A Strange Winter Continues

I have always had this paradoxical obsession and hatred of the winter months. Part of me wants to prove that I am a true outdoorsman and that no weather can stop me from spending time outside, and the other part of me just wants it to be spring again and for green to start creeping into the forest. This strange dichotomy has fueled many of my fishing adventures in the winter months, though I will willingly admit that part of what always draws me to that outdoors this time of year is that rare peace and quiet that only exists in the winter.

Early in the year temperatures fell well below freezing and an exciting thought kept occurring to me. This could be the year that I was finally able to catch a fish through the ice. A few days of brutally cold temperatures finally happened and an icy film started forming on the lakes, I had my fingers crossed that we could hit that magic depth for it to be safe for me to walk out on. But I wasn’t naive enough to count on that happening, so I did some early season scouting and I had a backup plan. Our ice thickness only hit an inch and a half, so the idea of safe ice disappeared quickly. Luckily, I had found a fishing pier at a local lake that had access to 6-8 ft of water directly off its edges. So, on a chilly Monday afternoon I bundled up in all of my winter gear, tossed my ice rods in the car and drove to my secret spot. I wasted no time punching a few holes in the ice at the end of the dock and tied on a size 14 tungsten jig and tipped it with a wax worm. It didn’t take long before I felt a light tap, I set the hook hard and quickly saw the silhouette of a fish swimming under the crystal-clear ice. I carefully got the fish up through my crudely cut hole in the ice and was delighted to see a lovely little Bluegill. A quick photo session later and I released him back through the ice.

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I hadn’t in my wildest dreams thought that my plan to catch fish through a small hole in the ice would actually be effective. But after working my way through 2 containers of bee moths, I knew I had figured something out. I was hoping I would be able to get my first crappie through the ice before calling this adventure a success. But instead I hooked into a small Redear Sunfish, another first for me through the ice. With this small victory, I retreated to the warmth of my car.

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That night I dreamed of returning to the ice before this fickle winter weather melted it, but between work and school I wasn’t able to return soon enough. I was disappointed I wasn’t able to catch my first crappie through the ice, but I did mark an item off my bucket list: I caught a fish through the ice.

The weather continued its odd habits and before I knew it enough rain had fallen for the Ohio River to be in full flood stage. Most people would be fishing the river for the chance at a trophy Blue Catfish, but my target laid in a humble flooded out creek. One of my goals for the 2017 fishing season was to catch a Flier Sunfish on my fly rod, and these high-water conditions provided me with the chance at this. Armed with my 5 weight fly rod and a variety of size 12 minnow imitations I turned my focus to this creek. It didn’t take long for my first fly rod fish of the year to find my fly, a healthy little Bluegill.

 

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This fish gave me the confidence to keep fishing this spot, even with the cold-water temperature the high water seemed to have pushed a good number of fish into this stretch of the creek. I found some submerged stems from dead lily pads, and started targeting this feature. I knew that Fliers like to hug vegetation, and this was the only form of vegetation I could find in this creek. Finally, I landed the perfect cast on the edge of lily pad stems and slowly worked my minnow along them. I saw the slightest twitch of my line and instinctively set the hook expecting another little Bluegill. Suddenly a golden fish surfaced and I knew I had accomplished my goal, I quickly grabbed my net and landed my first Flier of 2017.

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To my delight this spot wasn’t holding only one Flier, but ended up catching three of them before I called the day. I snapped a quick picture with my nice camera before releasing them, this was the first time I’ve seen them take on such a vibrant golden hue. I put my 4-inch knife for scale in the picture, making the larger fish in the image below my new personal best.

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I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to try to catch my first fly rod crappie of the year while I was at this creek. I knew from past years that this creek tends to be one of the first places to fill with crappie in the spring, so I was hoping with the high water a few little crappie would have traveled upstream with the other sunfish. Much to my delight I found a school of small Black Crappie in the deeper section of the creek.

