that we'd each get one more and then call it quits.  It took about fifteen minutes, and we succeeded in fulfilling our pact, and packed it up.

My first four trips were a huge success though, because I fished with Jeremy and Wayne for the first time on the ice, and met some new anglers (Tanner, Jay and Rich), and spent some time with an old friend who is partly responsible for my ice fishing addiction, Glenn Cumings.  And, two of the four trips had some of the hottest action that I'd ever experienced in such a short amount of time!

I'd say that was a hot start to a cold winter, wouldn't you?


Anonymous said...

Love the write up Kevin.....I definitely enjoyed our day on the ice! And as I mentioned don't feel bad about showing Jay you license, cuz he does work for the PFBC as an assistant hatchery manager and was in casual green attire lol. As for the fishing, it was tough but enough to keep us going with good company. I am very appreciative of the tutorial you gave us with your electronics......I am definitely leaving fish uncaught by not having a flasher. Absolutely loved the camera flasher, shanny set up too, but that is a few brownie points away for me!


Fat Boy said...

Thanks Jeremy. I had a lot of fun fishing with you guys! Good luck saving those brownie points for a flasher!