Monday, March 3, 2014

On the Hardwater - Salvaging a Tough Day

In my last blog post, I discussed my approach to finding fish on a small lake.  The major theme basically was to move until you find good sized fish, ingnore the sniffers, and move away from catching small fish, or "dinks".  Usually by following the plan laid out in that post, On the Hardwater - Attacking a Small Lake for Panfish, you will eventually find the fish that you are looking for, although it may take time and a ton of effort cutting many holes.   But what happens when you try those suggestions and things just don't work out?  How can you salvage a tough day?
My enthusiastic ice angling friend, Glenn Cumings, working fish that he marked during mid morning.  Glenn kept moving and eventually found a few nice bluegills mixed in with mostly small bluegills.  Remembering what he did at this hole helped us finally solve the puzzle later.
My buddy Glenn Cummings and I decided to hit a lake known for good sized panfish.  In the past, we've had great success icing a mixed bag of fat keeper sized perch, slab crappie, and bull bluegills.  My experience on this particular lake was at a different area than we opted to fish.  Glenn insisted that this spot, new to me, would produce the output that we were hoping for.  Conditions were perfect, leaving us both feeling very enthusiastic about our chances at finding big panfish.
After finding a suitable parking place to access our lake, Glenn poses with his gear, nearly ready to attack our small lake in search of jumbo sized panfish.
Glenn and some of my other buddies have had good experience at this new spot on our lake, and Glenn assured me that he could put us on fish.  I was game to expand my horizons and find new spots.  My past experiences were very productive at my spots on this lake, so previously, I had no reason hunt for new spots.

Once out there, we began our regimen by moving out to the mid basin of the cove, a typical location to find panfish during mid winter ice.  I cut a series of holes through sixteen solid inches of ice with my hand auger until my shoulders cramped.  Twenty six cranks on each hole had me stop after six holes, each spaced about thirty feet apart.  But, it was enough that I could scoop out the ice chips and check them with my sonar.  Each hole was over twenty four feet of water, a prime area for this time of year.

Well, things looked up right off the bat as I marked fish at each hole, some suspended and some on the bottom.  The next step, of course, is to drop a lure down there and find out what we're dealing with.  My rig of choice was my favorite dual Ratso rig, my hottest set up of the year so far.  But the fish were sniffers in each of the holes.  It was weird because the fish charged up off the bottom, then either bit very lightly or not at all.  My first impression was that I was dealing with dinks.

I moved toward the far shore a bit and cut six more holes.  Again, after checking the holes and marking fish in each one, I dropped a different offering down there to see if that would make a difference, this time, a tiny tungsten chartreuse Northland Fireball Jig teamed with a pair of spikes to add some scent, in case the sniffers were decent sized finicky fish.  This time, a fish charged up and nailed my jig, confirming my earlier suspicion.
My first fish confirmed my suspicion...dink.  that's a tiny lure, and a very tiny bluegill.  I wasn't interested in catching these all day.
Meanwhile, Glenn was doing the same thing, but heading toward the center of the cove.  He was also catching dink bluegills now and then.  After chatting with another guy on the ice, Glenn used some of his new intel to move to another spot.  His next hole produced a few nice bluegills mixed with the dinks.

I, on the other hand, moved again.  I noticed that one shoreline had a nice draw, leading to me to think that a spring or creek, even a runoff one, might provide enough structure out into the lake to hold fish.  I moved over to that area and mustered enough energy to cut eight more holes.  Again, I marked fish in every hole, this time in twenty one feet of water.

After working these fish a while, I picked up a few nice bluegills, a decent yellow perch, and a small crappie mixed in with some dinky bluegills.  I bounced around from hole to hole and caught fish here and there, but didn't have that hot hole so that I could set up my camera and haul 'em in.  Plus, the water seemed too dingy to use the camera.  The dingy water may have played a role in the mood of the fish too.

We had action, and including the dinks, my totals were just shy of twenty fish for about five hours of fishing.  That's not the bite that I'd hoped for.  Plus, the size of the fish weren't impressing me.  So, at three in the afternoon, with the magic hour looming, I convinced Glenn to make a major change.  He agreed, because it really wasn't happening for him either.

