I collect old fishing equipment. I guess it started when my grandmother gave me my grandfather’s gear after he died. He left me about half a dozen old rods with metal level wind casting reels, his old tackle box and his deer hunting rifle. This was shortly before I joined the Army and left on what would become a twenty year career. During those years I moved ten times but through all those moves I kept grandfather’s old gear.
Grandfather’s rifle is now in my gun safe and his fishing gear sits on the base of the fireplace in my family room with a lot of other gear I have collected since.
After retiring from the Army and settling down in Hudson, Wisconsin, I had room and time to collect more vintage fishing gear. I found old rods and reels in antique stores and junk shops. Some friends, knowing I collect that stuff, gave me more old rods or reels which were sitting in their basement or corner of their garage.
In addition to rods and reels, I started picking up old baits. Many of them I remembered from my boyhood in the 1950s and 60s. I recall looking at them in the sport shops and hardware stores. In those days, most hardware stores also sold hunting and fishing gear. As I look back, it seemed to me many of those sport shops and hardware stores, especially the farther north you went, were dark and dusty. I suppose when you are selling grass seed and fertilizers in the same store with fishing gear it would be a bit dusty. Even the sport shops seemed dark and dusty. I don’t think dusting was a priority for owners in those days.
In the stores I looked at all the baits, usually hanging from pegs on peg boards or sometimes swing out boards attached to the wall. I loved to look at the baits and dreamed that one day I would own a bunch of them. The dream was hard to realize in those days with my allowance and the occasional grass cutting job, but dream I did.
I remember two sport shops. One was on a back street in Oshkosh and I think I recall the place was call Matt’s. The other was a sport shop in Sheboygan. Both stores had large front windows where they laid out a number of plugs (we call them crankbaits today) and other baits. I loved looking in those windows.
Back in the day, there seemed to be a lot of different baits but there were relatively few in comparison to what you find in today’s bait shops and fishing stores. They were packed in card board boxes with such names as Heddon and Cisco Kid. The one I remember the best was the River Runt. For collectors today, the boxes are worth as much and, in some cases, more than the baits themselves. That seems strange to me. If you can find both the bait and the box together, it’s even better.
Many of these baits are no longer made. The Cisco Kid is now owned by Suick and they do have a Cisco Kid Topper still in their inventory, but the rest of the Cisco Kid baits are gone. The River Runt is also long gone. It was one of the first baits made with plastic. Most baits prior to World War II were made from wood, but plastic became more popular in the late 1950s.
My bass fishing buddy, Scott Clark, of Hudson, Wisconsin, and I have discussed over the years whether any of those old baits could still catch fish today. Many fishermen theorize fish eventually become used to certain baits and when they do, they catch fewer fish. If that is the case, then many of these older baits have long passed out of the collective memory of today’s fish. With that in mind, Scott and I set aside a day every season to fish with vintage gear to test our theory whether these old baits still work today or perhaps, in some cases, even better than some of our modern baits.
In keeping with the vintage theme, I have a replica of an old wooden tackle box. It is easy to forget today with the modern plastic tackle boxes and soft sided tackle bags that most tackle boxes were first made of wood and later metal. I remember my father having a metal tackle box with the bottom of the trays lined with a thin sheet of cork. I still have my grandfather’s metal box and it retains the comfort smell of fish and oil for his reels and outboard motor I remember so well. My wife, Becky, gave me the wooden tackle box for Christmas one year and I knew instantly I was going to use it as my vintage tackle box.
The box is filled with baits which are no longer available. I have some River Runts and a Cisco Kid as well as several other baits from the 1950s and 60s. I have some newer baits which are no longer made either. I also have some baits, although still manufactured, but are no longer made in the colors I have. It is something of an eclectic collection. My grandfather’s old fishing knife is also in the box. That knife is probably 50 years old. There is one bait I do not have in my vintage tackle box. It is a green plug with a metal lip. There is no brand name on it so I am not sure who made it. It had been my father’s and I remember seeing it in his tackle box from the time I was a young kid. My father died almost fifteen years ago and now that bait sits in a display case in my family room. I will never use it, not because I don’t want to but because I couldn’t take the chance of losing it.
To add to the ambiance of the day, we fish with old rods and reels. That started a couple years ago when I was in an antique store and found a Ted Williams spinning rod and reel. Although Ted Williams is known for his baseball career with the Boston Red Sox, he was also a big outdoorsman. After retiring from baseball, he became a promoter for Sears and Roebuck sporting goods. I remember seeing Ted Williams rods and reels, guns, tents and other items both in their catalog and in their stores when I was a kid. I got that old rod and reel for $30 and it was blast from the past for me when I bought it.
I noticed it still had old yellow monofilament line on it and it got me thinking. Why don’t I put new line on it and try fishing with it again? I imagine that old rod has probably not been used in over 30 or 40 years. I put new line on it and took it with me the next time I went bass fishing. I used it for about an hour before I switched back to my modern gear. In the hour I fished with it, I caught four or five bass and felt a mixture of joy and nostalgia while using it.
Over the years, I have been collecting old Mitchell 300 reels. The Mitchell 300 was the first spinning reel I owned as a kid when I finally could afford to purchase one which fostered a soft spot in my heart for them ever since. They were big, heavy reels but rugged. They were indestructible which is why they are still around and work today. I rummaged around my basement and found some old fiberglass rods from back in the 1960s and 70s which I found in junk shops or people gave to me. I matched those rods with the Mitchell 300s. It took me back to early fishing days and they were not only a great memory but fun to use again.
Now, when Scott and I go on our vintage fishing day, we use old baits on old rods and reels. For the day I also wear a straw hat. When I was a kid I remembered all the old fishermen seemed to have one. It wasn’t just any straw hat but one with the front of the brim cut off, replaced with a green plastic piece like a sun shade. I looked for one for a number of years. Some people told me of a store or two they thought still carried them but when I check they didn’t. I thought I might find one in a junk store but I didn’t find any there either. One December when I was in Key West, Florida, I found a pile of them in a store. I searched through the pile for one which fit me and bought it. I wore it on the flight home to walk out of the airport in Minneapolis to find snow on the ground.
