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Sun-up crappies hit early and often for Greg Clusiau and friends

Early on Tuesday morning, Greg Clusiau of Keewatin prospects a freshly drilled hole on a lake near Grand Rapids to see if he can get a crappie to bite. Sam Cook / 1 / 8
Greg Clusiau (left) of Keewatin and Lorin LeMire of Solway Township near Duluth display some of the crappies and perch they caught Tuesday on a lake near Grand Rapids. Sam Cook / 2 / 8
Lorin LeMire holds a crappie he caught at sunrise Tuesday morning on a lake near Grand Rapids. Sam Cook / News Tribune3 / 8
At sunrise on Tuesday morning, Greg Clusiau of Keewatin drills a fishing hole on a lake near Grand Rapids before a day of crappie fishing. Sam Cook / 4 / 8
Another crappie comes up from the depths with a tungsten jig tipped with a soft plastic. Sam Cook / 5 / 8
Greg Clusiau of Keewatin shows off a freshly caught crappie Tuesday afternoon on a lake near Grand Rapids. He was fishing with Lorin LeMire of Solway Township. Sam Cook / 6 / 8
Lorin LeMire of Solway Township near Duluth holds a plump perch he caught while crappie fishing on a lake near Grand Rapids on Tuesday. Sam Cook / 7 / 8
Greg Clusiau of Keewatin uses a variety of tungsten jigs for crappie fishing. He tips them with soft plastics, waxworms or minnows. Sam Cook / 8 / 8

GRAND RAPIDS — The sun hadn't yet crested the horizon on Tuesday when Greg Clusiau and Lorin LeMire began perforating the frozen surface of the lake with fishing holes.

"We'll see what's down there before we set up," said Clusiau, who calls Keewatin home.

It was a clear and chilly January morning, but the forecast was for temperatures near 30 by afternoon. LeMire, of Solway Township near Duluth, and Clusiau had come to the lake near Grand Rapids to see if they could coax some crappies from the depths. Clusiau had fished the lake for a couple days before with reasonable success.

About the time the sun inched above the horizon, LeMire pulled a 12-inch crappie from one of his holes. Clusiau followed with a couple more in quick succession.

Clusiau, 69, popped up his three-person fishing shelter, but LeMire, 48, chose to stay outside. He had punched a half-dozen holes and wanted the option to pop from one to another.

The early bite proved prophetic. Inside the shelter, Clusiau and I had a hoot pulling up the golden fish from 27 feet using tungsten jigs tipped with soft plastics that resembled the larval stages of aquatic insects

We hollered back and forth to LeMire, whose hole-hopping strategy was paying off outside. He was using a tungsten jig tipped with a pink soft plastic. He was outfishing Clusiau and me handily.

An occasional perch wanted to join the party, too.

Some of the crappies needed to grow more, and we sent them back down the hole. But we kept those that measured 12 inches as we worked toward our 10-fish individual limits.

Watching the Vexilar flashers that indicated the fish below, anticipating the strikes, setting the hooks and cranking up those frisky crappies was about the most fun an angler can hope to have.

I had one nice specimen lying on the ice in the fishing shelter.

"Aren't they pretty?" Clusiau said.

Yeah. They are. Big mouths. Exaggerated fins. Flanks the color of sunshine. Handsome critters.

Fishing friendship

Clusiau and LeMire have been fishing together for about three years after getting to know one another through the Lake States Fishing online forum. Clusiau is a fishing legend on the Iron Range and beyond. He's on the pro staff of several fishing companies. He writes a column for the Scenic Range NewsForum and has lots of followers on his "Fishing with Greg" Facebook page.

LeMire works at Hibbing Taconite and also operates a charter fishing service, Fish of the Gitch, on Lake Superior.

"When Lorin wants to come up here, he fishes with me," Clusiau said. "When I go to Lake Superior, I fish with him."

The two are cut from the same fishing mold. They're both analytical and methodical in their approaches, but they know how to have fun. They readily share information. When LeMire said his pink plastic was producing lots of action, he let us know, and Clusiau and I both switched.

When the action slowed a bit after the first hour or so, neither LeMire nor Clusiau was content to sit. They each began drilling more holes in a wider area. They trundled from hole to hole toting their Vexilars like carry-on baggage. If they didn't mark fish on the screen in one hole, they'd move on to another.

That's a common trait in good anglers and fishing guides — they don't tolerate slow fishing. They change something — lure, color, location, depth, lure action. Something. The result is usually better fishing.

Time to explore

When the sun got high, we pulled up stakes and drove atop 20 inches of ice to other spots that either Clusiau or LeMire had marked previously on their GPS units. Clusiau's research predates the latest GPS technology, and he has an entire notebook devoted specifically to this lake. (The lake must remain unnamed out of respect to both Clusiau and the crappie population.)

Clusiau exhibits another characteristic of many good anglers: He fishes all the time. Now retired for about three years, he fishes about 250 days a year, he figures.

"When I was working, I was still fishing 100 days in the summer and 100 days in the winter," he said. "How did I do that?"

He fished 30 days straight immediately after retiring. He fishes alone or with friends. Everybody wants to fish with him, not only because he catches fish but because he's so easy to be with. And funny.

"I still remember teachers telling me, 'You just need to apply yourself,' " he said with a laugh.

He has applied himself to fishing, and he tries to explain the appeal of it.

"You never know," he said. "That's what I like about fishing. There's a lot to be said for figuring it out. But I do like to catch fish."

On to 142

We considered several other locations on the lake. We drove. Got out. Checked depths. Let the Vexilars have a look for fish. Nobody home? Move on.

We finished at a spot Clusiau had marked as waypoint "No. 142" on his GPS. Twenty-eight feet deep. Fish showing up as multiple orange and red blips on the flashers.

We dropped jigs. Clusiau pulled his pickup in close and fished from the driver's seat, door open.

Everyone caught crappies until the sun dropped low in the west. For the day, we each kept a limit and released many others of all sizes.

"I'm not looking forward to cleaning these fish when I get home," said LeMire, who must clean hundreds of trout and salmon for his clients all summer.

But we all knew how good those fillets would look, crisp and curling in a skillet a few days later.

More information

• Fishing shelter — Clusiau and I used his new Ice Runner Expedition fishing shelter, made by KMDA Inc. in Bovey. It's a three-person insulated model, roomy for two. Weighs 69 pounds. Goes up easily. Rear entry means no stepping over fishing holes and heaters to enter or exit. Vertical windows and a skylight window allow plenty of light. More info:

• More about Greg Clusiau —

• More about Lorin LeMire's Fish of the Gitch charter service on Lake Superior,