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We have ice!

We have ice!

Got out ice fishing for the first time this season on Green Lake. Found about 3″ of semi-clear ice with popping and snapping every step. Fish fairly active. Perch, gills, crappies fishing a Kelly green marmooska tungsten gem w/small red plastic. Most bites right under the ice in about 6 fow. As you might expect on Green lake, many fish were on the small side.

Ice is marginal on Shore slough at Lansing , at Visagers and Millstone on the west side of the River. A few guys getting out reporting similar results as seen at Green Lake

The 1.5″ of snow which fell on Monday still covers the ice, both inhibiting ice development and hiding the seam between clear and cloudy ice. For these reasons and the vagaries of current , ice can’t be considered even marginally safe just about any place but Green lake.

Part of today’s fishin’ mission was to test HT’s new Nero auger. Punched through 3″ of ice in just a few seconds with minimal effort. I like the “jackknife” feature which provides the ability to fold the auger essentially in half for carrying. When it comes to adjusting the length there are only three positions. A 4th hole between ‘midget” and “giant” would be nice.

The other downside is the auger cover: two pieces of plastic which are supposed to slide apart/together then secured with a bungee.

Trump clearly did not collude with the Russians regarding the design of the auger cover. It worked OK today, with ambient temps above freezing. But on a COLD day I’m willing to bet the cover will freeze in place making it extremely tough–maybe even dangerous–to remove from the auger. I can see great potential for serious hand injury here…but from a speed standpoint, the Nero makes the Lazer auger look like you’re cutting with wooden blades.

Honest assessment: this auger will be SUPER when the cover is replaced with an old school one piece plus bungee. But as things stand now this Russian made auger is the ice fishing version of the AK 46.

Ready for the Iceman

Ready for the Iceman

My fishing profile over the past couple of weeks fits that classic profile of insanity; repeating the same behavior and expecting different results. My last SIX trips have been a species study in the letter “S”: shorts, saugers, sheep and sturgeon. Fishing where the Helix 10 says there are walleyes. Vertical jigging hair, Teddy Cat blades, plastics; pitching/dragging hair and plastics; pulling 3-ways with stickbaits, blades and jigs. All I’m catching is the four “s’ fish of the Apocalypse.

Deer hunting has lost its thrill. Focus is on harvesting meat to turn into jalopeno cheddar sticks as a main course for my open water m & M diet: meat and Metamucil.

A bowhunt 10 days ago yielded 29 lbs. of clean venison which used to be on the body of a 2 1/2 yrs. old 10-point buck with a VERY chocolate rack. Talkin’ dark, Saskatchewan chocolate. Never shot one even close to that color in this neck of the woods.

I was hunting a ridgetop stand in a light SE wind overlooking an old logging road as rut was winding down. Cruising bucks often come down this road from west to east under these conditions. Chocolate rack showed up right on queue. did a mouth grunt when he was at 21 yards. Game over.

Don’t claim to be an expert deer hunter. But when you do ANYTHING for more than 50 years you should make fewer mistakes than the deer do.

I’ve been fishing hard for about the same amount of time. More often than not have a good handle on what the fish are doing–
even if that means simply understanding their vote not to bite.

All boat ramps are still open here. The skim ice which was on some local backwaters is mostly gone with recent warm weather. Too windy to go out and reinforce insanity definition this morning. Got the ice fishing gear ready instead..

Skippy, the one voice in my head which still believes we’re still going to see a quick, hot open water walleye bite, will get his way just about every time we get decent weather between now and ice up. If he finally gets it right, he’ll take over this blog and let you know immediately.

Skippy’s twin brother, Calvin, the ice fishing nut, finally stopped his whining about getting the hardwater gear ready. We’re good to go. He’ll take over this blog two days after the tundra swans leave after 3-4 quiet, cold nights.

Right now, I’m gonna listen to Flash, the voice which called the shots most of the time when I was a firefighter. It is now a few minutes past noon. Noon is when professional firefighters catch a nap–if they can. Haven’t had to jump a rig for 16 years now–but some habits never die. nighty-nite.

