Sirens of Springs Remembered


  • Crappie Fishing with Straw – Part 1 of 4
  • Secrets, Simplicity…18″ Crappies
  • Dad Taught Me So Much

Spring has its own unique textures and smells that recalls something familial.  It draws me back Home, to spring crappies in lakes surrounded by the forests of the upper Midwest.  Before the blossoms begin to bloom, I hear the Siren’s call of back bays and secluded, closed-in canals connected to bigger lakes, surrounded by gray trees, washed in gray light.

Not because crappies fight so very hard.  Not because it requires any exceptional skill.  Not even because they taste wonderful, as I generally prefer perch, bluegills, trout, and walleyes.  But because they formed a small, but important part of the woven tapestry called Home in the mind of a little boy.

springcrappies2My father was a dentist and not at all a fisherman, but he had amazing carpentry skills.  All in one winter, he built a boat in our open car port.  A wooden boat, 12-feet long, so stable my brother, dad, and I could stand on one gunnel and it would hold a foot short of shipping water.  It had a console, two comfortable seats, a windshield, a steering wheel connected to a 40-horse Johnson, and man could it fly.

Dad bought every imaginable accessory— water skies and tow ropes; inflatable toys; inner tubes; and four fishing rods, replete with slip floats, split shot, swivels, and size #6 Aberdeen hooks.  A former captain in the Army Air Corps during World War II, he was quite thorough.

He didn’t know much about fishing and I was just 11 or 12, so he asked my uncles who said, “Buy some crappie minnows and plop them around by those fallen trees on the west shore of the lake.”  So we did.  That first spring we fished together several times, watching yellow-and-white bobbers drifting past the boughs of fallen trees in the west bay.

One afternoon, I pitched my bobber rig into the fork between two branches.  After a minute or so, it began to move sideways and submerge ever so slowly.  I waited until it was down completely and set the hook (my cousins taught me that much fishing from docks).  Nice crappie, maybe a foot long.  So my dad pitched right to the same spot.  His bobber followed precisely the same routine and his crappie was a little bigger than mine.

Some 50 years later, I maintain no illusions that my memories of that day are pristine, but as I recall we kept taking turns pitching to the same spot for about half an hour.  Each time the float submerged slowly.  And each succeeding crappie was slightly larger than the last one.  Dad caught the biggest one and we could get no more bites after that, so we left for my grandmother’s cabin to clean up a nice mess of fish.

springcrappies3This I do remember because somebody took a photo of the two biggest crappie lying next to each other beside a measuring tape.  Both were over 18 inches long In a half-century of trying, I’ve never since caught a bigger crappie.  Being a young pup, I had no idea that there was anything exceptional about the size of those fish.  That was the size crappies were supposed to be, I surmised.  Dad, not being a fisherman, had no idea that his biggest crappie might rival the state record.  And my grandmother cared about one thing and one thing only: Frying them up for dinner in that marvelous way she had, serving them with a glorious loaf of bread made in her oven that afternoon.

I remember dogwood blossoms in the trees, and a faint, sweet smell in the air.  I remember my dad’s faint smile every time I brought a crappie flopping over the gunnel and onto the deck, those iridescent scales reflecting metallic flashes of purple, blue, green, and silver.  After that first summer, we never really fished together again.  He was busy building our house or playing golf— his favorite activity.  But he introduced me to crappie fishing, which has haunted my spring life ever since.

Dr. Ronald W. Straw, Matt Straw’s dad, flew 19 combat missions in B-25’s as a Captain in the 14th Army Air Force—the Flying Tigers—under General Claire Lee Chennault in Burma.

Catch-and-release was not yet a topic in the mid-1960s, except in the presence of rare and gifted men like legendary angler Lee Wulff.  People fished for fun, but it was generally accepted that you killed what you caught.  I would, of course, never kill an 18-inch crappie today.  In fact, we generally keep only four in the 10- to 12-inch range, releasing all specimens over a foot long.  And if everyone else would (please) follow suit, maybe our kids could again see what an 18-inch crappie looks like.  Even if only once.

Now I look out the window and see rain dripping from gray trees in April.  Ice still clings to some of the larger lakes.  I know crappies are already moving into those shallow bays to feed near spawning habitat.  I sense their progress as they follow the wind, finding wood cover in the warmest water, making up for the deprivations of winter with minnows and invertebrates that gather there.

A ghostly image of Home haunts me as I gather my 7 to 8-foot ultralight rigs, stringing them up with bobber stops, slip floats, and small jigs.  I can still see his silhouette in the swirling snow of that open car port, alone, slowly soaking and bending ribs and strakes into place with a series of clamps, quietly bonding us all together.

Look for Matt Straw to share Part 2, 3 and 4 of “Crappie Fishing With Straw” in consecutive weeks of “Share the Outdoors” starting today

A Tiny Stream System for Trout

Secrets of Stream Babble, Stream Gurgle and Stream Whisper

Wild brook trout from a stream are among the most highly prized gifts of nature, especially when your trip is simple and productive.

My neighbor likes to take a folding camp chair to the local trout stream before the season opens, sit by the water’s edge, and just listen.  Often the banks are covered with snow, but he doesn’t mind.

“The babble of water running through a quiet woods is the purest form of therapy,” he says.  “For me, it’s better than meditation.”

When the trout season opens in April, the banks of the little stream may yet be covered with snow.  Or the leaves could be out, painting the forest that bright shade of emerald we only see in spring.  Or something between those extremes.  We never know as we prepare vests, rods, and reels in the weeks prior—and it doesn’t matter.  Being in the forest, listening to a stream gurgle and whisper past rocks and fallen trees, is a real world, far from the soul-killing artifice of computers, spread sheets, bills, economies, and urban sprawl.


It might as well be the other side of the moon.

We tread along on the day of the opener, from a wide spot on an “Unimproved Road” down into the little river valley.  The streams we like during the early season—the ones closest to home—are small.  All are less than 20 feet across from bank-to-bank and can be crossed almost anywhere with a pair of knee-high boots.
Not to say these streams are only good early in the season.  The tactics we use work all summer and into fall, when the trout season closes again.

