Sunday, January 31, 2010

Don't forget to fish the weedbeds for walleye

Walleye caught in the weeds
Weedbeds and weedy shorelines are a great place to fish for walleye on Red Lake, Ontario, and are frequently overlooked by many anglers. They seem to think weeds are for northern pike only, but that's just not true.

If you only catch pike out of the weeds here it's probably because you are only using lures designed to catch pike. On the other hand if you go looking for walleye in these areas, you'll probably connect.

Try fishing just off the weed line in 8-15 feet of water with Little Joe spinners tipped with worms or leeches or with a 1/8 or 1/4-ounce jig with the same live baits.

If you can find a rock pile or sandbar with weeds near or around it, all the better.
You can also try casting crankbaits like the Rattlin' Rap in these spots. But you better be using an ultra-thin steel leader on these because weeds really are good for razor-mouthed pike too.

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Saturday, January 30, 2010

Proof there are small fish too in Red Lake

Anybody can catch a big fish in Red Lake but it takes finesse and incredible skill to lure the tiniest fish onto your hook!
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Thursday, January 28, 2010

Best way to land and hold a northern pike

What is the best way to land and hold a northern pike?

Conservationists, biologists and outdoor writers are nearly unanimous in frowning on the use of lipgrip tools. These devices which latch onto the lower jaw of a fish end up harming the fish when it is lifted out of the water by the jaw, they say.

The most humane method of landing a big northern pike, they advocate, is with a fish cradle. These are two slender boards with a mesh between. The fish is pulled over the cradle in the water, then lifted aboard the boat or, even better, held securely in the water while the hooks are extracted and the fish is released.

The second best way to land a pike, the experts say, is with a landing net. The best of these are the rubber nets because the fish cannot get tangled in the mesh but the rubber supports the fish's body. Very small mesh nets are also excellent. The worst are the conventional mesh nets because the fish wraps up in the net making it difficult to remove the hooks. Also the mesh can cut the fish and break its fins.

Incidentally the conservation experts also do not like to see anglers use jaw spreaders. These are springs that hold the mouth open while the hooks are removed. The big problem with these is that when used on smaller fish the spring is so strong it can break or dislocate the fish's jaw.

As a fishing camp operator I agree with everything the experts have said but I'm also faced with some practical realities. Most people have no idea how to use a fish cradle. If we were to supply them in our boats I would expect the fine mesh on them would be ripped to shreds by fish hooks in very short order.

Rubber nets large enough to land a very large northern pike, 40-50 inches, must be so wide that they also are very heavy. Since most people net almost every fish they catch, it would be tiresome to use this very large, heavy net all day.

The fine-mesh conservation nets, which come with a flat bottom that better supports the weight of the fish, are probably the way to go. These just came out recently and are very expensive. One of the frustrating things for me as a camp operator is to see how most people abuse the landing nets we supply. They use their knives to cut lures out of the net, etc. Some people offer to pay for the damage which, to replace with a good quality mesh can be $10-$15. If we were to use the small mesh conservation nets the bill would be more like $80. So, we don't use the conservation types, but there's nothing stopping you from bringing your own. Ditto for the large rubber nets.

We do have the medium-size rubber nets. Everyone loves them for landing walleye and northern pike up to about 35 inches. But they feel like a serving spoon when you try to land a real whopper of a pike, 20-30 pounds and with a head the size of a minnow pail.

The experts also agree that the best way to hold a northern pike is the way my niece, Alice, demonstrates in these three fish she caught and released at camp last summer.

The top two photos show the best way to hold the pike for photos. By having the hands beneath the body the fish's weight is supported. By contrast when holding a big fish by the jaw, all of the weight is hanging on the jaw which could then be damaged.

The bottom photo shows the best way to grasp a pike, by gently squeezing in on the gill plates. This is also the best way to pick up a pike by hand out of the water. Whenever doing so, however, beware of the hooks from your lure. As talked about in a couple of blogs back, fish caught on lures with a single set of treble hooks such as spoons and spinners are quite safe to grasp by hand. Lures with three sets of trebles, which almost all the large stick baits have, are so dangerous you have to be extremely cautious. From my point of view, these lures are so dangerous, to you in handling the fish and to the fish while you try to extract all the hooks, that you should think twice about using them.