The Tundra Swans say Winter is Nigh

The Tundra Swans say Winter is Nigh

Water temperatures on pool 9 have dropped to 35 degrees, with skim ice forming on quiet backwaters. Large flocks of tundra swans are starting to push through the area–a sure indicator that winter is right around the corner.

Thousands of tundras stop over on pool 8 just south of Brownsville in later autumn every fall, to feast on “duck potatoes” before continuing with their migration. Unlike most other waterfowl who just keep following the River south, these tundras make a hard left when they decide to leave here, wintering in the southeast US.

These big white birds are a truly reliable indicator of winter’s approach. Over the years I’ve noticed ice shows up on the River in earnest 48-72 hours after the tundras bug out. The fact that they showed up in big numbers on pool 9 means winter is definitely on the way–but it won’t get here until the swans vector east.

Meanwhile, catching walleyes for the next few weeks means a change in both mindset and presentation.

With the surface temp now 35 the hot fall bite has gone cold. Walleye metabolism has slowed, pushing fish into wintering areas, where they can congregate in incredible numbers.

On the main channel these wintering holes can be over 30 feet deep, in running sloughs the deeper holes which attract ‘eyes in cold water are 23-32 feet.

Finding fish is no problem with good electronics. The trick is getting them to bite something with a hook. With water running pretty much at normal pool and very clear, dark colors like purple, Kelly green and black flash work well using hair jigs.

With blade baits, I’ve downsized the tail on my Teddy Cat to two-inchers, and have a #5 chrome/blue jigging Rap and a 1/4 oz. Northland Buckshot Rattle spoon both ready to go.

For the past two Novembers we’ve enjoyed generally mild conditions. Both years we could still get out in boats in December. My fishing diary says the water temp was 39 degrees on 12/10/15. This year its already down to 35 a full month earlier.

With any luck it may be a couple weeks before ice clogs the boat launches. Until then, we’ll be essentially ice fishing in open water.

The tundra swans will let us know when its time to break out the short rods again. Ain’t it something that a critter with the brain the size of a walnut which migrates east instead of south knows more about winter’s arrival than a highly educated meaty urologist with extensive computer software?

Truth is, we humans aren’t as smart as we think we are. A 3K trolling motor holds us directly over walleyes which a 1K fish finder says are there but there are times when these critters just hunker down and laugh at you and that $400 fishin’ rod….and a walleye’s brain is even smaller than a tundra swan’s!

This evening I met John, the new federal game warden working this neck of the woods. had an interesting conversation In which the insidious government plot to confiscate our guns was revealed.

John said a lot of violators come clean when he tells them that lying to federal law enforcement is a felony. Felons are not allowed to possess firearms. It is a known fact that fishermen aren’t born liars–but we learn quicker than most folks.

fortunately, when it comes to fishin’ I always tell the truth as I see it. If you adopt this philosophy and always put the resource first there shouldn’t be a problem.

Perception is reality

Perception is reality

The philosophy that perception is reality is on target. 35 degrees on a November river is cold, bordering on brutal. The same temp in March is bordering on balmy–and 35 degrees sitting out on a bucket on the ice is almost tee shirt weather.

Spending a lifetime in the outdoors, I’ve experienced all of these temperature-based perceptions on an annual basis many, many times.

Water temperature on the Mississippi has dropped like a stone over the past couple of weeks. It is now hovering just below 40 degrees.

In late autumn walleyes really trap on the feedback when water temps drop to 48 degrees. Even monster cold fronts aren’t much of an issue as weeks pass and water temperatures slowly fall. They have a need to feed, taking on fuel for the coming winter. This urgency persists until temperatures drop to about 40.

When this occurs, walleye metabolism slows. They no longer have an urgency to feed, sliding into wintering areas where they can feed with less effort when an easy meal drops in front of their face–or strike reflexively when it bounces in front of their nose.

Finding walleyes between now and ice-up is pretty easy: start at the leading edge of wintering areas where electronics say they are hiding and go after ’em with blade baits, hair, plastic or slowly pulling 3 ways with a stickbait and a heavy jig.