The day is warm and sunny. Sunlight dances off the water. It is a great day to go fishing and a great day to use vintage gear. Scott jokes we didn’t need to go to a sport shop to go fishing today; instead we went to the antique store.
We start fishing right from the boat landing. We are fishing over deep water with a thick mass of weeds on the bottom. I start with a Lazy Ike. It is a color Lazy Ike no longer offers. I remember I bought this bait from a hardware store in Oshkosh in the mid-1970s. The store is long gone now like many of those baits they sold then. The bait is not running right and after several unsuccessful attempts to tune it I finally put it back in the tackle box and switch to a Heddon Sonic.
One of my fishing buddies told me Sonics were one of his father’s favorite baits in the 1960s so I found some on Ebay and bought them to add to my vintage collection. I try them in a couple of different colors for about twenty minutes and never get a strike. I guess today is not a Sonic day. I will try them some other time and feel reasonably assured they will work. I switch to a yellow River Runt. It doesn’t run right so I take it and put on another one in the same color which seems to work fine.
Scott catches the first fish. He catches a foot long bass on an orange spoon with black spots. I know spoons are still sold today but Scott’s spoon is somewhat unique as it has two small spinners at the bottom of it. I remember them from the 1960s and 70s and I haven’t seen them since. He got it from his father’s tackle box. It also brings up the question as to why today’s bass fishermen do not use spoons more often. With all the other baits out there, spoons may be a much overlooked bass bait.
A few minutes later I feel a fish slam my River Runt. It puts up a frenzied fight and a couple moments later I see a thin shadow in the water. It is a northern pike. I switch to a perch colored River Runt and a few minutes later catch another northern.
I switch to a lure called The Charmer. I found several of them in a junk shop in Oshkosh some 30 years ago. The junk shop is now a sandwich shop. One of the interesting things about buying and using old lures is to research them. The computer and internet helps a lot. I did a Google search on The Charmer and found they were made by the Hunt Lure Company and billed itself as “The King Of Bass Lures.” Dewey Hunt was making and selling these lures out of his gas station in the early 1950s, and by 1960 started to make the lures full time. By the late 1960s, the company was out of business but in its day they made two other baits plus The Charmer.
The Charmer does not run right and after trying to tune it I give up and change to a Cisco Kid. As we fish, Scott and I talk about these old lures. It seems at least one out of every two we try doesn’t seem to run properly. We recognize many of these lures are forty years old or more. Perhaps they lost their action simply because they were fished a lot and are now too beat up.
But some baits seem to be working just fine and one them is the Cisco Kid I now am using. It is a plastic bait with a metal lip probably from the 1960s. A slip of paper in the box tells me it is a “Proven Killer For …. BASS, WALLEYE, TROUT, PIKE and many other game fish.” On the box it also claims to be “America’s No. 1 Fish Getter.” On the first cast I see a flash in the water but the fish misses the bait. A couple casts later I feel a solid strike and set the hook. The fiberglass rod I am using is doubled over as the fish races off but I quickly turn the fish and get it coming to the boat. A moment later I pull the fish in the boat. It is another northern pike.
I enjoy fishing with old spinning rods and reels but notice these old rods are much heavier than those we use today and much softer which makes it harder to set the hook. I know we used those rods for a lot of years and marvel at how many fish we caught with them in spite of their drawbacks in relation to the rods we use today. Also after a day of fishing with the older, heavier rods I can feel it in my shoulders which I never remembered years ago. But then I was a lot younger then too.
I stick with my Cisco Kid and see a number of fish chase it. Every now and then one hits it hard enough for me to set the hook. The other thing with the older, softer rods is they bend a lot further when a fish is fighting against it which is exciting. Scott is switching between his favorite modern baits and the older baits but doesn’t seem to do any better with one over the other. Maybe the old baits are just as good as our modern lures.
Finally I catch a bass. It is a foot long fish and puts up a good fight. The soft rod is bent in half and the rod tip is plunging. I get the fish into the boat and release it. We fished until late afternoon and by the end of the day we caught 15 fish; nine bass and six northern pike. By any standards, whether it be today or 40 years ago, it is a good day of fishing. The old stuff still works and a day with an old Mitchell 300 reel, or a Ted Williams spinning outfit and River Runts and Cisco Kids brings me back to the days, the memories and dreams. I enjoy the memories and days of fishing from the past and the dreams I once had. My dreams have come true and more, so I have been lucky and fishing vintage gear reminds me of that.
One of the earliest signs of spring, when I was growing up in the 1950s and 60s, was the legendary smelt runs on Lake Michigan and with it the ever-popular smelt fries. Every church, bar, VFW Hall and American Legion Post seemed to have one.
Eventually, the smelt runs diminished and with it the smelt fries. But today, in the northwestern side of the state, The Baldwin Volunteer Fire and Rescue Station has kept the tradition of the spring smelt fry alive. On the last Friday in April, they put on a day long smelt fry attracting people from all over western Wisconsin and eastern Minnesota.
Way before the trout and salmon fishing we have today in the Great Lakes, Lake Michigan and Lake Superior had a thriving native trout population and with it, world renown fishing. But, the sea lamprey decimated the trout in the early 1950s. Smelt had been the primary forage fish for the trout and with the trout gone, smelt populations exploded. In spring they came into shallow waters in incredible numbers to spawn making the smelt run the most exciting party to hit the beaches of Lake Michigan.
From Milwaukee to Door County, once the word got out the smelt run was on, people from all over the Midwest flocked to Lake Michigan. Although I suppose the smelt were active during the day, it seemed most of the smelt were caught at night or at least that was when the party started.
