Sno-cone perch

Sno-cone perch

Got out on a favorite chunk of early March ice yesterday. First time since Thursday. last time out there was 22″ of good ice here, and a nice mess of respectable perch which attacked a Slab Rap. On Thursday, I got on the ice about noon, with the hot bite from about 1-3 p.m.

So yesterday, back to essentially the same holes. Walked on the ice about 9 a.m. perch still there. By noon I had iced just six–none of them keepers. Started with the slab Rap, then went to a Forage Minnow on a drop chain, #3 Puppet Minnow, then a Purple Cecil.

The perch had varying degrees of interest. some shooting up off the bottom several feet before ghosting away. Meanwhile two deadsticks baited with minnows produced absolutely nothing.

About 1 .pm I went to the Gold Cecil and hooked into a fat 12′ female. maybe it was time of day, maybe lure choice and presentation. Can’t say. But bite was steady after that with no time to ponder sundry mysteries of the fishing universe.

kept 9 perch 9-11 inches. Several iced were over a foot. Biggest was 12 1/2″. No monsters, but some really nice perch. The males are milting like crazy now. Female perch are putting a lot of energy into egg production, so flesh is definitely not as firm as the males…one more reason not to keep those fat orange egg cannons.

This morning I was lying in bed, mulling fishing options for the day. I KNOW I can go catch a dozen walleyes and saugers in the boat…but that will be pretty much an every day grind once the guiding work picks up. I also KNOW I can go ice a nice mess of perch.

Thoughts turned to the ice. There is still about 20″ where I was fishing. But the first six inches or so no has the consistency of a sno-cone. Ice is already gone or passage is unsafe on the other hidden March hardwater spots. Yesterday there were only three other bucketeers within shouting distance–not that I ever felt like yelling ‘fish on!’

Experience has taught calling out ‘help!’ comes out several octaves higher, with just a hint of desperation in the tone. Not the kind of song a crusty old river rat likes to sing.

So it’s back to the ice for a couple more days, then time to charge the Vexilar and put it on a shelf. Better to see that FL-28 safely stowed than realizing it is somewhere on the bottom and i’m thankful to be safely ashore and alive.

Probably won’t blog for awhile. Will be too busy fishing to jump on the shiny object and tell the world I’m fishing.

Gotta make a living

Gotta make a living

Effective immediately, I’m raising my guide rates 10% across the board. This is the first rate increase since 2004. Didn’t really want to do this, but the cost of just about everything has gone through the roof over the past 14 years–in many cases far beyond 10 percent. I just can’t continue absorbing these expenses and continue working.

The final straw was the FWS announcing they will start charging fishing guides on the Mississippi a MINIMUM of $400 up front. This tax is for ‘administrative purposes’. not a penny for the resource. The FWS wants us to pay them to monitor what we do here on God’s river.

We River guides believe there is already enough regulation by the USCG and the states. Every 5 years we are required to renew our USCG captain’s license. The actual license is only a few hundred bucks. but part of renewal is a physical, eye exam, hearing exam and pee test–all of which comes out of pocket. So now we’re talking about $250/yr. for the Captain’s license. On top of this there are guide license requirements for several states, and of course fishing licenses.

A million dollar liability insurance policy costs me about $550 annually. Insurance on the boat, motor, electronics and gear is another $400 a year.

Then there are federal, state and sales taxes to add to the FWS tax which they call a ‘fee’. but make no mistake–it’s a tax.

Boats, motors and fishing gear have in some cases almost doubled since 2004. Remember when a Mepps spinner was just a couple of bucks and a Rapala was maybe $3.25? it now costs $15 to spool an average spinning reel with superbraid line. Factor in backlashes, snags and general screw ups and the cost for fishin’ line is about $25 PER REEL per year.

The Mississippi is notoriously tough on gear. $25-40 bucks used to be the going rate to fix a prop. Now the cost is double that.

Back in 2004 I used to buy nightcrawlers from the Amish kids for 50 cents/dozen. The price is now somewhere between $2.50-3.25.

Have you priced jigs, sinkers or snap swivels lately? Outrageous!
If clients don’t bring their own rods they can use mine. it’s quality gear. St. Croix rods and Okuma or Pfleuger reels. Even with the price break I get as a pro, the average rod and reel is over $150.

Some folks still think the major expense of running a guide business is gas and oil. I’ve actually had people say $20 should cover all my expenses, and the rest of the guide fee is pure profit!

Don’t get me wrong. I really LOVE my work. With over 30 years of guiding experience and more than a half-century of serious fishing, I’ve learned enough to promise you’ll get out of the boat a better angler than when you got in–regardless of your skill level.