Eelgrass coming down the River is a fact of life every fall on the Miss. It can really mess up your bait presentation–especially when trying to pull 3-ways. When weeds start coming in on every cast when you try pitching and dragging plastics the only effective way to fish is vertically with jigs and blades.

Treble hooks on blades and as jig stingers are weed magnets. The last ditch is going to a jig without a stinger hook. When this presentation loads up with weeds, the perception that 35 degrees on a November river is borderline brutal is an icy kiss on any exposed skin.

This is exactly the situation we’re in right now on Mississippi River pool 9.

Usually by the time water temps drop to below 40 the eelgrass situation abates. Not this year. Season change came on like gangbusters. We’re in it right now.

I’m hoping things stabilize by Thanksgiving. The past couple of years we’ve been able to fish into December. Back in 2015 winter showed up on Dec. 16.

As of right now there are no guide trips on the books for the rest of the year. I’m OK with that. Overall, its been a GREAT year and I want to thank all of you who shared the boat with me!
My fishing year started here on Feb. 17–just three days after returning from fishing across the American south. Last winter was the first time since high school that I didn’t get out ice fishing. Not once. I’m OK with that, too.

I go out to the freezer and see precious little meat–just some veggies, rhubarb and a couple of frozen pizzas. We eat three deer a year, so its time to crawl up in a tree for a week or so.
There are ZERO fish fillets in the freezer. No problem. When the Admiral says she wants fish, I go catch her some fish. there will almost certainly be this opportunity between now and the hard freeze.

Far as guiding goes, I’m still willing to work and take jobs on very short notice. If the meaty urologist says it’s gonna be in the 40’s with calm winds, call or email me–odds are I’ll be out there fishin’ anyway.

Meanwhile, I’ll be up in an oak waiting for does and counting what seem to be endless blessings. Unforeseen circumstances can change your life in a heartbeat.

As of right now, my wife and I are healthy. The kids are doing well. Nothing is broken around the house. The bills are paid. I have the freedom to hunt or fish every day, all day if I want to. Or not.

Right now I think I’ll have some pancakes. It’s 26 degrees outside. Looks like its gonna be a nice day. Light north wind. Think I’ll head out to the ridgetop stand about 3 p.m.

Thank God I’m a country boy!

Motivational Impairment

Motivational Impairment

There are really only two things standing between you and a nice mess of walleyes for the next several weeks: priorities and creature comfort.

Water temperatures have fallen into the mid-40s. River levels have fallen to classic late autumn levels–and walleyes have fallen into predictable patterns which they will remain in until we can’t get after ’em due to ice.

Family, employment and other critical life factors like hunting all tug for our time when November rolls around. A boat on the open River feels less comfortable than hunkering in a duck blind or perching motionless up in a broad-shouldered oak. There is much to be said for following a savvy dog across the field on a sunny afternoon. But there’s much to be said about a solid walleye thumping a jig, too.

With falling River levels, walleyes are relating to depth contours both out off of the main channel and back in the running sloughs.

In either case, you can trigger a bite with a blade bait, hair jig or plastic once you find the magic depth. When fish move up shallower on a point or wingdam face to feed, the bite is even more aggressive. I like using a search bait like a Rat-L-Trap or Shad Rap until temps drop to about 40, then switch over to dragging a Moxie tail or ringworm.

Dragging a ringworm on a 3/16 oz jighead alone or as part of a 3-way rig with a stickbait is also a killer presentation at times

Between now and Thanksgiving catching a mess of walleyes all boils down to motivation and desire. The fish are easy to find. I just told you how to catch ’em. If a couple of fresh caught, pan fried walleyes sounds better than Mrs. Paul’s fish sticks hot out of the oven when you’re standing there in your jammies and slippers, all you have to do is pull on the parka and mukluks and face the sleety wind with a smile. the bite is on!

Seams & Steppes

Seams & Steppes

The first whisper of winter arrived overnite in a howling northwest wind, bringing plummeting temperatures–pretty much right on schedule.

River levels continue to drop slowly and steadily. Seasonal changes in Spring and Fall bring considerable turmoil. We’ve been working through the Fall change for a couple of months now.

