While loading the rowboat for a one-day fishing trip last week, I did something often recommended by others but seldom practiced by me: I kept my options open.
That is, I pressed three row-trolling rigs with line-counting reels into the boat’s portside rod-holders, and three panfishing rigs — complete with slip bobbers and lightweight jigs — into the starboard rod-holders. My plan was to row-troll for northern pike while visiting a lifelong friend near Summit Lake in Langlade County, but I knew better than to trust pike to cooperate.
Plus, my wife, Penny, was joining me, and she’s more interested in catching fish than in deciphering what catches a fish’s interest. In contrast, I find satisfaction in learning which big lures trigger fish to strike. You want nuanced options? Look no further than a rack or tacklebox of lures. When considering a lure’s type, length, weight, hooks, diving lip, color scheme, manufacturer and model number, I can rig six trolling rods with six varieties of one lure and still have a full squad of benchwarmers from the same catalog page.
Penny doesn’t share my affliction. When pike or walleyes show little interest in what we’re trolling, she doesn’t scan the lure rack, pinch a jointed Rapala between her thumb and forefinger, and declare: “It’s time to try this fire-tiger pattern. I think the water has too much tannin for the shad pattern to work, especially with all this direct sunlight.”
No, she’ll look wistfully toward a distant point or secluded bay and say something like, “Let’s go over there and try for crappies.”
Until just a few years ago, her suggestion would have triggered yet another review of our options. Did we remember the minnows? Are they still alive? Did we bring worms or nightcrawlers? Did I leave them in the fridge 85 miles away? Do you think they’ll hit small leeches? And then we’d likely debate whether to thread a yellow or white Twister Tail or Cubby Mini-Mite to the jighead.
Today? We often fish without live bait, but many options remain. We’ll review our little jars and zip-lock pouches packed with artificially scented and colored baits, such as Exude, Gulp!, PowerBait and Trigger X.
A typical conversation sounds like this: “I just lost my bait. I think the black shad is outfishing the chartreuse worms. Pass me the shad. No, not the chartreuse ones. I said I liked the plain black ones.”
Fortunately, we can keep all these many artificial “live bait” options in our boat, where they remain handy for months with no risk of decomposing alongside sandwiches forgotten from last year’s trip to Trout Lake.
And so that brings us back to last week and our third lap around the lake as Penny and I row-trolled for northerns five hours after strong winds and heavy rains lashed the lake around midnight. One of our trolling passes took us near a dead tree jutting from the brushy shoreline like a bowsprit from a ship’s forecastle. Fish below kept lighting up our boat’s depth-finder.
I kept that spot in mind while theorizing aloud that the overnight storm had driven the pike into the depths, and they hadn’t yet resumed feeding. When I asked casually how she was doing, Penny suggested we give up on pike and chase panfish instead. Any panfish. Anything willing to bite. Anything to spare another 90 minutes of my fishy excuses.
Pointing to the distant bowsprit, I suggested row-trolling till we reached waters near the dead tree, and then anchoring if we again spotted schooled fish on the depth-finder. About 10 minutes later we rowed into those waters and slowed to keep our diving baits out of submerged weeds.
We then reeled in the big lures as fish symbols started filing across the fish-finder’s little screen. I lowered the anchor into the lake’s mucky sands 10 feet below, rigged artificial minnows to two spinning rods, and handed one to Penny. After casting my line toward shallower waters, I began stowing the trolling rods.
“You’ve got a fish!”
Grabbing the spinning rod, I set the hook and felt a fish fighting back about 10 yards away. I reeled in a 4-inch bluegill, unhooked it and released it. We didn’t know it then, but that was the only fish we’d release the next 90 minutes.
Before pressing the third trolling rod back into its slots in the rod-holder, I caught the day’s first keeper, an 8-inch crappie that hit a black artificial minnow. The action was neither fast nor furious, but we caught nine bluegills and crappies during the next hour before heading in for breakfast at 8 a.m.
After eating, we walked back down to the pier to clean fish and consider our midmorning entertainment options. I keep only one fish-cleaning board in the boat, so Penny grabbed her spinning rod, slid on a fake minnow, and started fishing from the pier while I filleted, skinned and bagged our catch.
About the time I slid the fourth fillet into the plastic bag, Penny was standing beside me with another bluegill, this one with a brisket more orange than a robin’s breast. Rather than take the next fish off our stringer, I laid out the freshly caught bluegill and soon added its fillets to our cache.
Meanwhile, Penny caught another bluegill, and then another. I responded to the challenge by filleting faster in hopes of keeping pace. Twice I scrubbed the cleaning board clean, only to have Penny walk over with another bronze-breasted bluegill.
Her streak ended, though, when the slip-bobber rigging on her fishing rod malfunctioned and slid far up the line. I stepped in to repair things, but we couldn’t quite remember how deep to set bobber’s stop-knot. No matter how subtly we adjusted its depth the next few minutes, she never got another bite.
We considered our options once more. Resume fishing for bluegills, try row-trolling again, or simply go for a slow sightseeing row to look for loons and bald eagles — the Northwoods’ equivalent of whale watching? We compromised by dragging one pike bait while our friend Kelli Kreienkamp rowed my cedar-strip boat expertly around the lake.
Fishing, it seems, is nothing but options. But if you spend too much time analyzing what to do next, you’ll never leave the pier.