On the beaches you would see bonfires burning all over. Some people were wading in the water, netting smelt. Others stood around the fire, warming their outside from the heat of the fire and the inside with adult beverages. There was always a case a beer around. No need to keep it on ice as the weather was cold enough to keep it cold. For those who needed a little more to keep them warm there was always a bottle of brandy or whiskey available too. People seemed to rotate from the fires to the water and back to the fires again. One must remember that in those days, we didn’t have the quality of waders or warm clothing we have today. It didn’t take long to get cold wading in Lake Michigan. It was noisy with the waves splashing up on shore, the crackling of driftwood fires, people yelling, laughing and bantering. It was a great party.
There were several different ways to net smelt. There were seines, usually pulled by two or more people on either end of the long nets. There were dip nets, looking much like landing nets but with finer mesh netting. Then there were drop nets. Those were most often used off bridges over the rivers and streams running into Lake Michigan. A drop net was a square net with lead weights to get it down in the current without tipping the net in the water. The net was dropped down with ropes and once hitting the bottom would be rapidly brought up.
Regardless if you were using a seine, dip net or drop net, when you brought the net in it was teaming with flashes of silver from smelt. Most smelt measured about four to six inches. The fish were dumped into buckets and many times one swipe of a net could bring enough smelt to fill a five- gallon pail. It was phenomenal the amount of smelt that were netted. In one evening, you could fill enough buckets of smelt to feed an entire church or small town. Which actually happened on a fairly regular basis. They really were that abundant.
One of my buddies told me when he was a kid, his father would take him and his brothers to the beaches on Lake Superior to get smelt. They didn’t have a net. When the waves washed up on shore they would deposit bunches of smelt on the sand. So, he and his brothers ran out picking up as many smelt as they could, skipping back up the beach with their smelt in hand before the next wave rolled up on shore, again stranding more smelt. They continued to do this until they had all the smelt they wanted.
Another buddy of mine, living at the time in Milwaukee, would just take a twelve pack of beer and a bucket and drive north until he found a bunch of people standing around on the beach. He would trade his beer for a bucket of smelt. Considering his financial status in those days, it probably was fairly cheap beer, but apparently smelt fishermen weren’t particularly discriminating when it came to beer. They were catching more than their share of smelt, so it was more than a fair trade. Netting smelt sure could make a man thirsty.
A night of netting smelt could result in bunches of smelt sloshing around in five-gallon buckets and wash tubs. It wasn’t uncommon to come home with a trunk full or a pickup bed load of smelt. I wonder how long it took to get the fish smell out of the trunk? Then the next big chore was to clean them. Cleaning smelt was actually fairly easy. You just needed a scissors. To clean them, cut off the head with the scissors, cut down the belly, scoop out the guts and that was it. Although it was easy, it was a long tedious job when you had buckets of smelt to deal with. For many people it became a family or neighborhood project. Aunts, uncles, brothers and sisters, family friends and neighbors sitting around the basement or garage cleaning buckets or washtubs of smelt. Sometimes it took as long to clean them as it did to get them. As a reward, people left with buckets of cleaned smelt to have their own smelt fries.
Smelt were so plentiful, men from churches, bars, VFW Halls or American Posts would get a bunch of them so their organization or bar could sponsor a smelt fry. Even if you didn’t go netting for smelt, going to a local smelt fry was part of spring. Of course, bags of smelt were passed out to family and friends and I do remember my father one day coming home with a bag of smelt. As the oldest child, I was allowed to sit up on Friday nights to watch the horror shows, which came on television after the evening news. My two younger sisters were a bit miffed they weren’t allowed to join us, having been sent off to bed by the time the news started. As we watched the movies, my father always made some for a snack. That was when I first had pizza. It was a Jess and Nicks frozen pizza. The Friday after father got the smelt, he made them while we watched the horror movies. He rolled the smelt in flour and fried them in butter. I remember them being very tasty.
Unfortunately, the hay day of the smelt run and smelt fries began to die out in the 1970s and 80s. Smelt were no longer present in the vast numbers they had once been. By the mid 1960s, the lamprey was finally controlled enough that stocking of trout and salmon was possible. There might have been other reasons for the decline of smelt, but reintroducing trout and salmon back into the Great Lakes was a major factor. The great schools of alewives, another invasive species to the Great Lakes, were a principal forage base for trout and salmon and responsible for their tremendous growth rate. And now smelt had competition from the alewives for their forage base. As smelt were competing with the alewives, once again becoming bait fish for trout and salmon, their numbers dramatically declined. The days of the great smelt runs were now over and with it the huge smelt fries. Today, smelt are mostly taken through deep water netting in the Great Lakes.
The Baldwin Fire and Rescue Station has been holding their smelt fry for thirty eight years. Originally, the Baldwin smelt fry was a community project. But the town gave up on the smelt fry a couple of years before the Baldwin Volunteer Fire Station took it over. It is their major fundraiser according to Gary Newton, Baldwin Station Chief. It is held in the Baldwin American Legion Post a few blocks from the fire station. The fire station has 38 volunteer fire fighters covering four villages and ten townships.
When the fire station first revived the smelt fry, some of the volunteer firemen went over to Lake Michigan to net smelt but soon after they began to purchase their smelt from a distributor. They initially purchased whole, uncleaned smelt and cleaned them themselves. That became a real chore according to Gary. “If you wanted six hundred pounds of smelt to cook, you had to order twelve hundred pounds of smelt to clean.” Gary said.
It became a tedious, weeklong process. All the fire fighters came into clean fish as well as people from the community. By the end of the week, people would get a bit testy, Gary pointed out. Now they purchase their smelt already cleaned. Their distributor is in Two Rivers and last year they ordered eight hundred and 50 pounds of smelt. “All we had left at the end of the day was one roaster of smelt,” Gary said.
The Baldwin smelt fry provides all the smelt you can eat plus chips, coleslaw, beans, pickles and tartar sauce, all for a free will donation. According to Gary, “All of the money goes to purchase equipment.” Lately, the money has been going toward purchasing air packs.