When it comes to jaw spreaders I think it is good advice to carry them but just not to use them on little fish.

While all the advice from the experts is good, I can also say that even though we seemed to do everything wrong for years we didn't seem to harm many fish.

I personally don't have any problem with holding a fish upright to get its photo taken.

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Sunday, January 24, 2010

Hey look, it's a chionophile!

While coming across the lake from ice fishing the other day my friend John spied this little fly on the surface of the snow. John has a keen eye for detail and has been seeing these "snow flies" all over the place for the past month.

I snapped this photo which I hoped would help me later identify the species but alas, no luck.

My best guess is it is a member of the Trichoceridae family or winter crane fly but I wouldn't swear to it. Its wings appear too long for a crane fly and its legs a bit too bent at the joints.

At any rate most people would find it astonishing to know there are insects out in the winter, perhaps not when it's -40 C but at warmer temperatures that are still below freezing. Earlier in the blog we documented finding snow fleas or springtails. I also see small moths flitting about sometimes.

There is also at least one species of spider that can frequently be seen scurrying across the snow surface.
An animal that thrives in the winter is called a chionophile.

Besides the few bugs I've just mentioned more well known chionophiles are snowshoe hares, red foxes, timber wolves, great grey and snowy owls and ravens. We could probably add every member of the weasel family to the list, from the least weasel to the wolverine.

Herbivores like moose and whitetail deer are definitely not chionophiles. They lose weight from the time the leaves fall in autumn until the new growth reappears in spring. If spring doesn't come on time many of them starve to death.

Black bears have figured out how to avoid the whole subject by sleeping through the winter season. Woodchucks hibernate. Chipmunks do the same but wake up every week or so to have a bite of food which they have stored in their burrow. Lots of insects also hibernate. Many species of butterflies do this for example.

It boggles the mind that some insects such as the tiny fly above are able to function in the winter. Apparently they are made with a natural antifreeze.

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Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Two good reasons to go fishing on a rainy day

walleye caught in the rain
northern pike on a rainy day

Here's why we advise bringing excellent quality rain gear on your fishing trip.

Some of the best fishing can occur in the rain as these photos from last July prove.

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Sunday, January 17, 2010

Case of the missing pike tails is solved

Around the first week of July last summer anglers at camp caught a number of big pike that had part of their tail fins missing.

If I remember right we caught six pike, all of them slot size or larger, with either the top half or the bottom half of their fins absent as if they had been surgically removed. In some cases the wounds were so fresh that the fish bled profusely from the tail. In one case the wound had occurred some other year and that part of the tail was healed over entirely although the actual fin was gone. One fish had parts of both the top and bottom halves of its tail gone.

Pike frequently have gashes and cuts on their bodies from fighting with other pike or from spawning activities and they also often have split fins.

But in the fish caught in 2009 the fin was removed neatly right where the fin would join the body. It just didn't look accidental.

We could think of no other explanation but that someone was catching big pike, cutting off part of their tails and releasing them.

Incensed that anybody would do such a thing, we reported the catches to the Ministry of Natural Resources. Neither MNR conservation officers nor biologists there could think of another explanation either.

Except for that one week, however, we never saw the phenomenon again.

It wasn't until the MNR was at camp this fall gathering lake trout eggs to be raised in a hatchery that we got the answer.

Jason (sorry, I have forgotten his last name) from the MNR Dorion Fish Hatchery knew all about it. It is called tail/fin rot and it's caused by a fungus that is only present when the water is unusually cold.

Sure enough, the lake last summer was at flood stage and was much colder than normal from all the rain. Also, all the fish came from the same general area, a spot where the water tends to be colder anyway.

So there isn't a maniac out there after all. Thank goodness!

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Friday, January 15, 2010

How to release big northern pike unharmed

big northern pike is released
Most fishermen today realize that it is best practice to release big northern pike back to the lake where they can pass on their genes for large size and fast growth to future generations of fish.

It's obviously very important that these released fish survive.

There are two major factors in this: 1. Time out of the water and 2. Damage done to the fish.