The high water which brought drastic change simply moved the presentation baseline do a different set of attack parameters–like starting a little later in the morning and playing closer attention to the barometer.

With high water receding as temperatures fall, current seams and similar ambush points take on greater importance–especially for bass and pike.

Walleyes show up when the food is there, too. But when high water started coming down the River, the marble-eyes were already beginning to stage on the “steppes” like they do every spring and fall.

Depth is a major key during these times of transition. At ice out, walleyes are holding in deep water wintering holes. As waters begin to warm just a couple of degrees, they start moving shallower and shallower–22 then 18 then 8 then SPAWN. River flow and the barometer are major factors, but the predator/prey relationship is even more critical. Movement of food, flow and the barometer may push the fish a little deeper before they move shallower again.

The migration on the “steppes” is reverse in the fall. Before the high water came, walleyes were active on the wingdams and closing dams on the main channel. In the backwaters you could find them pitching and dragging–or even vertical jigging–hair and plastic along the 11-13 foot contours.

With water still high, these contours will be a good starting place when I hit the water tomorrow–unless a mudline or current seam causes an audible at the line on the way to where I thought would be a good place to start fishin’.

The biggest key to consistent fishing success on the Miss–or anywhere else–comes from listening to the water. After all, this is what the fish do, and when you go after ’em you’re just another link in the food chain.

No matter how close you listen, there may be subtle things you aren’t aware of–or can’t be aware of. Because of this “X” factor it is even more important to stay attuned to all other clues and queues.

For example, on a trip a few days ago I knew walleyes were gonna be tough–with more aggressive species like bass and pike just a little less tough.

The River was well into the ‘action’ stage. The barometer was spiked well over 30.

But the forecast called for a slowly falling barometer after about 11 a.m. Told my clients action would likely pick up considerably about that time. Between 9-11 we only had one fish and several short hits and follows–even though we were in a spot that I knew fish were holding. Moved to a different spot and the guys suddenly had double doubles. time? 10:55. When we went back and tried the first spot an hour later they hooked up with 4 different species in 5 minutes.

Sometimes the fish make it look like you know what you’re doing. But they get a vote, too. Sometimes this vote is “no” because of something you’re doing–or not doing–even though you’re on the fish. Sometimes they vote “no” because of that “X” factor.

Jesus is the only guide who can call the shot correctly every time, just like he did in Matthew 17:27.

All we can do as mortal fishermen is spend as much time on the water as possible, with all senses trying to tune into the River. There are few absolute truths in fishing. But here’s one which comes pretty close: you can’t catch any fish if your line is not in the water!

Trappin’ Time

Trappin’ Time

Several weeks ago walleyes were easy to catch trolling crankbaits back in the running sloughs and casting cranks on main river structures like wingdams and closing dams.

anglers had less success once the annual influx of eelgrass started coming down the River. Patience, frogging around to different spots and sometimes a barrel swivel 18 inches up the line above the crank allowed many folks to enjoy continued success.

Then the river saw precipitous rise far up into the ‘action’ shade, within a couple feet of ‘minor flooding’ pushing many folks away from the River…at least when it comes to fishing.

A fall rise is a common occurrence on the Miss. We see high water in October at least 4 years out of every decade. When it shows up, walleyes and other fish don’t leave the system–they simply adapt.

Rivers don’t ‘ turn over’ like lakes. But fish experience definite changes in feeding patterns when water temperatures dip into the mid-50’s, this is especially true in those years when we see a fall rise.

The movement all comes back to the predator/prey relationship. Understanding this relationship is the MAJOR KEY to angling success on any water. It is especially relevant on the Immortal River.

Baitfish like shad and river shiners are the primary forage for almost all gamefish species in the Upper Miss from mmid-September until ice shows up.

When the river is running belly full, baitfish don’t have the gumption to hang around areas with heavy current like wingdams and closing dams.

With water temperature slowing their metabolism, baitfish move to where its easiest to find THEIR prey: current seams and structural breaks, usually in 8 feet of water or less.