We had two options for a major change, move on this lake to an entirely different depth and structure, or make a spot change to another lake.  We figured that the latter would waste too much time, so we took a hike to a new previously productive area.
The major move included a long hike during prime fishing time, past the guy on the left and around the point to a deep thirty eight foot basin.
We had a nice hike ahead of us, but with the ice pretty slick, towing our portable Fish Traps full of gear wasn't an issue. But, it did use up valuable fishing time.  We went to one of my past productive spots, around a point and into another cove.  We head out to the deeper water basin, a notorious hangout for fat yellow perch and crappie in the past.

I cut eight more holes.  Again, each hole held fish, and the result was the same.  I quickly managed a seven inch perch and a small bluegill, but not the size of the fish that I had hoped.  This group of fish were far more active, but my third yellow perch of the day sealed my decision to move again.  It may have been the smallest yellow perch that I've caught in my life.  It couldn't have been even three inches long!

Glenn was working the fish in his holes, and hooked and lost a couple fish on his ultralight outfit.  But, he agreed that this might not have been a good move.  I headed toward a long sloping point, hoping to find twenty to twenty five feed of water off the end of the point.  After cutting five more holes, I found that spot.  My first four holes didn't mark fish, but my fifth one did.  I caught that one fish, another dinky bluegill.

Now, I was getting discouraged, and after Glenn met up with me, he was too.  So, we agreed that we had enough time to hike back up the lake to our original spot.  Again, another half hour of hiking wasting fishing time.  By the time that we reached our old holes, the magic hour was half over.
Our long walk back to our original holes cost us half of the magic hour.  Our destination was beyond those folks in the distance.
Remember in my last post when I wrote this?
"Later in the day though, it might be wise to remember where those sniffers are, especially if you catch one and it's a good sized fish.  Because, often low light conditions, commonly thought of at the magic hour, that last hour of daylight, finicky fish might become more active later."
I checked my best holes from earlier and one of them had fish stacked on the sonar.  So, I set up camp there for the evening bite.  My first drop with my tandem Ratso rig resulted in a nice fat crappie.  The next drop was a bigger bluegill, followed by another one.  After that, I lost a slab crappie at the hole that was easily thirteen inches.

Daylight ran out quickly, so Glenn, who had also been catching better sized fish, and I fired up our lanterns and set up for the night bite.  After dark, the fish became finicky again, but, if you worked them enough, you could coax them into a solid bite.  The bite wasn't hot, but I marked enough fish to keep me interested, and enough of them were reacting to my lures.
This isn't a monster bluegill by any means, but a much better average size compared to the dinks earlier in the day.  I caught several of these after dark, jigging aggressively, trying to imitate the tiny hopping crustaceans that flooded my sonar.  The fish were mixed with them, actively feeding.
I caught several more crappie and a nice bluegill that was suspended at ten feet over twenty four feet of water.  Glenn struggled a bit with tackle problems and also problems with his lantern, but managed to catch some nice crappie and bluegills too.

Remember earlier in the post that I mentioned that the water was dingy?  I think that the fish didn't seem aggressive because they had a hard time seeing the lure in the murky water.  I used glow jigs and worked them very aggressively.  As it turns out, when the fish finally found the lure, they were very active and hit readily.
Here's a medium crappie that I worked for and caught after dark.  Aggressive jigging in the dingy water was the key to catching this crappie along with several more of his buddies.
I finished with a forty fish plus day, if you include the dinks, but we worked hard for them.  It was my toughest day of the year on the ice.  But, that final move paid off, the one where we went back to old semi-productive holes where the sniffers were actually decent sized panfish.

I'm sore today, two days later, from cutting holes.  We had twelve inches of snow last night, so shoveling my hundred foot driveway isn't helping my aging bones either.  I was miffed at my decision to make that major move to deep water, because it may have cost us a dozen or more nice sized fish from wasting half the magic hour.  But looking back, even though it was a tough day, the reward was that we finally solved the puzzle.

The system worked, finally.  But, perhaps some patience would have worked better this time by sticking to holes that gave up a few nice fish early.