Once a big fish is brought aboard the boat the stopwatch starts ticking. You need to get the hooks out of this baby, grab a photo and/or measurement and get the fish back in the water in a couple of minutes.

How difficult this process will be depends on what type of lure you are using. The worst are stick baits with three sets of treble hooks. Expect one set of these to be hooked in the gills, one set inside the mouth and the final set hooked to the outside of the head and now wrapped tight in the net by the twisting motion of the pike.

It works best if both fishermen in the boat spring into action once the fish is aboard. One person restrains the fish from moving while the other gets the net mesh pulled off the head. Be careful that the outside treble doesn't hook you as well.

If you are really prepared you will have brought a set of side cutters and you simply cut the split ring or eye off the treble hook, leaving the treble twisted in the net to be removed later. Now that the fish is free from the net, put the net where the fish cannot flop back into it.

If you brought jaw spreaders, (See Best Fish Unhooking Tools) put them in the fish's mouth so that you can get to work on the inside. If you don't have jaw spreaders the person holding the fish can grasp the fish over the top just behind the gill covers and with the other hand pull open the jaw by slipping his hand along the inside of the gill plate being careful to always stay outside of the gills. Do this on the opposite side from where the treble hook is located.

As soon as the mouth is open the other angler takes his Baker Hookout or needle nose pliers and extracts the second and third set of trebles. Keep in mind that sometimes the best way to get hooks out of the gill area is to unsnap the leader and pull the lure out backwards through the gills, not forward through the mouth. It just depends where the hook is embedded.

Grab a quick pix and measurement and get the fish back in the water.

Make sure there is not a blood clot in the gills. If there is, flare the gill cover from beneath and gently flush away the clot with your hands. Anything caught in the gills could cause the fish to die.

Hold the fish in front of its tail and let it take some breaths. Although many of us have successfully revived fish by moving them back and forth gently at this point the latest advice from top anglers is not to do this. Instead, just support the fish by the tail until it starts breathing. If there is any current, turn the fish so it faces upstream.

After a couple of minutes the fish may struggle to get free. If it does, let go of it. If it doesn't, periodically let go to see if it will remain upright on its own. It should eventually swim off.

Lures with one set of trebles, like spinners and spoons, are far simpler and quicker to remove. Lures with single hooks like the Johnson Silver Minnow, spinner baits and jigs are a snap.

If fishing with dead or live bait, use a 5/0 circle hook or a quick-strike rig and not a treble hook.

The circle hook (See Use Circle Hook for Spring Pike) will always be caught in the very corner of the mouth. Just remember not to "set the hook" when using circle hooks. Instead just reel steadily and it is this slow tightening of the line that pulls the hook into the fish's mouth. Setting the hook can jerk the hook right out of the fish's mouth before the point of the hook has penetrated flesh.

The very best bait-fishing option is to use quick strike rigs. With these you set the hook the instant the fish takes the bait. You do not let it "take it" for awhile or it will have swallowed the treble hook.

Contrary to popular opinion, fish that swallow treble hooks almost always die later even if the line is cut from the hook. The hook does not dissolve in the fish's stomach.

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Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Floors in boats, more electric-start Hondas in 2010

recoil-start Honda 20 hp
We've been using four-stroke Honda 20 h.p. outboards for a long time now and they're a hit with just about everybody.

They idle like a dream, are so quiet you can hardly tell they're running and don't produce smoke like the old two-stroke outboards.

At the same time they squirt our 16-foot Lund fishing boats around at 20+mph which lets you get to the farthest places we ever fish in about 20 minutes.

The Hondas are also very easy to start (See Our 20 hp four-stroke Hondas, March, 2009).

Still, as many of us get up in years we find just the motion of pulling the starting cord to aggravate bad shoulders, bad backs, etc.

So, as we update our motor fleet the last couple of years we have been switching our new motors to electric-start models. It's the same motor as before but instead of pulling the cord you push a button.

This year 13 of our 19 motors will be electric-starts.

The motor in the photo above is one of the recoil models. The electric-start looks identical except it has a cable that runs to a 12-volt battery in the bottom of the boat.

I'd like to repeat right here that it's no hardship if you get the recoil model when you come this season as they are so easy to start anyway.