This year the smelt fry will be held on Friday, April 27. “For a couple weeks out we will be getting phone calls at the station asking about the smelt fry”, Gary said. They will receive the smelt earlier in the week and then on Thursday, the day before, they will start getting everything organized. Active volunteer fire fighters with many of the retired fire fighters do all the work. For some it is a tradition that can‘t be missed. Some volunteers will take a day off of work to help with the event.
Bob Lokken, from Baldwin, a retired firefighter handles mixing the breading for the smelt. He told me it is a mixture of water, flour, eggs, molasses and baking powder. The tartar sauce is a family recipe from Gary Newton’s mother. They will go through over thirty gallons of tartar sauce. They also make their own coleslaw. Last year, they went through 250 pounds of fresh cut coleslaw.
Friday morning starts out with a breakfast for the firefighters at the American Legion Post. It is part of the tradition. Doug Anderson, of Baldwin, another retired firefighter, is the fish cooker and has been doing it for years. At 11:00 they start serving smelt. “People from all over come to the smelt fry,” Gary said. “People from Menominee twenty miles east to Minnesota’s Twin Cities thirty miles west show up for the smelt fry.”
Last year, when I arrived with two friends from Hudson, the parking lot was filled with cars and a line out the door with people waiting to get in. “We have had people call in twenty or more takeout orders at one time,” Gary said. “Some of the factories in the area have whole shifts come over at lunch or dinner time. We have seen people come by for lunch and then return later for in the evening for dinner.” Last year by 8:00 in the evening they had served over 1100 people.
The smelt run and smelt fries were all about people having fun. It started that way in the 1950s and 60s and in Baldwin it still is that way thanks to the Baldwin Volunteer Fire and Rescue Station. Gary summed it all up by pointing out, “It makes for a fun community day.”
Crank Out A New Spring Walleye Tradition
By Gary Parsons and Keith Kavajecz
There is a lot of tradition in fishing. Whether it be an annual fishing trip with a group of friends, stopping for breakfast at the family-owned restaurant on the edge of town, or wearing your lucky hat, tradition isn’t something many people stray from.
Once you get on the water, you will most likely head to your favorite honey hole. On smaller lakes in the springtime, chances are once you get to your spot, you will start out jigging. This is because it is what you have always done or because you read it in a magazine. This is a big mistake. Fish don’t care and they don’t read magazines! They live in their own environment.
There are many opportunities for casting cranks on lakes beginning in early April as the water starts to warm up. The key is to fish shallow structure near shore.
Lake Winnebago is an excellent example of a place to try this technique. The west shore has several shoreline points, humps, and reefs. The entire length of the east shore contains shoreline rocks and both natural and man-made reefs.
Any lake with features like this can hold spawning walleyes, even if the lake is connected to a river system. On the Lake Winnebago system, many people make the mistake of thinking that all of the walleyes head up the Wolf or Fox Rivers. Yet many of the walleyes actually stay in the lake to spawn.
The best areas top out at 2 to 5 feet, like a hump that is shoreline connected or a hump that is within real close vicinity of the shore. Another thing to look for is any shoreline spawning area with a 2 to 5 foot drop onto a shelf. Unfortunately, because the water is really cold, most people automatically think that they have to jig these areas slowly.
This was the case years ago when Gary was pitching jigs on a lake while pre-fishing for a tournament. When fishing pro-co tournaments, there are times that the co-angler doesn’t have technical jigging skills. However, because it is a “boat weight” tournament, it is important to get the co-angler catching fish.
Gary was thinking about how it would be difficult to pitch jigs on that spot if it was windy. Looking for an alternative presentation to put fish in the box, cranks became the answer. The key was to fish them slow.
Since then, time and time again, we discovered that if we were catching fish on jigs, we could also go through the area and catch those casting cranks.
The #6 Berkley Flicker Shad is a lure we designed for casting. It was important to make it neutrally buoyant and heavy enough to cast. While any shad styled bait will get bites, it is best to steer away from #7’s and #9’s early in the season, as they have a wider action. Baits with a subtle action are best for casting in the spring.
The #5 Berkley Flicker Minnow is also a good choice for casting, as it dives quickly and has more of a minnow type profile as compared to a shad style bait. The #5 refers to the length of the bait, so at 5 cm, this bait is a great size for early season walleyes that are relating to the newly hatched bait. By alternating between the shad style and minnow style bait you should be able to dial in the cranking presentation.
When it comes to the retrieve, slow and steady, but still being able to feel the vibration is the rule. Berkley Nanofil in 10# test is a great no stretch line. Not only does it allow you to feel the bait, but it also has the additional advantage of being a Uni-filament line. Uni-filament means there is no braiding or fusing, making the line super slick, which can add significant casting distance for these lightweight lures.
Steady retrieve is the norm, but occasionally the lure should also tick the bottom, which will cause it to jerk off to the side. Also be aware that the no-stretch lines will telegraph fish swiping at your bait. If that happens, stop and pause for a second, then restart the retrieve. This will often trigger bites.
On any given day, casting cranks will work better than jigs. It is mind blowing to see how aggressively the fish will hit the bait!
Then there is the early spring crank bite on the Great Lakes. Fishing cranks on the Great Lakes (and in particular Lake Erie) in spring is a whole different animal, as the big females will head out to deeper water right after spawning to chase big minnows. After you find the bait they want, it is a numbers game as you troll over a school of roaming fish. Only a certain percentage of the walleyes in the school will “take the bait.”
Boat speed and water temperature are key. When the water temperatures are still in the 30’s and 40’s the fish tend to prefer cranks that are 9 cm-13 cm long over nightcrawler harnesses. Once again, slow and subtle is key. You aren’t going to be trolling at 2.5 mph! We typically like to troll anywhere between 1 and 1.5mph. Historically, minnow shaped baits with a more subtle action have been best.
Once water temperatures reach about 50 degrees, a mix of harnesses and cranks are often used. When the water crosses 55 degrees, a lot of anglers like to stick with harnesses, but cranks are always a player.