Small-stream trout can feel the vibration of footfalls near the stream.  And, because a hole more than 4 feet deep is almost unheard of, trout are never far from the surface—meaning they can easily see your approach.  So we slip quietly down to the water, keeping our heads low, often fishing from our knees.

brooktrout2The first spot I directed my partner Mary to is the best “hole” on the stream.  No more than 2 to 3 feet deep, it has broken water over more than half the surface, created by a riffle above the head of the pool.  The stream is only 12 to 14 feet across at this point, depending on water levels.  Wild marigolds and trilliums stand by her feet as she takes the hook from its arbor on the rod blank.  It’s been a warm, early spring, and the water is already 50°F.

We would only find trout under broken water that day.  A disturbed surface distorts the trout’s vision and hides your approach, often allowing a careful angler to hook trout in lies only a few feet away.  Our rods were 8-foot ultralights from the St. Croix Panfish Series.  The line is 4-pound test Maxima Ultragreen or Berkley FireLine (braided line doesn’t absorb water, and therefore doesn’t sink toward the end of the day).

We have a teeny stream float on the line—like a little Red-Wing Tackle Black Bird, tiny clear-plastic Brennan Loafer, or bitsy Thill Shy Bite.  Immediately below that we crimp on two or three very small split shot—just enough to stand the float up.  Below that we tie on a minuscule #10 SPRO Power Swivel, to which we tie about 2 feet of 4.5-pound Raven Invisible 100% Fluorocarbon.  The rig terminates with a size #10 or #12 Owner Mosquito Hook, baited with a single waxworm or tiny red worm.

Here is the smallest Drennan Loafer, in the background (left) is the Red Wing Black Bird and (right) Thill Mini Shy Bite.

All the weight is up by the float.  The bait is allowed to swing freely in the current.  In a tiny stream, it’s impossible to float a bait too high.  Trout will see it anywhere, from the bottom right up to the surface.  No need to put weight by the hook.  And, we used the same two hooks all day long this day—never snagging up, which can spook the entire pool.

The greatest advantages of using tiny floats for small-stream trout: Trout always bite down on a live bait first.  The moment they bite, the float goes under.  If you set immediately, the hook is always in the mouth—not the gullet or stomach.  You can safely release every trout, all day long.

The float keeps the hook in their mouth by resisting, keeping the line tight.

Floats keep the bait off bottom most of the time, avoiding snags, leaves and detritus that foul the hook.
And, most important of all, tiny floats allow you to drift a bait way downstream, well beyond the “spook zones” all around you and your partner.

As it drifts, time stands still.
The forest whispers.
The stream burbles.
The birds sing.

When the float darts under, it leaves no doubt as to why.  Most of the trout are under 10 inches long, some coming from drifts only 6 inches deep under broken water (another advantage of having no weight near the hook).  Though this stream has produced browns in the 7-pound range, our biggest this day will be a brook trout only a foot long.  But the sides are adorned with sparkling gems of blue and red that quickly disappear as the trout darts from my hand back to the relative security under a rippling surface.  High above the tree tops wave in a wind that never reaches the valley floor where the stream makes its way through emerald alleys to a lake far below.

Spring Crappie Fun

Learning the String of Seasonal Transitions

springcrappiefun1Dogwoods and wild flowers punctuate the forest with color, yet crappies remain in pre-spawn mode.  Spring is well underway before crappies begin to crowd ever-closer to spawning habitat.  Foraging remains the priority.

In many environments, crappies begin to filter out of dense wood cover as new weed growth rises from the bottom.  Plants offer an entirely new menu of invertebrates and the minnows that pursue them.  New cabbage growth is especially attractive for crappies, but elodea, coontail and other weeds, will draw them too.  Not unusual to see crappies in two feet of water or even shallower when the first weeds pop up and many anglers fail to search for these extremely shallow fish.

Reeds become increasingly important to crappies as water temperatures approach 65°F.  The relatively hard bottom that reeds thrive in is preferred by nesting crappies.  In the absence of reeds, crappies may move back into wood to spawn.  Reeds, stickups and wood cover offer the kind of vertical cover they like for spawning.

Before spawning, crappies are moving around from wood to weed cover and back.  They also move shallow during stable weather, then move out past the first breaks into 10 or 15 feet of water to suspend lethargically during cold fronts.  Then, as the spawn progresses, not all crappies spawn at the same time.  Crappies that use small bays and canals spawn early, followed by crappies in larger bays, and finally by main-lake spawners, where the water warms slowest.


Soon after spawning, female crappies abruptly leave to sulk and recuperate in deeper water, while males remain to guard the nests for several days.  Soon after, all crappies begin to spread out into various summer patterns.  Some go to breaks near deep weed lines.  Some follow plankton veils in open water.  Some find brush piles, lay downs, or stake beds.  Some may relate to boulder fields, rocky points, or off-shore humps.  In most cases, crappies alternate between suspending near those cover options and burying themselves within that cover.

So these many movements within such a short period of time keeps anglers on their toes.  My favorite program for finding crappies fast, then catching numbers, from this point in the season (early/mid-May) right through fall is the same every year.

I start each day with a fast, 7-foot ultralight rod from G. Loomis or the St. Croix Panfish Series coupled with a spinning reel the size of a Pflueger President ESP30—not a tiny reel, but not a big one either.  The spool is filled with 4-pound Maxima Ultra-green monofilament and the lure of choice is a 2-inch Kalin, Berkley or Yamamoto Grub, on a 1/32-ounce jig head from Gopher Tackle or Northland.

The idea is to swim the jig slowly on a horizontal plane and the 1/32-ounce head creates the perfect speed for crappies.  Not too fast and not too slow.  The presentation is simple.  Cast, allow the jig to sink anywhere from a foot to 8 feet, depending on the depth of the cover or bottom in the area, point the rod tip down and slowly reel.  Keeping the lure horizontal, not rising or dropping, requires a very slow retrieve.  Watch beside the boat to create the cadence.

springcrappiefun3Monofilament line keeps the light jig from falling too fast in spring and as the water warms into the high 70°F range, I switch to 4 or 6-pound Berkley Fireline in order to speed things up.