To my mind there is no better lure under these conditions than a Rat-L-Trap. You can effectively fan-cast a main river point or current seam in 5 minutes or less. run-n-gun to a dozen likely spots and you’ll eventually find the fish. Once you do, anyone with time on the water can think of several more spots with similar habitat parameters.

On pool 9 where I spend a sinful amount of time, the killer lure when fish are holding in 3-7 f.o.w. is an ‘oxbow” pattern Rat-L-Trap, although recently I’ve stumbled across another color which may prove to be even more effective. For now, I’ve gotta hold this color variation close to the vest. If the fish jump on this pattern more than my faithful oxbow next spring, you’ll read about it here.

As waters continue to cool into the upper 40’s it will be time to ease into a swimming presentation with Kalin grubs and Moxie tails fished essentially on the same seams and breaks fish are holding in now. From that point the presentation will morph into dragging 3 ways, vertical jigging hair…and my personal favorite:blade baiting with the Echotail, most notably my Teddy Cat.

Back to the Rat-L-Trap for a minute. I’m forever amazed on how few fisherman have heard of a floating Rat-L-Trap. This lure has been around for decades. I’ve fished it for at least 25 years. When fish are back in the weeds I like throwing the old school red head/white body floating Trap. When fish are holding in less than 4 f.o.w on rocks I go with the Echo 1.75 squarebill which came out in 2014.

To my mind there is no better bait on the planet when chasing pike back in the weeds than the red/white floating Trap. There are times when the toothers show some preference for a Custom Carter Shaker chatterbait, swim jig with a substantial trailer or oversize chartreuse/orange Northland tandem spinnerbait –but most of the time I throw the red/white.

Last week Bill Lewis Lures CEO Wes Higgins humbled and honored me by officially designating the red/white floating Rat-L-Trap as the ‘Red Head Uncle Ted. How cool is that?

We all leave a legacy as we pass through this life. To an old-school fisherman, having your name on an old-school color scheme is far beyond SWEET.

In my father’s day, every tackle box in North America had at least a couple red/white lures. today not so much. My Dad was one helluva river Rat and fisherman. He had far fewer fishing tools than we have today. But he still caught a pile of fish…many on that ol’ red & white.

When it comes to life on the River, betting against an old guy is seldom a good idea.

A rising River in the fall

A rising River in the fall

Water temperatures dropped to 61 degrees on pool 9 yesterday, with a sea of eelgrass coming down the Miss making pursuit of the preferred species :walleyes extremely difficult. My guys opted to go after pike and bass which were just beginning to move into areas fed from downstream where grass was not a factor. In one place catching fish where there was just a dry mudflat less than a week ago.

If the River held at the level it was in yesterday, fishing for bass, pike, panfish and even walleyes would be eazy peezey for the rest of October.

Unfortunately, it continues to rise rapidly, passing the ‘action’ stage in the next 48 hours and entering ‘minor’ flood territory a week for now.

If the River crests at minor flood, both fish and fishermen can adjust by the weekend after Friday the 13th. But this MIGHT be one of those years when the River comes up and keeps on coming up as the water temp begins to tumble by the end of the month.

This means the fall bite for SMB and LMB will be real tough. Panfish will be catchable. Pike will be too. And walleyes–if we can fish around the weeds.

The past several years we’ve had high water conditions until ice up. good news is, as temps drop into the low 40s, walleyes and perch become a lot more determined to feed–once you find ’em. And you may not find them in the old familiar places as winter closes in.

Two years ago the boat was wet every day til almost Christmas. Last year it went in the barn just after Thanksgiving—but was back out there rippin’ walleye lips by just after Valentine’s Day.

The Miss is a different River every single day. For the next week to 10 days she’s gonna be ugly–but if she doesn’t get more ugly with a continued rise and falling temps we should be OK.

narrowing the perch search

narrowing the perch search

Yellow perch are one of the most sought after species on the Upper Mississippi River. They are also among the most elusive. Perch fishing is often a case of ‘here this morning-gone this afternoon’

But if you keep just a couple “rules of fin” in mind when prospecting for dark-barred gold from late September through October the prospecting curve will likely be much shorter.