Right now my ‘profit’ is barely above minimum wage based on base rates. Fortunately, many enlightened clients have at least a vague idea of how hard guiding is and favor me with a tip. One client last year made sure I knew there was a $5 gratuity in the money he aid me…then he apologized for losing FIVE CRANKBAITS. One major reason for this lost was insistence on using his favorite rod with 6 lb. test line. this is the RIVER. Show up with less than 10 lb. braid and you’re gonna lose gear.

Thank you for hanging in there for my high pitched whine. I sincerely hope you still want to jump in my boat. If you think I’m charging too much, please look elsewhere for a guide. Yes, I’m a grump old man. The Mighty Miss is a grumpy old man, too.

The River’s gotta keep on rollin’…and I’ve gotta make a living.

tight lines, y’all

Spring is on Track

Spring is on Track

I believe we’re about done with our last little burp of winter. St. Paddy’s Day is next weekend. By then a lot more than the main channel will be open. Not saying we won’t get another snow–or two–before the lilies pop up, but we’re definitely in the outer rings of Spring.

Tonite i’m doing a seminar at the Driftless Center in Lansing “Walleye Fishing on the Upper Mississippi”. Presentation starts at 7.

Plan is to take folks through seasonal patterns and presentations, but it will likely go like most fishin’ trips: get to the ramp with a plan and five minutes later you’re headed up the River instead of down with an entirely different plan.

With over a half-century of hard fishin’ on Ol’ Man River there are soooo many rabbit holes to go down. But that is half the fun.

For years I’ve gone out there with a plan. Sometimes almost smug, thinking everything was dialed in. Finally, I realized God is in control, with HIS plan to send fish–or NOT. all you can do is go out there and try hard.

Right now, the River is running a little dirty–which is to be expected. Levels are about the norm for having backwaters still packed with ice. This picture will change drastically over the next 10-14 days, as ice blows out of the backwaters and the River sees a substantial rise.

Until then, the walleye/sauger bite will be in main channel wintering holes and adjacent flats, with perch becoming more aggressive under the fading ice–also on flats, adjacent to open water.

Pike are very active now, both under the ice moving toward spawning areas and near the confluence of tribs with the main channel.

The next few days should be super for one of my favorite early-Spring things: setting tip-ups for pike in ice covered bays with the option of vertical jigging nearby for walleyes.

Although the end of march and first week of April are pretty much spoken for, I still have a number of openings both before or after, if you’re looking for a guide…not that i’m real eager to work. Work cuts into fishin’ time. Usually can’t fish when I’m workin’, even though my work is fishin’.

Maybe I’ll sell Sally, my old plow horse, and by an ox. Then I can be a true oxymoron.

Tundra Swans say SPRING is nigh!

Tundra Swans say SPRING is nigh!

On the way to catch some perch in one of my favorite little backwaters a few days ago I saw about 15 tundra swans working stubble in a half-flooded field. Their arrival is a sure harbinger that spring is as hand.

didn’t catch any perch, but did manage some nice crappies. Fish had nothing to do with a Cecil Tried several colors. They were interested in a horizontal presentation, however, with activity going from frosting licking about 18″ off the bottom to borderline wild once the sun dipped below the bluff–right under the ice which is still 2′ thick there.

The Genoa boat ramp is now pretty much open, but bringing a spud along is a good idea. A lot of time shove ice comes in there and needs to be pushed out of the way to launch. ditto the Blackhawk Trading Post ramp downstream. initially was going to launch here yesterday, but it would have taken a good 20 mins. of spud work to get the boat wet.

Walleyes and sauger are right where you would expect to find ’em now; in the wintering holes. Walleyes holding at about 32′, sauger deeper at 40+. I would rather catch nothing than have a deep water sauger bend the rod. Cranking ’em up from this depth causes their air bladder to expand–sometimes to the point where it’s sticking out of their mouth. You might release the fish to swim away–but it is a dead fish swimming. This is why I won’t go after them now. The walleyes have been slurping in purple and Kelly green Killer jigs…and one other color which works even better. Because they are in deep water a 1/2 oz. is necessary.

A lot of fish get hung up on the stinger hook, whether using meat or not. I don’t think minnows are much of an advantage–most of the time.

Blade baits will also work. I usually fish the Echotail teddy cat–just because–but the royal shad might work even better in this cold, deep water.

navigation can be truly treacherous for the next couple of weeks. Floe ice can come down the river at any time. It will be AT LEAST a couple of weeks before the ice goes on running sloughs and backwaters like Desoto Bay.

I’m doing a seminar March 8 at 7 p.m. at the Driftless Center on the south side of Lansing. Seminar is ‘Walleye fishing in the upper Miss’. Doing it for free, cuz the Driftless Center is a real treasure which is worth exploring. But, they may request a donation, with proceeds going to Allamakee Conservation..

Getting light now. Gotta go fishin’

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!