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Another week passed and the weather had continued to warm up, my dreams of learning how to catch fish in the cold were starting to disappear into dreams of fishing crappie spawn. I put in extra hours at work early in the week so that on Friday I could take a half day and enjoy the unseasonably warm weather. I had been spoiled by the early season fly fishing and just couldn’t seem to shake the fly fishing itch. As soon as I got off work I made my way to one of my most reliable lake with hopes of finding some willing Bluegill. It didn’t take long to find some hungry Bluegill that had moved up into shallow water. A few casts with a small wet fly resulted in my first Bluegill of the day.

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There seemed to be no shortage of Bluegill up in the shallows, I was even able to get them bold enough to rise to surface and strike at top water flies. I couldn’t help but smile like a little kid with the idea of catching fish on top water in the dead of winter.

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After catching my fair share of Bluegill I moved over to the deep end of the lake with the wild idea of targeting some of the crappie in the deeper water. I knew that the chances of this working were slim since I was fishing with floating line and a very short tippet. But after about 20 minutes without a fish my line made an uncharacteristic twitch and I set the hook. To my surprise I wasn’t snagged, and was battling a small crappie. A quick fight later I was holding my intended target, a small White Crappie (also the first White Crappie I caught on the fly rod in 2017)! The rest of the fish I caught that day faded in comparison to the excitement I had catching this little fish.

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The weather continued cycling from freezing cold to surprisingly warm as the winter got older. But I wasn’t going to complain about the idea of being able to fish in a long sleeve shirt, even if it only lasted for a day. I took advantage of the warm days while they lasted and turned my attention over to catching more White Crappie. The warm weather had scattered the fish throughout the water column, and these conditions are a dream for a fisherman like me. It didn’t seem to matter what depth I was fishing at I would hook into a fish, mostly they were Bluegill. But occasionally a Largemouth Bass would find my hook before a Bluegill could, and on rarer occasions a White Crappie would do the same.

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The warm weather was quickly replaced with a bitter cold wind that dropped the temperature across Indiana. Once again a thin layer of ice started forming on the lakes, but the sun came back out and melted this off quickly. This quick cold snap followed by a lot of sunlight had the bass in a feeding frenzy, and I seemed to be the only one brave (or crazy) enough to go out and try to capitalize on this bite. When I know fish are in feeding fairly aggressively I like to tie on two white grub lures and fish them at different depths. This seems to mimic a small group of bait fish, a sight a hungry bass just can’t resist. It didn’t take long for me to hook into a handful of small bass, but on the last cast of the day I set the hook into a fish that actually started pulling some drag.

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This has one of the strangest winters I have ever experienced, but it has offered some new challenges that are helping me improve my fishing skills. Easily my favorite challenge of winter was getting the chance to catch a few fish through the ice. I hope you all have been able to make the best of the odd weather we are having this year.

Tight lines,

-Isaac

 

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Early Winter Panfish

Whenever I think of fishing in January, people in huge, winter coats walking on sketchy ice always come to mind. Personally, I’ve never seen ice thick enough to even think about stepping on. Until this year, the idea of fishing a lake during the winter seemed like some kind of cruel joke. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve tried to fish lakes in the winter before and I have caught a few fish doing it. But I have always been very dependent on live minnows and I tend to catch far fewer fish than the 12 minnows I purchase. In the past, the best reasoning I could come up with for the fishing spots I chose had been, “I caught fish here in the summer, so they are probably here in the winter, too.”

But this year, I decided this lazy mentality had to stop. This year, I was going to learn how to catch fish during the winter. I figured when most people start learning how to fish they start out targeting Bluegill, so why shouldn’t I start there as well? Bluegill seemed like the obvious choice since they are a fairly predictable fish: they will try to eat almost anything and they are (thankfully) still fairly aggressive when the water temperature drops.