We will try to ensure our older guests or people with injuries get the electric starts this season.

By 2011 we should have all electric-starts.

Another innovation that we started incorporating last summer and had completed by fall is that our Lund boats now all have floors in their bows. This makes a flat surface for the person sitting up there to fish from.

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Friday, January 8, 2010

Why are walleye near Bow Narrows Camp so big?

another big walleye
It's an interesting question.

It would seem to some of our fishermen that there just aren't any walleye in Red Lake near Bow Narrows Camp that are smaller than 20 inches. The average fish caught last year was probably 22 inches with many fish in the 26-inch range and some 28-inchers caught every day. A 20-inch walleye seemed to be the "little one."

The Red Lake-Gullrock Lake water system has earned the reputation for producing great quantities of walleye as well as really big walleye.

The biggest of these would seem to consistently be at the west end of Red Lake near camp.

Why is that?

Well first of all, there really are small walleye in the lake. They just don't usually show up at our end until the water warms, about July 1 in a normal summer. From that point on we still catch the big walleye but small ones as well.

Just about everything there is to know about fish behavior comes down to this fact: food. I would suspect that the reason we seem to have only big walleye early in the season is because we have more food fish available to them. Our end of the lake is deeper and probably contains more ciscoes (and up until recently, smelt) than the rest of the lake.

Ciscoes, called tulibee in Northwestern Ontario, are a high-calorie food for all of Red Lake's gamefish. Fish like them because for just a little bit of effort they get a lot of nutrition as compared to chasing down minnows such as dace and shiners. Ciscoes are also bigger than minnows and this would appeal more to a large fish than a small one.

Why then do the smaller walleye show up later in the season?

Probably minnow populations become more abundant at the west end of the lake about that time. There certainly are hatches of minnows entering the system about then.

Sometimes, however, there are all sizes of walleyes caught right from the start of the season and I've reason to believe next year will be one such year. The reason comes from lake trout studies done by the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources near camp last fall.

The MNR researchers were searching for small lake trout that had been stocked from Red Lake eggs over the past six or so years. They didn't find any (it was kind of like looking for a needle in a haystack) but they did find hordes of small walleye. These fish should be prime eating size this summer and for the next few years.

As for the lake trout, we are catching small trout, especially in the spring. These all have been naturally-spawned fish. The stocked fish can be identified by a clipped fin. A different fin has been clipped each year. If you catch any next year, please let us know. All lake trout must be live-released in Red Lake.

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Thursday, January 7, 2010

Moose-hide moccasins best for snowshoeing

moose-hide moccasins
For about 20 years I have worn the exact same pair of moose-hide moccasins when I go snowshoeing. Talk about your durable footwear! I snowshoe almost every day in the winter.

I grew up in Red Lake wearing moccasins in the winter. There just wasn't the footwear back then that is available today such as felt pacs.

We wore moccasins with three pair of socks and our feet were perfectly comfortable, even in temperatures of -40 C which is also 40 below F.

There is no moisture at these temperatures. Walking in loose snow is like walking in feathers or in packed snow like a sand beach. All you need is something to keep the snow out of your socks.

Moccasins do this perfectly and because they are soft and not binding, are much, much warmer than stiff footwear like rubber or leather boots.

Mind you, today's felt pacs are excellent and have the advantage of preventing your feet from getting wet in slush or wet snow. But they are also heavy, cumbersome and difficult to snowshoe in.

You can put felt liners in moccasins too but I find I prefer to just have a felt insole on the bottom. It cushions your foot where it strikes the bar on the snowshoes.

These moccasins came from the Treasure House in Red Lake which is located across the street from the Government Dock.

They have lots of moose-hide slippers with intricate beadwork and fur trim as well as the winter moccasins like mine and moose-hide mitts and gauntlets.

All of these are made by native women from north of Red Lake.

My moccasins were smoke-tanned but I believe all of the moose-wear they sell today are commercial tanned and so don't smell smoky.

It takes incredible skill to make this footwear. The beadwork style is unique to the maker's family.

Check it out the next time you come to Red Lake. It's the Treasure House.

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Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Mysterious tulibee -- lord of the rings

tulibee rings in the evening
When you are at camp this summer you may notice dozens of small rings on the lake's surface in the evening when the water is flat.