Even when crappies won’t bite the grub, the most active fish will follow it, so wear polarized sunglasses and watch closely.  A white, yellow, or chartreuse grub is easy to spot, providing a better chance to scan behind it before crappies spook from the boat.

Once crappies are found, the jig-grub combo may keep right on catching them and may not.  I always have an 8-foot St Croix Panfish Series rod rigged with a small Thill or Northland slip float handy, just in case most of the crappies are spooky or less active.  And, it’s critical this time of year, to be prepared with 2 or 3 different kinds of bait.  Crappies can switch overnight from minnows to invertebrates and back again.  Typical on my boat to find a scoop of crappie minnows, a few dozen panfish leeches, and at least 100 wax worms, maggots, or angle worms on board when chasing crappies.

Critical, too, to use jigs with at least a size #4 hook for crappies, or size #4 to size #2 Aberdeen hooks.  Big crappies can shake loose or rip free from those smaller hooks on the 1/64 to 1/16-ounce jigs we commonly use.

As the blooms of spring fade and the greens of the forest darken, crappies make all kinds of movements involving transitions between different forms of cover and from one kind of forage to the next.  They won’t move far, but anglers have to be prepared to search a little every day.  The rewards are resplendent in sparkling hues of green, gray, blue, and purple, not to mention those golden-brown fillets sizzling in the pan.

The Crappie Compass

Crappie Fishing with Straw – Part 3 of 4

Matt Straw is among a handful of true authentic and effective crappie anglers who are willing to share the passion for crappie fishing as well as some of the deepest secrets of just how to catch these tasty and often finicky fish.

Kirk Hansen, Iowa Department of Natural Resources Mississippi River research biologist, has been conducting a tracking study with crappies in river backwaters for many years now.  During the harsh winter of 2013-2014, he watched helplessly as most of the crappies he tracked were destroyed in an extreme high-water event.

“When the islands flood during winter, crappies die,” Hansen said. “They absolutely need to be out of the current when the water is in the 30°F range.  They need current breaks behind islands, in backwaters, completely out of the flow.”

Laboratory observations reveal that crappies can’t even swim upright in water temperatures of 35°F or less.  Crappies just might be the most temperature sensitive fish found in the northern United States, especially when the water is cold.  Crappies spawn in water temperatures approaching and surpassing 70°F, and almost right up to that point they are seeking the warmest water and the greatest stability they can find.

Now look at your boat and all the electronic gadgetry attached.  In spring, the only tools really required to find crappies are the temperature gauge and the trolling motor.  Put the trolling motor down and start hunting for the warmest water in the bay or backwater near those areas where they eventually spawn, fishing as you go.  Where to start?  Two keys:
1) Areas with the most sun exposure
2)    Areas where the wind has been blowing in to shore.

The north side of any lake, bay, or backwater gets the most sun throughout the day.  In the absence of wind, start on the north side.  But if it’s cloudy and windy, the warmest water will be where gentle breezes are blowing into shore.  Heavy winds create waveforms that reach down and pull cold water up to the surface.  On windy days, find areas where the wind has less fetch.

Matt Straw and whopper crappie in spring have met many times, especially when warm pockets of water are found in the back end of quiet bays that are out of the wind.

So many times in spring, a spot 2°F warmer than the rest of the bay will seem to hold 80-percent of all the crappies in that bay.  Crappies move into spawning areas during pre-spawn, but only to feed.  They’re feeding on minnows and invertebrates that are also drawn to the warmest spots, so the draw for crappies is two-fold.  Crappies despise instability.  When temperatures are fluctuating, when cold fronts pass through, when the wind is swirling and gusting from all directions, crappies often move out of the shallows altogether, seeking more stable temperatures and conditions in deeper water.  Which is why crappies are so attracted to narrow boat canals and tiny bays-within-bays during spring—shallow areas that warm quickly with very little exposure to wind.

Working along slowly in the right areas, keeping an eye on the temperature gauge, I like to pitch little 2-inch, white grubs on 1/32-ounce jigs and swim them slowly and horizontally.  Or, I toss slip-float rigs with light jigs tipped with minnows or wax worms.  Pitching jigs and plastics is best with 4 to 6-pound mono, which is thicker and resists the water, keeping the jig from sinking or moving too fast.  With floats I use 4 to 8-pound braided lines, which float, and the jig is tied to a short 6-pound fluorocarbon leader.  The heavier leaders are needed because largemouth bass tend to use the same areas, and crappies need to be pulled away from wood cover quickly.

No matter wind, rain or cold, when Mary Savage and Matt Straw combine for a day of crappie fishing in northern climates, it will be a good day to bring a camera!
No matter wind, rain or cold, when Mary Savage and Matt Straw combine for a day of crappie fishing in northern climates, it will be a good day to bring a camera!

Amazing how often crappies completely reject minnows and respond only to the wax worm offerings, and vice-versa. They may not be as selective as trout, but when the menu in the area features an abundance of invertebrates—maggots, wax worms, and angle worms typically out-produce minnows.  If minnows are thick in the area, crappies will ignore those other baits.

To find the best crappie fishing available in any lake, reservoir, or backwater area during spring, keep one eye glued to the temperature readout on the depth finder as you fish.  Pick the right areas to start—where wind and sun work together to warm the water quickest—move slowly, and look for surface disturbances.  Amazing how, some days, finding a spot 1°F warmer than everywhere else makes all the difference.


Spring Crappies: Wood to Weeds Dynamics

Crappie Fishing with Straw – Part 2 of 4


In the fall, when weeds begin to die, an exodus takes place.  Refugees with and without vertebrae begin flocking from the decaying flora to more stable environments.

First the insects leave their dying source of food and cover, followed by the minnows and panfish that feed on them.  The most logical refuge for these epiphytic insects becomes wood in the form of brush piles, lay downs, stake beds, logs, and stickups.