This is why we spent three years perfecting the big Berkley Flicker Minnows. The #9 and #11 sizes were made for trolling in both cold and warm water. The action of the lure changes slightly with the speed of your boat. When trolling at slower speeds it has more of a roll. At higher speeds it has a little bit of a “kick.” These changes in action make this a very versatile lure!
A big part of this early season Great Lakes bites getting your lure in the right zone. The fish can be tight to the bottom, but more often than not, the feeding fish are suspended. In this case, you need to fish your baits at or above the marks you are seeing on your fish finder.
For example, if you are seeing marks at 20 feet down over 30 feet of water, the deepest you would want to run the crankbait is 20 feet down. In dirty or stained water, you might want to also run lures at 17 or 19 feet down. In clear water where the walleyes visibility is increased, the range would more than likely be 12 to 16 feet down. The easiest way to get a crankbait right where you want it is with the Precision Trolling Data (PTD) app.
The PTD app is available on the Apple App Store and on Google Play. Once you have downloaded it to your phone or tablet, you don’t need an internet connection for it to work out on the water.
Let’s say you were going to run one of the new #11 Flicker Minnows and wanted it to go 18 feet deep using 10# Berkley XT line, which is the most commonly used trolling line. On the app you would simply bring up the #11 Berkley Flicker Minnow, dial the first wheel (Feet Down wheel) to 18, and the app would tell you to let out 95 feet of line. Then let out that length of line and you can be confident your bait is running 18 feet down, just above those big arches 20 feet down on the graph.
So as you are dusting off your rods and loading your storage compartments with tackle trays for the maiden voyage of the year, be sure to pack the cranks! Remember, you can never assume that one technique will always be better than another! Then put on your lucky hat, stop at the restaurant for eggs and bacon with your buddies, and start a new tradition with cranks to get your Next Bite!
Spring is here. You can feel it in the air. A feeling of rejuvenation has been breathed into the natural world. Water temperatures are rising, and fish and anglers alike have one thing on their mind: the spawn.
Drones of antsy anglers are anxiously awaiting their chance to wet a line in an unfrozen body of water for the first time in several months. Depending on where you live, game fish opportunities are likely limited to a few areas or completely closed altogether. However, panfish opportunities are among the best they’ll be all year long. Springtime crappies are no secret, but there are some factors that can really influence your success. Water temperature and weather are among the leading influencers.
At ice out, crappies can be found in areas similar to those in the winter and fall. Depending on the conditions, it is usually a safe bet to start your search in the areas where you had some success at late ice. Featureless basins and deep weeds are all fair game. Spend a little time checking these areas with electronics, but if you’re not marking fish it’s likely necessary to move shallower.
As the season progresses, fish continue their trek to skinnier water. During the timeframe when waters remain less than 50 degrees, it is important to look towards transition areas which will likely hold the majority of fish. Mid-range depths between the basins and the shallows are usually the best bet (10-20 feet of water). Look for something specific to help congregate fish (ex. rock piles, sharp breaks, cribs, etc.). I’ve personally found that this period provides some great opportunities to target giant schools of crappies staging on cribs and submerged wood in particular.
Water temperatures in the mid-50s will show signs of life as crappies make their move. It is important to note that specific areas of lakes tend to warm much faster than others. Shallow dark bottom bays tend to soak up the most sunlight. Additionally, the northernmost portions of the lake will typically see the most direct sunlight and as a result will hold warmer water. When seeking out spawning grounds, it is important to depend primarily on water temperature and structure. Structure can be identified as anything from manmade structures (such as docks and cribs) to natural habitat (such as submerged wood and rock piles). Do your homework: Using lake maps, identify high probability areas where fish are likely to reside. The fish tend to seek out warmest water and will typically look for some sort of protection. While on the water, rely on your electronics to identify the areas with the warmest water. Side imaging technology does a fantastic job of locating mass schools of crappies working their way to shallows. Crappies will typically begin to spawn when water temperatures reach 55 to 65 degrees.
The spring season is known for varying degrees of weather patterns. It may be 65 degrees and sunny one day, and 35 degrees and rainy the next. These drastic changes in weather can cause some shifting in fish patterns. Warm, sunny days will typically drive crappies to shallower water, meanwhile, cooler days will tend to have the opposite effect.
There is a plethora of rod options available to the average panfish angler. One of the real advantages to targeting spring panfish is that high end equipment isn’t necessary. However, it shouldn’t go without saying that certain features will give you an edge over the competition. Look for fast to extra fast rods in the ultralight to light variety. Faster actions allow for quicker hooksets and the proper power will help keep fish pinned on their way back to boat. Rely on rods long enough to make long casts with light jigs (6’9” to 7’3”). My personal choice: Elk River Rods 6’9” Light Panfish Gold.
When it comes to panfish lures, this list is truly endless. Countless varieties, colors, and styles are available in any bait shop. Tubes, paddletails, and hair jigs are among some of the top artificial choices for springtime crappie fishing. Due to the shallow water action, it is necessary to make long casts with light lures. Light jigs (1/64 ounce to 1/16 ounce) will allow for a soft landing and not spook as many fish. Cast and retrieval methods can be extremely effective during this time period. My person favorite is a Eurotackle B-Vibe threaded on a 1/32 ounce jig. A lure of this size can be worked at variable speeds in extremely shallow water, and still provide enough action to entice fish to bite. Bobber presentations are another effective choice for shallow water crappies. Bobbers allow anglers to present light lures in an effective manner, and have the ability to suspend baits anywhere in the water column. Typical bobber presentations include a jig or plain hook and minnow, or a jig and plastic or hair jig. Both styles of fishing have their time and place in which they are most effective.
An often overlooked method for spring crappies is presenting light lures via a fly rod. A lightweight fly rod (3WT – 5 WT) allows anglers the ability to present essentially weightless lures with ease. Not to mention, the fight of a big crappie on a fly rod is hard to beat.