I started by fishing all of the lakes that hadn’t iced over yet. The first lesson I learned was that it wasn’t really necessary to go to the outrageously small size jigs that I had thought I would need. It turns out that that isn’t entirely what dictates if you will catch fish. I started my Bluegill quest fishing with 1/200 oz jigs and I caught a lot of fish on this set up. The problem with fishing jigs this small is that I had to set up a special ultralight rod just to be able to cast these. This ended up being an 8 foot 5 weight fly rod with a small spinning reel spooled up with 2 lb test line. I love fishing with 2 lb test line (which is about the only line I’ve found that can cast these tiny jigs), but when ice starts forming on line that small, it becomes a nightmare to cast.

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The smart solution to this problem would be to step up the weight of the jigs so you can cast it on heavier line that can handle the build-up of ice. The solution I found was to use an ultralight rod with larger guides and spool it up with 4 lb test line. The larger eyes make it easier to cast line with ice on it and makes it harder to totally freeze over the front guide. I’ve found that 1/64 oz jigs have worked the best for me so far: they fall slow enough to entice bites from some of the smarter fish, but still weigh enough to be able to cast it a decent distance. The problem with jigs this size is that smaller Bluegill can have trouble hitting the right spot to get hooked, especially if they are a little lethargic and not sure they want to hit at all. Luckily, this problem can be solved by tipping a jig with some crappie nibbles, or better yet bee moths (if you can find any tackle shops that carries them in middle of January).

Bluegill haven’t been to hard to find; the easiest feature to target them has been to find a source of water flowing into a lake and fish the deeper water around it. This can mean there is slightly warmer water for the fish to live in or that the fish are used to this flow of water bringing them food. The second feature I’ve had luck with is to fish the first major drop-off from the bank. Most of the lakes I fish have shallow edges that are only about a foot deep, but about 10 feet from the bank they quickly drop off to a depth of about 6 feet. A lot of Bluegill will follow this drop-off in search of food, even though the water temperature isn’t as warm as some of the deeper spots in the lake.

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Once I felt like I was starting to gain some headway on catching Bluegill, I decided to shift my emphasis over to catching winter crappie. My favorite time of the year has always been spring, and this is largely due to the fact that crappie spawn in the spring and they become easily accessible from the bank. I knew in bigger lakes that I would need a boat to have much luck finding them this time of year, so I decided to focus my attention on large ponds that I knew had a few crappie. The problem with this particular lake was that I have only caught 10 crappie in the last 4 years from it, and the largest one I caught was only about 9 inches. I have always just assumed that there wasn’t a very large population of fish, and that the few fish that did survive were usually harvested by the other anglers in the spring. But the one advantage you get with heavily pressured lakes is that the fish that are left tend to be smart, and as a byproduct of that, they tend to be much larger than the fish that are harvested. I knew that the bass population in this lake was that way, so I was crossing my fingers that the crappie would be, too. And by some miracle, I was actually right.

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I try my best not to over-complicate crappie fishing. My usual tactic is simply finding a ledge and hopping a jig tipped with a bee moth across it. If I don’t find fish on the ledge, then I usually tie on a searching bait, like a curl tail grub, and work a lot of different depths and locations until I can find where they are schooled up at. So far this winter I have found them consistently sitting on ledges. If you can find any underwater structure, that has been an added bonus (but not at all necessary to hold crappie). I’m a firm believer that a slow rate of fall triggers more fish to hit than a fast rate of fall, so I tend to fish with a 1/64 oz jig and occasionally 1/32 oz when it is particularly windy.

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I didn’t expect the crappie fishing to be better in the winter, but so far this pond has fished better in the cold than it ever has before! I’ve caught more than 3 times the crappie these last 2 months than I had caught in all of the last 4 years at this pond. I also managed to catch the biggest crappie I have ever seen in this pond (as shown in the picture above).  I have always loved the challenge of catching “smart” fish, so I decided to keep the tradition of this lake alive and practice catch and release on all of the crappie I have caught. Now the question is, can I fool these fish twice?

Tight lines,

-Isaac