In spring, these movements reverse. Eventually. But when spring comes early, with unseasonably warm temperatures arriving weeks ahead of schedule, anglers often find nothing but dead weeds on the shallow flats in their favorite panfish bays.  Though often frequented by crappies right after ice-out, these flats can be devoid of fish life altogether until new weed growth reaches a certain height—tall enough to provide cover, and dense enough to draw insects.

Famous crappie-walleye pro Tommy Skarlis, assaulting a wooden sanctuary for crappies in the backwaters of the Mississippi River in spring.

Most years, the first place to find shallow crappies in early spring will be around wood cover.  Bluegills, too, will be crowded into the branches of fallen trees at this point—especially when big bass, catfish, or pike are on the prowl in the warming waters of those first bays to light up with fish life.

Consummate crappie pro Kyle Schoenherr (All Seasons Guide Service in Illinois), demonstrating how crappies will find and utilize the most dense wood cover available in spring.

A single log laying along bottom, or angling to the surface with one end exposed deadhead style, can hold dozens of crappies.  Amazing how a float rig resting three feet from that log will sit quietly forever while a float pulled right up against it will go down over and over again.  Crappies can crowd into the shadows of a single log like sardines stacked in a can.

Float rigs define the best choice for approaching crappies and wood in spring.  Until waters warm above the 50°F range, crappies may seldom chase a swimming or moving jig with much enthusiasm.  And a vertical drop beneath a pole float or a slip float offers the lowest opportunity for snags.

Down South in lakes like Reelfoot in Tennessee, reaching in toward wood cover with long 12- to 16-foot poles with 6- to 8-pound monofilament lines, vertically dapping around wood cover with slim “pole floats” from the Thill Shy Bite series is popular and effective.  The rig is weighted with a couple split shot and a 1/32- to 1/16-ounce jig baited with a minnow or worm.

Up North we’re more likely to pitch with 7- to 8-foot ultralight rods, 4-pound lines, Northland Lite Bite Balsa Slip Floats, and lighter jigs in the 1/80- to 1/32-ounce range.  Because crappies tend to be targeting small invertebrates this time of year, anglers should be ready to try wax worms and maggots when minnows fail to produce.  Slip floats slide down to a bead and a swivel separating the main line from a leader when reeled in, creating a smaller package that is easier to pitch with accuracy.  When the float lands, the rig weighted with split shot and a jig slides straight down until the float reaches the string or neoprene stopper on the main line, providing less opportunity for the leader to drape over branches and hang up.

Always think about the angle of the sun and where the shadows will be. Though early spring means cold water, and crappies may be “sunning” in the open water nearby, it pays to fish the shaded side first most days.

Next week: Part 3 of 4 –The Crappie Compass.

Al Lindner Invites Anglers to Fish or Help Sponsor Anglers in June Tourney – Minnesota Fishing Challenge


1-Day Event will Benefit Teens and Adults with Needs

Al Lindner asks, “How many angler tournaments test multi-species skills? One of the best is the Minnesota Fishing Challenge, where anglers can choose one of several species or go for the brass ring in the Sportech Mixed Bag event.”

Host Al Lindner says, “This is a crazy fun event. It’s held on Gull Lake near Brainerd, one of the state’s classic fish factories, but the best part is that anglers are giving back to the community. We’re raising funds for people facing alcohol and drug addictions. I know we can make a difference for boys, girls, men, women, and their families by raising funds for Minnesota Adult and Teen Challenge. We’re fishing to save lives.”

The Minnesota Fishing Challenge, presented by Mills Fleet Farm, will be held June 3 and 4, 2016, when fish of all species should be in metabolic overdrive in this region. Every contestant has many opportunities to succeed. For a team entry fee of $100, anglers can choose to compete for titles in various divisions, including Lindner Media Bass, Navillus Walleye, Nor-Son Pike, Nor-Son Panfish, and the aforementioned Sportech Mixed-Bag.

“Bunches of prizes are being offered,” says tournament Development Director, Jim Kalkofen. “The AquaVu Early Bird prizes for teams entered by April 8 include a Pasha Lake Camp deluxe fishing adventure in Ontario.” There will be some five AquaVu underwater viewing systems awarded, somebody will win a fishing trip with Steve Pennaz, host of Lake Commando TV, a 5-day stay at Sandy Bay Beach Resort at Gull Lake and more. Ten teams will win Rapala wind-shirt pullovers, and there’s more.


The top 10 teams in each division win great merchandise prizes, including rods, reels, tackle, trolling motors, ice shelters, guided fishing trips and much more. Flatline Outdoors will award five Mathews bows (by draw) to students in middle and high school. Other prizes include fishing trips with Al and Ron Lindner, Walleye Dan, and other top-notch anglers. In addition, Sea Foam will recognize 10 teams with a Second Chance award.

“Bag limits are kept low so everybody stays in contention all day,” says Kalkofen, adding, “The limit will be 3 walleyes, 3 bass, 3 panfish, 1 pike, and people can enter any or all of those divisions,” he added. Al Lindner said, “We want to maximize the number of teams to help with the fund raising. Last year we raised $250,000 to help teens and adults with problems, our goal this year is to raise $300,000.”

Register online at by April 8 to be eligible for the Early Bird awards. To support a favorite team with online giving, go to

For more information, contact Rachael Biggar by phone at 218-833-8764 or by email at


Ross Camps for Tight Lines, Heavy Fish!


Rainy Lake is a “Giant Goldmine for Bass, Pike and Walleye!

Ross Camps on Canadian Shield Lakes offer Comfort, Hot Food, Peace, Quiet and Hot Fishing.

They call it Sunset Country. Northwest Ontario. The geological formation known as the Canadian Shield runs through it, dotted with lakes surrounded by rocky, hilly country populated with deer, moose, bear, grouse, and a wide variety of plentiful fish.

