Our Outdoors: Small-minded is the way to go
It's the evening of the first day when the temperature has stayed well below freezing. I'm sitting in the not-quite-bright-enough light of the living room, squinting as hard as I can in an effort to thread a wisp of one-pound test through the eye...
It's the evening of the first day when the temperature has stayed well below freezing. I'm sitting in the not-quite-bright-enough light of the living room, squinting as hard as I can in an effort to thread a wisp of one-pound test through the eye of a 1/64-ounce Genz worm in preparation for an activity I won't do for two weeks.
They say "never stop learning" and, last year, just when I thought I had ascended to the plateau of the ice fishing learning curve, I realized I still have a very long way to go.
Focusing the majority of my efforts on pike, perch and walleye in my formative years of ice fishing hooked me on the idea that any fish will hit a spoon or a jig on six-pound test. It didn't seem to matter what these fish saw in the murky alkalinity of the flooded sloughs stocked by the Game and Fish Department in the late 1990s. The game was more about jiggling the biggest rattling spoon I could drop down there or making sure the biggest frozen herring was the one impaled on my treble hook attached to the tip-up. But, like all schools of thought, there's usually one eureka-type moment that blows the common conception out of the water and opens the door to new areas of exploration.
That moment came for me while I was hunkered in an ice shack with my buddy over 30 feet of water, just off the Lake Ashtabula shoreline north of my hometown of Valley City, N.D. An annoying red line would phase in and out on my trusty Vexilar FL-8 -- no matter what I dropped down there, the line would reappear, swim up to my lure and then disappear with no reaction. I threw everything I had in my tacklebox at the blip with the same result, until I swore to my friend that this fish was mine. I clipped the line and was just able to squeeze it through the teeny eye of a size-10 Lindy Fatboy jig. Baiting the hook with just a segment of a wax worm, I waited in impatient agony as the tiny jig slowly spiraled its way down the water column.
The red line reappeared and met my offering a few feet off the bottom. The monofilament bumped slightly in the last guide of the rod and I set the hook. With zeal, I cranked on the reel and rocketed the fish out of the water, nearly hitting myself in the head with my rod. For the rest of the outing, my buddy and I hovered over that spot without another bite. But I was satisfied with my one fish, and I took the lesson of downsizing with me as we folded up shop and headed in.
Flash forward to last season, when panfish became my primary pursuit. I targeted crappies out over the depths, bluegills along the weedlines and a pod of perch packed into a tight inside bend. The lake in northeastern Minnesota was a far cry from the farmland perch and pike sloughs in Barnes County, N.D., and the fish in it had eyes that probably could pick out each individual angle on the proverbial pinhead. Small was the ticket, save for those three-day stretches when the crappies were bingeing under a full moon.
Jigging raps and rattle spoons were stashed away in favor of size-10, -12 and -14 jigs and ice flies, and my standard four-pound test was halved on a majority of my reels. Even then, in the gin-clear waters beneath my shack, I watched as the finicky bluegills turned up their noses at some of my smallest stuff on my thinnest lines and I vowed that next season, while the fish might get reeled up a bit slower, the connections would come more often and I'd push the limits of the infinitesimal.
So here I sit, practicing my clinch knot with one-pound test on my most sensitive spring bobber rod, knowing that my tactics have evolved to deal with whatever water quality lays beneath the ice. Whether it's perch, bluegill, walleye or crappies, I've learned that sometimes bigger isn't better and, from the spring-fed reservoir to the gravel-bottomed natural lake, clear waters require special tactics to scale the slopes of their learning curves. Each season provides its "A-ha!" moment, whether you're pursuing a new species or fishing new waters. Learn from them, grow from them and expand your knowledge, even if it means getting smaller ... in our outdoors.
Nick Simonson is an avid multi-species angler and hunter and has been writing his columns since 2001 for a number of publications and Web sites across the upper Midwest. Find more stories on www.nicksimonson.com or become a fan on Facebook by searching "Our Outdoors."