With large congregations of fish in shallow water, it’s likely that you’ll have some pretty impressive days as far as overall numbers and quality of fish goes. If you have interest in preserving these resources for future generations, it is important to develop a conservation mindset. Consider releasing all larger fish, especially those greater than 12 inches. Depending on the body of water, fish of that caliber are a valuable resource and are becoming increasingly less available. Also, put some thought into how many fish you plan on keeping. It only takes a handful of 9 – 11 inch crappies to feed a family of four.
Springtime crappies are truly a treasure to the angling world. They can provide some of the most exciting and fast paced action anglers will find all season long. Gear requirements are minimal, and opportunities are plentiful. Be sure to have fun, and do your best to protect those resources for generations to come.
Musky anglers know all about the expense that comes with the addictive sport and how quickly tackle boxes fill up. Bringing multiple boxes that are filled with lures is not an issue while in a boat. However, when it comes to fishing from a kayak there is an obvious decrease in space, which is why I decided to create my own customized box – (with a little help.) Building your own musky box will also save you a ton of money. To build your own musky tackle box, big or small, follow the steps below.
– container with a lid (size is up to you)
– 2 sizes of PVC pipe (example: 2″ and 3″)
– duck tape
– chop saw
– tape measure
– cordless drill & 1/4in drill bit
1. Use a cordless drill and drill bit to make 4-5 holes in the bottom of the box so water can drain out
2. Measure the depth of your box to determine the length of the PVC pipe. Leave space between the box lid and the PVC pipe. We subtracted 1 inch from the total depth of the box.
3. Measure, mark and cut the PVC pipe. (we used a chop saw for this step)
4. Optional – use a bandsaw to cut 4 grooves in the top of each pipe to keep lure hooks in place
5. Arrange the PVC pipes to your liking and to fit your box
6. Once you determine the layout, use duck tape to secure the pipes together to form the inside of the box. (I recommend taping the top and bottom to keep the tubes more secure)
7. Lastly, I had holes drilled in the sides of my box in order to strap it onto my kayak. This step will vary depending on the size of your box, style of kayak, and the method you choose to secure it in place.
The container I chose for my kayak was based on size, weight, storage, and accessibility. The size of the container will fit perfectly behind the Hobie chair and is lightweight for easy transportation. (The handle is also a plus) The container can hold a variety of lures and has extra space in the back for additional baits to be hung. Also, the container has a lid that latches and has storage for extra leaders, pliers, hook sharpener, etc.
I hope this article will help you save money by putting together your own musky box. Please comment below with any questions, I look forward to hearing from you. Opener is right around the corner; best of luck this season! Until next time, enJOY the outdoors.
It’s 5:30 a.m. The sun hasn’t yet risen. As I pack my fishing gear in the back of my small SUV for a couple of hours on the stream, I recall an assumption that is often made – human beings are of superior intelligence. But immediately a follow-up question comes to mind: “If that’s so, why are we still told to ‘think like a fish’ when we go fishing?”
Pondering this conundrum for a moment and then dismissing it, I remind myself that I have waited anxiously for this day. I’ve gone through my equipment, oiled my reels, replaced my line, organized my tackle, and – since I’m a “wormer” – I gathered a slew of squirming nightcrawlers for bait. It’s the first Saturday in May – the opening day of trout season in Wisconsin – and I am ready for action.
My goal for the morning – bring home my limit of German brown and rainbow trout to go along with a batch of fresh wild asparagus and morels I will secure immediately following my outing on the stream. It will be a meal provided by nature’s bounty, and I will have proven to be a proficient hunter-gatherer.
I am confident I will catch fish, for I remind myself that “I am of superior intelligence.” Therefore, should I not be able to impose my will upon the environment and proceed to catch my limit?
I navigate to the nearby stream, hike to a favorite spot where in previous years I have caught fish, and begin my pursuit of a rainbow with its distinctive pink-lateral stripe or a colorfully-dotted German brown. I make sure to approach the water’s edge quietly so as not to spook my quarry. I try to read the water to ascertain where a nice native trout is hiding out, waiting to ambush the bait I will offer him. I make my first cast. No strike. I make a second. Again, no hit. I make several more attempts but fail to feel that desired tug on my line. After 15 minutes or so I move to another location a couple of hundred feet down stream. Still no success. For the initial half hour, I am intent on catching fish.
Success without fish
And then it happens. In fact, it occurs often when I go trout fishing and I fail to land a fish within the first 30 or 40 minutes. I find my desire for catching fish slipping away. I move from the eager anticipation of catching to a deep appreciation of just being outdoors as I get caught up in my surroundings.
I become fully cognizant of my environment as I feel the early morning chill on my bare arms. I try to determine the speed and the direction of the wind. I notice the variety of plant life at the edge of the stream. I look up and see the waning moon. I listen and hear the red-winged blackbirds. I smell the fresh country air. No longer do I feel I am standing apart from nature seeking to impose my will upon it, but I begin to feel myself as a part of the vast, complex ecosystem.
Rather than conquering nature, I have a renewed desire to live simply within its rhythms. I am content to let the experience of standing on the bank of the stream fill my soul with the assurance of my place – a position not superior to the rest of the created order, but rather a part of the beautiful web of life called nature. I not only feel at peace with my surroundings, but I begin to experience a wonderful sense of inner peace as well. My earlier plan to catch a limit of fish is replaced with a wonderful feeling of being “at one” with all that surrounds me. Furthermore, I begin to suspect that I am not smarter than the fish I am pursuing. For in this environment, they may well have the superior intelligence.
In the next hour I do land a couple of German browns and a nice rainbow. But since they are hooked by the lip, I follow my personal rule of keeping only those fish I feel will not survive the trauma of being caught. Thus, I release each catch back into the stream as soon as possible.
I leave the stream after a couple of hours without any trout. But I am not disappointed. For on this opening day, my eyes have again been opened to my surroundings, allowing me to see and fully sense things that I only experience on such outings to the stream. I return home satisfied for having again felt an intense, yet peaceful connection with nature.