“I can look out the office window and see the sunset over miles and miles of water,” says Wayne Howard, who together with partner Pat Howard, owns two fish camps set up with a focus on fishing. One camp is called the Ross Camp on Clearwater Lake and the other is called Campfire Island on Rainy Lake.  “I get on the snow machine in the winter, go 200 yards and start catching some walleyes for dinner.”

The Ross Camp is on 30-plus acres and is open year ‘round.  Campfire Island is closed in the winter, but is open in the warm weather season.


At the Ross Camp, we have a big parking lot for people with boats and trailers that want to explore the area, we have boats, motors, canoes, little boats for kids to use, a swimming beach, kayaks—all kinds of activities.  It’s very hilly and heavily forested here. To the east it’s all rock.  We’re on the edge of rock country where the lakes are filled with reefs, rock piles and great structure for fishing.”

Howard says, “The primary fish species in the lakes surrounding our Ross Camp include walleyes, pike, smallmouth bass, and lake trout.  Last summer lake trout fishing was very good too.  It’s not difficult to catch 15 to 30 lake trout per day in the 8 to 12-pound range. We get a few that are bigger.  In both winter and summer, we catch them fishing vertically with white, green or smoke color Zoom and Berkley flukes and tubes, all set up on 1/4- to 1/2-ounce jigs.”

“The winter season is great for ice fishermen at Ross Camp, though our Campfire Island facility is closed because you just can’t get to it,” Howard said. “Winter fishing at Ross Camp is for lake trout and walleyes. Walleyes will be around 30 feet deep, and the trout are typically in 45 to 55 feet of water. We use flukes and white tubes, like we do in summer, and it’s a lot of fun. People bring their own snowmobiles and it’s an adventure running snow machines through this country in winter, with a lot of lakes to visit.”

Some people come to hunt whitetails in the fall. “We keep it down to 4 to 6 groups per year,” Howard said. “We want to provide a high-quality experience in a wild setting where you don’t see other hunters. We don’t bait the deer. It’s all fair chase from tree stands and ground blinds.”


The Ross camp has 12 cabins while Campfire Island has three.  Campfire Island is right on the U.S. border on Rainy Lake. “Boating out to an island cabin in their own craft is an adventure that a lot of fishermen enjoy,” Howard said. “We bought Campfire Island strictly to provide top end fishing the smallmouth and northern pike. The fishing is great and we want to keep it that way, so Campfire is catch-and-release only.  There are huge numbers of big pike close to the causeway near Fort Francis. We love jigging for big pike on the rock piles.”

But Howard admits his favorite quarry is smallmouth bass, and bass fishing at Rainy from the base camp on Campfire Island is world class. “I love fishing smallmouths,” he said. “We catch a lot of fish 2-1/2 to 3-1/2 pounds with the occasional fish over 5-pounds. They’re aggressive, they jump, and they’re a lot of fun,” Howard said. “In May, smallmouths are pre-spawn and they gather in the bays on shallow flats. Late May into June they gather again in post-spawn mode, piling up on the first main points leading out of big spawning bays.  Jerk baits are always hot, but tubes and 5-inch Kalin grub jigs in special colors such as cotton candy, sand, or off-green, are fish-catching staples.  I use 1/16- or 1/8-ounce Gopher Tackle Mushroom and Northland Mimic Minnow jig heads most of the time.

In summer you have to hunt for the right pattern and we search with spinner baits over the weeds and rock piles, but I prefer tube jigs or black marabou jigs once we’re zeroed in.  Fall fishing is stupid.  Only one time of year is better and it’s within two days of the ice leaving in spring. The fall binge lasts for weeks, right up to ice-up.  From September through October, it’s really good.”

Try as he might to ignore it, walleye fishing is on fire at Rainy Lake these days. “The action is insane,” Howard said. “In the north arm, you can catch 80 walleyes before lunch.  Some remain shallow through early June in 5 to 8 feet of water and those are the big ones.  That’s where we find the 30 to 34-inch fish, running 10 to 12 pounds.  We caught 5 or more that size last year, running only two trips out of Campfire Island.  They stay mostly back in the bays on little rocky points.  Once walleyes move out to the rock piles at the end of June, we use a jig-minnow or jig-twister tail and pitch to them.  They stay out there right through fall.”


Howard has lived the life of a fisherman and insists he’s not in the business to get rich. “We bought the Ross Camp when I was in my 20s,” he said. “I thought we couldn’t afford it, but Pat made me think twice about that.  The place was very well maintained and we keep it that way.  The water system is all purified, the septic system is highest quality and brand new.  Little things like that keep us and our guests away from unseen problems. We own it as a lifestyle, not as a means to make money.

“This was the lifestyle we wanted,” Howard added. “We like people, we like the outdoors, love the country, like the challenge—we just enjoy doing it.  Mostly people come here for fishing vacations and that’s the way we like it too. We’ve been here 30 years. We fish smallmouths, walleyes, northern pike and lake trout, primarily, and some muskies too. We have great musky fishing up here, we just don’t do it that often, and there is some great largemouth fishing that gets very little attention too.  We wanted to see if catch-and-release would work at Campfire Island and it did.  People embrace it.”

Those “hills” in Sunset Country were mountains a hundred million years ago, worn down by ice ages and glaciers over 2 miles high.  Clearwater Lake is situated in unique terrain. “The surrounding lakes are incredible,” Howard said. “Clearwater is about 10 miles long, Pipestone Lake is over 20 miles long, with other lakes connected or right next door so you have 80 to 90 miles of lightly-fished water.”

Miles of largely uninhabited, pristine waterways.  Gorgeous scenery in an ancient mountain range. Trout, walleyes, bass, pike, and muskies, and you can drive there.  Excuse me while I start packing.

For more info. contact: Pat and Wayne Howard, 800/363-2018; E-mail,; Website,


Magic Bullets for Winter Steel

Matt Straw Steelhead Fishing

Light snow falling as you step into the woods.

One set of footprints in the snow, leading to the river.

Old tracks, made more than a week ago.

Suddenly your heart skips a beat.

Those are your tracks!

No one has been here but you for weeks!