The two most important things to perch this time of year and survival and food. This predator of benthic macroinvertebrates and minnows is also the prey of essentially any fish that’s bigger.

A fertile weed called elodea, a.k.a. coontail. meets both these perch needs in spades. Elodea provides optimum habitat for little green worms, freshwater shrimp, minnows and a host of other little perch treats.

Those little green worms were a primary driver in creating my Perchanator jig/fly, available at www.bimboskunk.com/ted .The Perchanator is primarily orange–a color which perch and other panfish find attractive under many water conditions. This lure weighs 1/32 oz. which considerable research shows is ideal for dropping into pockets of elodea where perch are waiting in ambush.

The Perchanator is a passive trigger lure. Fish don’t chase it down, they wait for it to drop close then slurp it in. At least 85 % of all bites happen when the lure is dropping through the water column. An effective presentation is using a rod long enough to drop the bait verticially in the water column. A 10-12′ pole is ideal.

One reason a long pole is ideal is that perch and other panfish relating to elodea are usually found in 5 1/2′ of water in River backwaters–give or take a foot or so.

A 10′ pole with 9′ of superbraid line allows an angler to quickly ‘doodlesock’ every weed opening in just a few minutes. Drop and move over a foot to the next opening, Drop and move, Drop and move. If a perch doesn’t inhale the bait within 10 seconds after it reaches the bottom in 5 1/2′ of water, keep moving until you find ’em.

Sometimes this means moving 20′–sometimes 200 yards. During the summer months there is an incredible amount of water and infinite number of elodea beds in many Mississippi River backwaters.

The good news is, weeds begin to die off in later August. By the first week in October, likely perch haunts in the weeds have decreased by almost 50%–with the number of green weedy patches decreasing probably another 8% per week throughout the month, until the situation is such that they can swim, but they can’t hide. These easy times usually last 2-3 weeks until winter is knocking at the door.

Of course ‘easy’ is always a relative term–especially with perch and walleyes. Every aspect of your presentation and habitat considerations can be perfect–but the fish get a vote too. sometimes they just vote ‘present’

Fishing a flowing sea of grass

Fishing a flowing sea of grass

Eelgrass coming down the River is an autumn fact of life on the Upper Mississippi. A week ago the grass was just a nuisance. The water has dropped a foot since then. The grass is now a plague.

River level and water clarity are both near-perfect for holding walleyes and smallmouth on wingdams and other rocky main channel structures.

Crankbaits like the Rapala DT series and Bomber 6A are the most effective weapons. But these crankbaits have six weed-grabbing hooks.

Active walleyes are holding in 7-1 f.o.w. right now. If you manage to get the lure down through weeds to bump the rocks, there is a good chance of hooking up.

But any cast which doesn’t quickly find a fish will most certainly find weeds on the way back to the boat.

One alternative is fishing a salt-n-pepper Kalin grub on a 1/4 oz. jighhead on a 10″ dropper line beneath a barrel swivel which will intercept at least some of the weeds. The Kalin grub or Sizmic Shad rigged weedless will intercept fewer weeds, but it is also less appealing to fewer fish right now.

Finding fish is the most important first step in catching them. It doesn’t make much sense to leave fish to go find fish–UNLESS you can’t get a hook in front of the fish!

Sadly eelgrass tends to head downstream along the same seams which hold active fish. Sometimes there is more eelgrass coming down one side of the channel than the other. Sometimes the eelgrass will subside for awhile making fishing a little easier.

Frog around long enough and eventually you’ll stumble into an area holding active fish where walleyes are eager to eat a crankbait. Unfortuantely, there are days when you run out of time before running out of weeds.

One alternative is seeking other species. Crappies and gills are hungry right now all over the River. Perch are too when you find them. But this is often a case of here today, gone or not interested an hour later.

Weeds will likely be a factor until almost ice up. They will be less of a factor if we get some substantial autumn rain. But a high and dirty River present an entirely different set of challenges.

My best advice for a successful day on the Mississippi is ‘listen to the River’, then go with the flow instead of trying to fight it.