Yes, it’s been a very good Opening Day. Certainly, all is not lost. Maybe I’m not bringing home any fresh trout, but I do know where I can get several stalks of wild asparagus, and I remain confident that I’ll find a few morels in the woods behind our house.
And instead of trout, I’m quite content to put a couple of burgers on the grill.
Full blown, all out, head shaking, rod breaking musky power!
By: Jeff Frick
Let’s face it, it’s really what every musky fisherperson is seeking, right? Why else would we all spend so much time and money pursuing the king of freshwater? This article is going to cover TRANSITIONAL situations and hopefully help you get a little more M.P.H.—Muskies- Per- Hour– out on the water.
This is actually the only transition we can actually control. Lure speed can greatly affect our successes and failures. There have been many, many times when fish won’t even look at a lure if it isn’t moving at the certain speed they want it at. Sometimes, (generally in colder water temperatures) they prefer an ultra-slow presentation, with a generous amount of pauses during the retrieve where the lure isn’t even moving. Although I pointed to cooler water here, this can and often will occur in midsummer as well. Be versatile and always try different speeds! The best baits for the transitional situation in our boat are neutral buoyancy jerkbaits or walk the dog topwaters. It is tough to beat these two in this scenario. My wife, Tina, had an awesome boatside strike from a BEASTLY 48 ½ that came out of nowhere and crushed a Giant Jackpot as it lay totally motionless five feet from the boat. (see pic) Water temp was 49 degrees and it demolished a topwater.
Then there is the opposite end of the spectrum when they want a nitrous fueled retrieve. We’ve had days (generally high water temps, but remember, be versatile!) when you simply couldn’t reel fast enough. There are lots of times when the term, “Speed Kills” certainly applies to musky fishing. This scenario will also allow you to cover a lot of water very quickly and game plan your hot spots accordingly. Long casts and fast retrieves will tell you a lot about the spots and the mood of the fish. If you are getting follows but no strikes, shift into an even higher gear and “make them” stop it if they want it. If more speed equals less or no follows, downshift slightly until you find the right gear they are looking for. It generally doesn’t take too long to figure out what mood they are in.
Lure selection for high-speed muskies will be dictated by what type of cover or structure you are fishing. Most open water will open up an endless arsenal for you. Hot stepping jerkbaits, cranks, in-line blades, heavy spinnerbaits with medium to small blades and topwaters of all makes and models can be used here.
Heavy cover such as weed, reeds, stumps, rocks and downed timber will change things dramatically for lure choices. The previously mentioned selection will still work here, but you will need to pick your shots more carefully; fish edges, openings and any “gaps or pockets” when using lures with treble hooks. My preferred weapons of choice for heavy cover are single hook style spinnerbaits and topwaters.
Topwaters you say?
For fast topwater fishing this type of structure, we offer two lures that were performance tuned for just this situation. Our Musky Rattler dual-armed buzzbait can be burned over and through just about any cover you throw it at. We use them extensively in cabbage and just about any other heavy cover situation. A properly presented topwater over the thick stuff is simply deadly. In my opinion, there is simply NO better lure style for truly attacking and picking apart heavy cover than these single-hook lures. Most Northern Wisconsin lakes and rivers will offer abundant heavy cover areas and attacking them correctly can make or break your trip.
Single hook style spinnerbaits can be worked at many different speeds in heavy cover. For speedy presentations when fish are HOT, I recommend smaller blades and also the willow style blade. It has less lift and can be burned. Colorado’s and Indiana’s can also be presented with a fast retrieve and they also have the added affect of breaking the surface when coupled with high speed. This can trigger vicious strikes in heavy cover.
Heavier spinnerbaits with big blades can also be “slow rolled” near bottom, even to the point of making bottom contact. They can also be dropped down rock ledges and weedlines. In the fall, this is a technique you don’t want to overlook.
Light to Dark and weather transitions.
More often than not, musky fishing is a game of timing. When fish are in a neutral mood (seems like most of the time!), varying lure speeds will help. Weather and light to dark transitions are some of the very best opportunities for BIG fish and multiple fish. If you have been dealing with north/east winds, blue bird skies, wind shifts, clouds moving in and it just “feels” different, be ready. This is one of our top two favorite transitional periods. Local weather, in my opinion, has one of the biggest affects on musky fishing. Trust me, my wife Tina is constantly watching radar and the sky and looking for weather transitions. She knows what can happen.
When weather conditions are transitioning for the better, we don’t necessarily run and gun all over the lake. We choose a surprisingly small number of key spots and patiently work them over. I really think you would be surprised at how few spots we fish and also how much time we spend at good spots when musky weather shows up. Best transition is low humidity, east/northeast winds with no clouds to a muggy, low ceiling of clouds with southeast winds. Throw in a moonrise or set and you can bet your best lure you know where we will be!
Light to Dark.
This is also one of our top two transitional periods. Pick one you say? I’d really call it a tie. When the sun starts getting close to the treetops, my adrenaline will begin to rise. The lower the sun, the higher the adrenaline levels. Muskies are low-light, ambush predators. They know how to take advantage of transitions, so you need to also.
The setting sun triggers a whole chain reaction in lake and river systems. Bait fish can often be seen surfacing with larger predators boiling the water in hot pursuit. We actually call 8 pm “The Witching Hour.” Over the years, 8 pm has been the key time to be on our best spots. Often it’s short-lived, usually until about 9:30 pm, but this magical hour or two can totally change your whole trip! Look for the very best shallow cover with deeper water nearby and break out your favorite topwaters and big blade baits. The two fish pictured, 46.5; 47.5 were caught in less than 4’ of water on Musky Rattler Buzzbaits over heavy cabbage. Times of catches? 9:10 pm and 9:25 pm.
The last “transition” I want to talk about here is retrieve speed. So often we see people just reeling in a straight retrieve, with a constant speed. This will work and often does, but when things get tough, or you are getting lots of follows, but no strikes, it may be time to switch gears during your retrieve. I’m not necessarily talking about boatside moves and figure 8 techniques here, but during the whole duration of your casting.