No doubt about it, then.  You feel almost certain, steelhead will be there, in a half-dozen pools at the end of this trail through the cedars and pines.  Put your hood up, so that snow brushed from low-hanging branches can’t find your neck.

Fishing alone, again.

Nobody else would come.

Can’t blame them, really.

Most people don’t consider it a good time, watching immobile fingers invent new shades of purple.  What they don’t Winter Steelhead Fishingrealize is the power of human adrenalin.  When silver-and-pink missiles with fins erupt from a winter stream and they are tethered to a thrashing float rod that you hold in your hand, fingers not only regain color and feeling, they stay warm for hours afterward!  Fish on!  Who can be cold?

Wading in rivers during winter is always warmer than ice fishing.  Out on the ice, the wind sucks the heat right through your clothes.  In a small river valley, the wind is something that only makes treetops dance.  When you get cold, just walk to the next pool, getting warmer with each step.

Another great thing about winter wading is the predictability of the quarry.  Steelhead often concentrate in wintering pools, especially during the toughest winter conditions.

Here’s how I find winter pools:

  • Begin searching based on the precipitation event that brought fall-run steelhead into the river in the first place.  Big rains and high water will draw them way up river.  Smaller rain events and lower flows will keep them closer to the ocean or the big lakes.
  • Within the segment of river chosen, find the area with the lowest current flow gradient. Identify these areas where the land slopes the least with topographic maps or just by paying attention to current speed.  The object is to find the slowest current areas, especially when the water is 34°F or less (a stream thermometer is one of the best tools to use for locating steelhead during any season).
  • Within the area of lowest current flow gradient, look for pools that widen out—where the river is wider than average. This spreads and slows current further, especially in areas with noticeably low gradient.
  • A wintering pool doesn’t have to be very deep. In fact, 3 to 4 feet, depending on clarity, is about optimum.  Especially when the water is 32°F and would be frozen if not moving, steelhead like to feel a little sun on their backs.  Not that deep pools can’t be wintering pools. The slow water is the primary draw.
  • The keys are slow, straight, and even currents.  Steelhead may use current breaks like logs, but in the coldest water the turbulence created by current breaks becomes uncomfortable.
  • Straight pools or wide, slow runs tend to be better than bending runs and pools for the same reason.  Steelhead try to avoid turbulence.  In a straight pool, steelhead tend to locate dead center in winter.  In a bend pool, winter steelhead tend to hold on the inside of the bend, where the water is slower and less turbulent.

Winter Steelhead FishingSteelhead are more aggressive in flowing 33°F water than any other species I’ve encountered—and that includes lake trout.  Big rainbows do seek shelter from the cold, but stay in flowing water.  Slow, yes.  Stagnant, no.  Steelhead crush the same lures, baits, jigs, flies, and beads they strike all year, but the effectiveness of some presentations trails off as the water dips below 37°F.  Personally, I prefer beads or jigs baited with fresh steelhead eggs tied into spawn bags with nylon mesh (such as Redwing Tackle Spawn Netting) fished under a stream float.  The keys to presentation:


  • Steelhead won’t move far to intercept a bait or lure in cold water, meaning the water has to be covered both incrementally and methodically.
  • To cover the water incrementally, start with your shortest cast and end with the longest cast. That ensures you won’t “line” a fish before giving it a chance to take a bait.
  • To cover the water methodically, make each cast only a few inches longer than the last one.
  • Use small jigs (1/80 to 1/32 ounce) to present baits like waxworms, plastic nymphs or spawn bags.  A jig anchors a bait in the flow.  Using a bare hook allows the bait to waft around—something steelhead like in warmer water.  In cold water, it’s more effective to have a slow, steady drift that stays put.  Steelhead won’t chase as much and tend to be put off by things that slip, slide and dance around.
  • When the banks are locked in ice and snow, rivers tend to drop and clear.  Long, thin fluorocarbon leaders are a must. (I use Raven Invisible 4.5- and 5.6-pound leaders.)
  • Use the smallest or least obtrusive floats possible.  Most of the time, I use clear plastic floats from Drennan, Ultra, or Red Wing during winter.

When the snow is falling, steelhead seem ghost-like, undulating slowly in the current.  The colder the water, the more wraith-like they become.  Find the slowest water they’ll accept.  Step carefully, working slowly into position.  The rings from footfalls seem to go on forever in slow, placid wintering pools.  Take your time baiting up.  No sudden movements.  No bright clothes.  Stand still during each drift and those ghosts will materialize into solid form, muscling into the quiet scene to transform into rod-bending, silver-bullet, demons.


SECRETS of ICE FISHING: Fool Perch with Living Deadstick

Mark Martin, the original Professional Walleye Trail champion, hosts a unique ice-fishing “school” that teaches techniques for finding and catching fish right out on the ice. Mark Martin’s Ice Fishing Vacation Schools are peopled with fish-head instructors that spend every possible winter moment dropping their lures through holes in the ice.
Ice Fishing Perch
“My pro staff is avid about perch, Martin says.  Over the past five years, they discovered that using a Ice Perch PIX 3of3deadstick and just tapping it once in a while at least doubles your catch. Where three rods are legal, they use one jigging rod and two deadsticks, each sporting jigs tipped with wax worms or just a piece of plastic. I don’t know why, but if you just tap that deadstick once in a while, it will catch far more perch than the jigging sticks. These include piles of porky perch!  Hard to believe? Martin never wanted to believe it, either. “You know me,” he laughed. “I hate it. I’d much rather be jigging with the rod in my hand, but when my staff is catching three perch to my one every single day we are on the ice and that goes on for five years, I realized I had to accept it and change or just keep getting dusted.

Most manufacturers of ice rods build deadsticks. They are easy to distinguish, deadsticks have wimpy, floppy, brightly-colored tips (usually orange) and usually 8-inches to a tad over 24-inches in length. Easy to see against a backdrop of snow and ice, these fishing tools are specifically designed for the tip to bend without the fish feeling any pressure, giving you time to grab it and set the hook. The mid-section of the rod is stout, to drive hooks home with authority, but the tip flops about for quick, easy strike indication. Examples include the Clam Jason Mitchell Signature Meat Stick JMS28MS, the Wright & McGill Tony Roach Signature WMTR128PPF, the Thorne Brothers 28″ Deadstick, and the Frabill Bro Series 28″ Deadstick.