This is especially the case in deep-water bays like Pipestone, Trout and Big Red (our camp name for the Potato Island basin) but they can also occur everywhere including right in the narrows in front of camp.

These rings are small but bigger than those made by minnows. They are not the mighty swirls made by any of Red Lake's famous gamefish: walleye, northern pike and lake trout.

It took me years and a side-scanning fish finder to finally discover what makes them.

They're tulibee, also known as ciscoes and lake herring.

What I first noticed with the side-looking fish finder was that there were fish about 90 feet from the boat, right on the surface and right where the rings were forming.

We tried stealthily paddling toward the fish but they would just move off, always keeping about 90 feet from the boat. We even tried sitting still for hours, hoping the fish would forget we were there. They never did and in fact it gave me a whole new appreciation of fishes' senses. Fish don't need to see, hear or smell you to know of your presence. Their lateral line can also detect electrical disturbances in the water and motion. In the case of a motionless, silent boat, they probably could detect an electrical discharge just from the aluminum hull reacting with the lake water.

This has big implications for those anglers who think you must have an electric trolling motor to "sneak up" on the fish. The turning propeller and the electric motor are broadcasting your presence probably just as much as an outboard motor.

Anyway, getting back to the mysterious fish 90 feet from the boat, we tried casting lures to these fish which, incidentally, showed up as medium-size on the fish finder. They sort of looked like walleyes.

Nothing ever took these offerings. Finally it occurred to us that perhaps the fish were either whitefish or tulibee, both of which have very small mouths. So we took an ultralight rod and reel which would cast a 1/8-ounce jig out 90 feet and presto, we had ourselves a tulibee.

These aren't tiny fish. They average 1-2 pounds, so you would think they would make a bigger splash on the surface. But apparently the tulibee are picking insects off the top of the water and they do so by delicately inhaling them from below. In other words, they just stick their snouts above the water, leaving the little rings to mark their passing.

Tulibee are not a good eating fish -- for humans -- but they're a favorite for northern pike and lake trout. Every so often, out there among the tulibee rings, there is a big splash and some tulibee has become a late-night snack.

You can catch these tulibee-eating predators just by noticing where they swirled and then casting regular lures like spoons, spinners and Rapalas.

Don't be surprised if the big fish turns out to be a lake trout, even in the middle of the summer when the water is at its warmest and conventional wisdom tells you that the cold water-loving lake trout are down at the thermocline, 50-60 feet below. Trout readily come to the surface during times of flat water, including in the middle of the day, to grab a nice juicy tulibee that is "pinned" against the surface.

When the water isn't flat tulibee are always half way to the bottom. They can be caught there too by anglers, usually by using 1/4 ounce jigs with white twister tails. Jigs of one-eighth would work even better but you just can't get them down to that depth.

I've never caught a walleye while casting for surface tulibee but walleye certainly love them, just ask all the fishermen who use dead bait at camp. The dead bait are frozen ciscoes, just 6 inches long. Most people cut them in half and put them on a 5/0 circle hook and fish them with a bobber for northern pike. Sometimes half the fish they catch are big walleyes.

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Sunday, January 3, 2010

That funny-colored walleye is probably a sauger

Red Lake, Ontario sauger
They are rarely caught by Bow Narrows' fishermen but there are also sauger in Red Lake.
The photo above from last fall shows a sauger on the bottom and a walleye on the top. The sauger is mottled, has spots on its dorsal fin and doesn't have the golden color or the white tip at the base of the tail like the walleye.
Sauger are probably much more abundant in Red Lake than our anglers would think. For some reason they don't bite well in the summer, but can be caught readily in the winter.
There is almost no ice fishing at the west end of lake where camp is located but quite a bit goes on at the east end, near the town of Red Lake, and downstream from Red Lake, at places like Keg Lake and Gullrock.
Anglers in those places report catching many sauger in the winter.
Sauger don't get as large as walleye. The one above was about 13-14 inches and that is pretty typical for this species.
They are included as part of your walleye daily and possession limit.
Sauger are more abundant in more southern latitudes.
They taste virtually the same as a walleye.

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