A bait getting followed could very well get crushed if it suddenly darts forward or suddenly changes course! We have seen this over and over again. Don’t fall in to the rut of cast—retrieve—cast—retrieve at the same speed and direction all day, especially if nothing is happening! Dropping a lure suddenly when it reaches the edge of cover can also have the same affect.
Muskies sometimes (most-times??) need to be coaxed or triggered to get them to commit. All it really takes to change lure speed during your retrieve is a few hard reel cranks or sweeping your rod tip to the side and back. Another great trick is ripping your lure upward as it approaches the boat…just make sure you’re hanging on!
I will come back to some other transitional opportunities in future articles, but for now, shift into high gear, hit the gas and don’t forget to downshift if you need to.
This piece is aimed at the 30 – 50 year old age group. I say that up front as I know as soon as I put forth my opening line, most in that group will assume there is nothing here for them and go on to the next page; but if you are in that slot, there may be some food for thought in my words for you. If I can dislodge just one soul from the rut of the seemingly endless days/months/years of monotonous middle life before them, then I would be happy. The gist of much of this piece can be found in the often repeated saying of an older, ner-do-well, nasty, scoundrel friend of mine who mentored me as a very young man in all of the things that my parents had previously protected me from; “do as I say, not as I have done.”
I am seriously thinking about retiring at the end of this year. I’ll be 64 and for many reasons, this has come to me as a good idea. Even though it was spawned from ‘bar talk’ amongst I and some buddies of mine, (usually those kind of discussions are forgotten by the next morning) I can clearly see it in my mind now and the perceived satisfaction of doing so is growing with me every day. Aside from health issues, finance, insurance, and abilities, I think it is time; so I have begun the planning process and am finding out that ‘the plan’ should have started a long time ago.
Although hindsight is considered to be 20/20, I’m thinking that adage should be upgraded to 40/40 as the sharpness of what I’m seeing is astounding. There’s an old saying that I invented a short time ago; “the older I get, the more I used to do.” At 64, I have a lot to look back over, not as much as some, but enough to realize more regrets than I thought I would have had.
I wish I would have gone on more fishing trips with my wife and later my children, as they all loved to fish. My wife and I went on a Canadian fly-in fishing trip on our honeymoon and then again to Alaska on our 10thanniversary. We should have gone again to Alaska with our kids when they got a bit older as I do not think they will or could on their own now. It’s an experience everyone should have a memory of. We probably could have swung it, but it didn’t just happen.
In my late 50’s, I bought a good used Yamaha 4 wheeler and after I used it one time, I couldn’t understand why it took me so long to buy it; I had been thinking of doing it for years. I always wanted to go high country elk hunting when I was in my middle years, but had to skip the only opportunity I had and don’t see it happening now. Although I know some hunts use horses, base camps, etc, there is still quite a bit walking and as I am starting a re-roof on my garage, my knees are killing me already and I can’t wait to get it done. And my asthma seems to be getting worse every year, so at my age, running up and down mountainsides chasing bull elk is losing its appeal.
I was fortunate enough to go to Wyoming hunting several times with my sons, but not until I was 60; it should have been much earlier. And although I was in good shape at the time, having gotten past open heart surgery at 50, a motorcycle accident at 52, and surviving cancer at 55, climbing those steep foothill canyons of the Big Horn Mountains, while carrying a pack and an eight pound gun, is a young man’s sport. And there is, as I now know, a big difference between 60 and 65 years as life is a cumulative experience of bumps and bruises and untimely mishaps and things just seen to begin to snowball at about that age.
I should have had more fast cars and ‘chromey’ things when I was younger, but the ones I have now I will sell to help finance my golden years. I’m a middle income guy and the thought of retiring has changed my mindset on how I spend my money now; a lot more wisely. I walked through Wal-mart the other day, passing the men’s section and realized I will not have to buy anymore dress pants or shirts for work as I now have a life time supply. I will also probably not need any more new dress shoes, ties, or suits or many other things that are only occasionally used.
There are times when you realize that you have enough of some things or perhaps the need for them has passed…permanently; like when your last child is out of diapers and you know you will never have to buy another box. Or what you now have is good enough to last you so you can forever, so take that out of your budget. A few years ago when I was to go mule deer hunting in Wyoming for the second time, I told my wife I needed to buy a new gun that could shoot the vast distances that I found on the first trip out there. She said, at 61, I was too old for a new gun and as I could not come up with anything that held better merit for buying new, I found a nice 30 year old Ruger ’06 for 1/3 the price. A new gun can last a life time, so you might as well buy it when you’re young enough to get your money’s worth.
For all of those people who say age is just a number, never give up, and you’re never too old; that all sounds noble, but is less so in reality than in sprit. Knees do go bad, backs go out, various ailments arrive unwelcomed, and life changing events occur with dramatic speed as that ‘age number’ increases. In my younger days, I often had time but no money and then the reverse. And now I see it doesn’t change as you get older.
I should have done more but didn’t. I perhaps could have if I had planned better. Some things I just didn’t think were possible so I didn’t try; like moose hunting in Canada. Looking back now, I see many missed opportunities due to poor, or lack of, planning and wished I had forgone some of the flash for more important and lasting things and memories.
Just to be clear; I always felt and firmly said that family comes first and that is the number one priority for all things including money and time, but daydreams can come true and things wanted can be had if the thoughts of a plan can be laid out and followed. When we got married, my wife and I both had new cars, but as the family began, it was three kids and 25 years later before we could afford new ones again.
We do what we can, but I just wish I had put more thought into things when I was younger. So while you can, chase them bull elk and fish those high mountain lakes for trout. Go to Alaska and look around a bit or portage into a remote Canadian lake and fry fresh walleye on a campfire. Build your little shack up north in the woods and pass it along to the young ones.
Experience and age promotes the formation of wisdom; too bad it has to be in that order. Plan better; ‘do as I say, not as I have done.’ JDT