The best fishing program is a single-hook spoon with bait,” Martin said. The JB Lures Gem-N-Eye and Custom Jigs & Spins Demon are both good examples offered in a wide variety of sizes to match baits and conditions. “Lightly hook a minnow under the skin along the spine and that spoon has to turn every time the minnow moves,” Martin added. “Waxworms might work better when perch are feeding on invertebrates near bottom or when perch are really inactive, but if you have bait on the jig and just tap that deadstick every few minutes, they will come.  It’s weird.

Ice Perch PIX 1of3Martin adds, Any under-ice current makes it wobble when you leave it alone and when it wobbles it moves the bait. My staff either uses a split shot and Aberdeen hook, a vertical jig like the Custom Jigs & Spins Rat Finkee or a spoon with a single hook. I sometimes use a swinging-treble spoon like the VMC Tingler, but another favorite is a size #3 Jigging Rapala with no bait. It catches perch better under a deadstick than when jigged. Put a single, light-wire, #8 Aberdeen hook on a small Jigging Rapala and it moves more, it catches more current. Last year on the deadstick rod using a #3 Rapala with no bait, I caught quite a few walleyes and countless perch.”

It may seem like a “do-nothing” technique (only because it is), but one of the keys to successful dead-sticking is picking the rod up without alerting the fish. Martin likes to simply lay the rod over the top of a bucket, keeping it within reach or use a special balance-beam style rod holder. I like the coated-wire Rod Rocker made by Today’s Tackle,” Martin said. “It clips onto the bucket and the rod simply balances on top so you can pull the rod out without popping the tip up and signaling the fish, which would give them time to spit the hook.”

Martin wants to be jigging somewhere near the deadstick. Not just to be within reach, but to attract perch that usually end up hitting the bait under the deadstick.  “Giving perch a decision, between the jigging and the deadstick, that’s the idea,” Martin said. “Sometimes we find the active lure is too much for perch to process in cold water. We can’t hold it still enough for long enough on most winter days.”

Surprising to many students at Ice School is the height off bottom Martin and crew suspend baits.  “If we mark bait 15 feet off bottom, that’s where we set those deadstick baits,” Martin said. “The water is clear in most of the waters we fish, so we always want it well off bottom. About 4 to 5 feet up is normal. If perch are on bottom, they’ll rise for it. Even when they’re on bottom, rooting around for insects, they’ll come up 4 feet or more for these deadstick presentations.”Yet, for Martin and his merry ice-fishing men, deadsticks beat jigging every day, every place they go, and with a record for the past four or five years. These guys get around too, taking the Ice Fishing School to lakes and Great Lakes throughout the North.

“Most of my staffers don’t even jig for perch anymore,” Martin said. “We figured out a new way to jig, and it’s not to jig at all.”

Ice Line Systems, be Minute-Man Ready!

The main problem with ice fishing is line. Monofilament needs to be replaced every year. Fluorocarbon gets stiff, bouncing off the spool like a Slinky. Braids carry water back to the reel like a bucket brigade, locking the spool in solid ice. Not anymore. Modern lines do better!

The main problem with ice fishing is line. Monofilament needs to be replaced every year. Fluorocarbon gets stiff, bouncing off the spool like a Slinky. Braids carry water back to the reel like a bucket brigade, locking the spool in solid ice. Not anymore. Modern lines do better!
The main problem with ice fishing is line. Monofilament needs to be replaced every year. Fluorocarbon gets stiff, bouncing off the spool like a Slinky. Braids carry water back to the reel like a bucket brigade, locking the spool in solid ice. Not anymore. Modern lines do better!

Learn About the Amazing New Ice-Fishing Lines

Ice fishing is now a multi-billion dollar industry worldwide. High-ticket items like underwater cameras and portable shelters fly off the shelves. Popularity is at an all-time high, meaning the industry is listening. Line manufacturers are tripping over themselves to produce better, more functional connections between you and the fish.

Fling a crappie into a tackle shop in December and it’s bound to hit a new braided line designed specifically for ice fishing. These lines have space-age coatings with syllables in the double digit range. Like “polytetrafluoroethylene.” Causes carpel tunnel among writers! The techno-abbreviation is PTFE, it is the chemical compound substance used to coat PowerPro Ice-Tec. Water slips off before it can freeze. Berkley Fire Line Micro Ice, Tuf-Line DuraCast Ice, Sufix 832 Ice Braid—these and many other specialty braids are built to shed water and stay flexible in extreme cold.

The great thing about braided line is never having to replace it. Braid never breaks down.Minute-Man Picture2 No spooling up with new line year after year.  Put the rods away, reels attached, at last ice and forget them until ice-up. Then grab the rods and go. Freedom. However, braids don’t stretch. Hooks can pull out, and braids are opaque. Light doesn’t pass through as it does with mono or fluorocarbon. Even though braids are extremely thin, fish can see them better against most backgrounds. Now you need a leader that a fish can’t see quite as well and a leader that lasts as long as the braid.

Fluorocarbon is, of course, the most invisible of all lines (same reflective coefficient as water) and it doesn’t break down from heat or UV either. However, flourocarbon tends to be stiffer than mono. Spooling up with it was a bad idea for years, but that changed too. Many companies now have fluorocarbons designed to be spooled up—like Seaguar’s InvizX and AbrazX lines. Raven Invisible is a leader material, but very supple and thin. Intentionally or not, these and several other new fluorocarbon lines behave and lay quietly on the spool in extreme cold.

