Sunday, January 29, 2017

Day of Days

With ice conditions deteriorating and more mild temps and precipitation on the way, we knew this trip could be our last time on hardwater for a while. Aaron, Will and I walked out at 0-dark-thirty in fog so thick that I lost my bearings for a minute before Aaron pointed me back towards shore. It was crazy warm out and felt fishy as hell. There was a coyote yipping a stone's throw from us that added to the eerie experience. We expected the fog to burn off as the sun came up, but that didn't happen and we literally couldn't see one tip-up from the next. The lousy visibility may have cost a couple fish because we tended to some flags later than we would have liked. Will got to one flag with nobody home that may have been up for 30 seconds or five minutes--there were over 200 wraps of line taken off the spool. We became more vigilant with our trap checks and had a few chew-and-screws and a decent fish dropped at the hole before Will finally put us on the board by icing a small pike.

The day took a turn for the better when the fog finally lifted around 11 a.m. Actually it was about to be the best three hours of pike fishing I'd ever been a part of. Will's hottest trap went off again while Aaron and I were on the complete opposite side of our spread. It took us a couple of minutes to reach him and the battle was still on--a good sign! When we got the first look at her through the hole, we all freaked out. She measured 40" and the pike's noggin made up 11" of it--just a massive head. We all agreed that it would be awesome to run into that girl again when she fills out the rest of her frame, but it was a special fish nonetheless. It's not everyday that you see a 40" pike on the ice. The bottle of Jameson definitely got a little lighter after that. 

About an hour went by before we were back in business. Aaron's shallowest trap, which was quiet until now, went off around noon. Right away he knew it was another sizable fish and it had taken a ton of line out. Aaron battled her back to the hole, eventually got the snout up and I used the grippers to slide the pike out. This one was taped out at 37" and was thick from head to tail--another solid specimen. With this being Aaron's first time on the ice this season, we were all stoked that he landed a banger. As a group, we were now having quite the day. It's not everyday that you see a 40" and a 37" pike on the ice. And it was about to get even better. 

Around midday one of my flags kept tripping and it was a false alarm each time. Twice the bait was straight down and the other a fish had ran out a good amount of line and dropped it. It was starting to get in my head. My day had a hard stop at 2 p.m. and when I saw the same flag up again around 1, part of me thought it was just another non-committal pike. This time the spool was turning and I felt substantial weight when I set the hook. The high feeling soon wore off as the line went slack. For a second there I was beside myself thinking "not again!?", but I never stopped retrieving the line and couldn't believe it when I felt weight again. The fish must have bolted right at me and I finally caught up to her. While I'm not well versed in fighting large pike, I could tell this one was in another class. We went back and forth around the hole for a couple minutes that felt a lot longer, but everything went smooth as Will managed the line on the ice and Aaron slid his hand under the gill plate and helped her out. Laying in front of us was my first 40" pike and a real fatty at that. The trip had just turned from awesome to legendary in my book. It's not everyday that you see two 40" and a 37" pike on the ice. 

With a new personal best pike, I couldn't have ended my outing on a higher note. Within thirty minutes I was packing up my tip-ups and before heading back to the family for a birthday dinner. I left Aaron and Will out there, but the bite finally simmered down. They had one more flag in the next two hours and it was another a chew-and-screw. It didn't matter. The damage was done. With each of landing a high quality pike in nearly T-shirt weather, it was a day of ice fishing none of us will forget--a day of days! And those kind of days don't come around too often. It's days like that one which make waking up at ungodly hours, driving hundreds of miles and pulling sleds full of gear through snow all worth it! 

While that ice we were standing on is all gone now, there is a blast of cold air coming our way. The optimist in me thinks ice fishing isn't quite over yet, but catching and releasing that fish already made my season...

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Slump Buster

I dropped the first two fish I hooked in 2017. Both felt heavy and hurt in their own way. One was a northern pike that I lost an arm's length from the ice hole. I never did get a look at her, maybe it was for the better, but by the fight and weight I know it was big enough to be rattled over losing it. 

The other fish wasn't under the ice; it was next to a brush pile in a small stream. I saw the trout's back come out of the water as it crushed my black and olive bugger. I set the hook and she thrashed, spewing my fly ten feet behind me. I let out an "Oh my god. What the F was that?" while the gravity of the situation sunk in. It was definitely another class of fish that I was accustomed to from this stream; something I'd be happy with from the Farmington, yet this was unstocked water a fraction of its size. I was certain it was the largest wild brown I had hooked in more than 15 years of fishing there. That one stung pretty good. I was in a funk to start the new year. 

Cue the January thaw. I went back to the same small stream today during a long lunch at work. The fresh wading boot prints on the snow-packed trail was a punch to my gut. Someone had already fished this stretch today. I blew by some water that I would normally take some casts in to get to the exact lie I pricked the fish from. Along the bank I could see where the angler got into the water and broke shelf ice and stirred up mud. I knew right then that he didn't hook that fish and neither would I this trip. I kept moving upstream and I couldn't escape the fresh prints. I made it to a deep, slow pool screaming to be fished with a woolly bugger. I couldn't get a sniff and to make matters worse, I busted off the streamer on a tree branch, then worked it free with my rod tip, only to lose it for good after it fell to the ground. I walked back downstream dejected. 

Before leaving for work, I had packed two other flies just in case I found myself in a jam like this. Back at the truck, I tied on my bread and butter dry-dropper combo and headed to my Alamo. Work lunch was stretching longer than usual at this point, but for good reason. I needed my first fish of 2017 and to snap out of this mental funk. I approached the honey hole and saw no prints. It was a good feeling knowing my flies would be the first these trout have seen in at least four days since the last snow. And they sure acted like it, too. In quick succession, I landed six trout from the small run. Five browns and a lone brookie, all of which looked healthy and put a bend in my three-weight rod. Each of them took a tiny bead head pheasant tail nymph dropped 18 inches below a stimulator dry fly. This method had worked for me many times in this run and it wasn't going to let me down now. I was on the board for the year and swapped my Muck boots for work shoes and drove back to the office with the smell of fish on my hands.