Having all these new lines to play with, I created what I call Minute-Man systems for each species that allow me to leave lines on spools for years while making presentation more effective than ever before. For panfish, bass and walleyes, the spool is almost filled with one of the new ice braids. For panfish, its 4-pound test. For walleyes and bass, 6 to 8-pound goes on first. Using a spider hitch to create a doubled line at the end of the braid, I tie in 20 to 50 feet of fluorocarbon using back-to-back uni-knots. For panfish, I use 4.5-pound Raven Invisible and tie direct to tiny jigs and hooks. With larger fish, I use 5.6- or 6.8-pound versions and a Berkley Cross-Lok Snap attached to the end of the line for quick lure changes. Most winters, that knot never needs to be retied. The leader knot can last for years.

For steelhead, salmon, and brown trout, I spool up with at least 120 yards of InvizX or AbrazX and tie direct to hooks or jigs. Bigger and faster fish like those can bury leader knots in the bottom of the hole pretty deep, but experience says fluoro fools more trout than mono in clear water. Luckily, these Seaguar lines designed to be spooled up have great shock and abrasion resistance—two critical requirements for speedy trout and salmon.

New polyester and braided tip-up lines from Celsius, Sufix, Mason, HT Enterprises and others are more flexible, too. Thickness is required to safely hand-line a giant toothy green thing up through the ice, and it needs to be a little slippery. That, so line can immediately be fed toward the hole when a big pike turns and takes off. Most tip-up lines are black, but the new Sufix Metered Tip-Up Braid alternates bright colors every 5 feet, revealing how deep the minnow or deadbait is set. Pretty convenient.

Rather than tie a quick-strike rig directly to a thick, opaque, tip-up line, I tie 6 feet of 40-pound Toray Superhard or Ande FCW50-40 Fluorocarbon to the end of the tip-up line using a swivel to connect the two lines. Yes, the swivel can get caught in the bottom of the hole, but not until the end of the battle when the pike is close and tired—so the line never breaks and pike typically pull it free themselves (hooks getting caught in the ice under the hole is a bigger problem). Guides have shown me how much more effective it can be to hide the connection between quick-strike rig and braid by hooking every fish we caught on several occasions.

Ice-up can be a sudden thing. Like the Minute-Men of the Revolution, be ready to roll out the door with dependable gear at hand when called upon. Always be ready!

Color Secrets for Ice Jigs

Tungsten JigWhy is the other guy catching all the fish? Could be one of a million reasons, but when sitting side-by-side on the ice, the list narrows to scent, bait type, jig action, line diameter, line type, lure type, lure size, and lure color.

Color may seem like the most trivial factor in that group, but not when all else is equal and the other guy is still catching all the fish. Having walked the hard water with folks like Dave Genz, Al Lindner, Tony Roach, Mark Martin, Brian “Bro” Brosdahl, and many other giants of the ice-fishing industry, and having ogled their color choices carefully over the years, I break down color like this:

A good jig box has more shades in it than a carton of crayons. The main factors to consider when trying to pluck a color from that rainbow are these: 1) Water Color, 2) Thickness of ice, 3) Amount of snow cover, 4) Depth, 5) Time of day, 6) Mood of the fish.

Water color: Sometimes it pays to start with a multi-colored jig, like a parrot, perch, or fire-tiger pattern. It’s like playing the trifecta instead of trying to pick a single winner from a pack of options. Sometimes, just a dash of the right color will trigger a take. Think primary colors and natural colors in clear water—like white, black, brown, gray, olive, or beige. Dial down the brightness of metal lures. Think glow or fluorescent shades of chartreuse, orange, lime green, or blue in heavily stained or very cloudy water. Use single colors in clear water, but contrast colors in stained or cloudy water. Use bright metallic flash to attract in cloudy water. In between those extremes, mix and match according to the other following factors. For metallic attraction and flash, I start with gold in cloudy water, copper in stained water, and silver in clear water.

Ice Thickness: Under thin ice, use natural and primary colors more often. Under thick ice, use glow colors and bright metallic flash more often.

Snow Cover: Same as above—go natural with no snow cover in clear water, and choose incrementally brighter colors as snow deepens. Under thick ice and heavy snow, it’s dark down there. The most consistent color used by experts in that condition, in all water colors, is glow orange coupled with bright metallic flash matching the water color. Don’t be alarmed when glow chartreuse or glow blue works better, but be moderately shocked if fish prefer jigs without glow.

Depth: In shallow water, successful colors tend to be more natural. The deeper the jig has to go, the more fluorescence or glow coupled with bright flash it should have. However, under thin ice on bright, sunny days in clear water, don’t be surprised if a duller, more natural shade attracts more strikes. But also consider how reds become gray only a few feet down, followed closely by orange and yellow, while colors at the blue-green end of the spectrum tend to remain visible much deeper—all due to wave length. Wider frequencies in the wave length of colors cause them to disappear quicker. But fluorescent and glow paints of all shades maintain color much deeper than standard finishes.

Time of Day: Before the sun rises, just after sunrise, just before sunset and after the sun goes down, glow colors tend to work best in all conditions. During the remainder of the day, other factors should influence color choice.

Mood of the Fish: Aggressiveness among fish under the ice is controlled, to some extent, by these factors: 1) Fishing pressure, 2) Weather, 3) Time of year, 4) Forage abundance, 5) Oxygen content. Cold fronts can make fish lethargic, and heavy pressure can make them wary. Early and late in winter they tend to be more aggressive than during mid-season. Dense forage abundance and low O2 counts can make them lazy. Match colors to mood the same way the experts match colors to water conditions. Wary, less-aggressive fish tend to respond better to natural colors with less flash, while aggressive, lightly pressured fish tend to race up and eat anything that moves—suggesting the use of the brightest, most highly visible color combinations possible.

All of which has little to do with the science of how fish see color. Or the fact that, on some lakes, the same colors tend to work best all winter long no matter what the conditions are. And some of these things are contradictory—such as the fact that aggressive fish in ultra-clear water under thin ice just might crush the brightest glow jig in the box all day long. These are general guidelines describing a place to start every day. Just don’t tell the other guy you have a system. Let him be the control factor, going “eenie-meanie-minie-mo” every morning. One of you will stumble across the right color, eventually.