Pike a tempting target for ice anglers

Star Tribune (Minneapolis)December 26, 2013 

— Armed with the right knowledge and technique, some early winter anglers had a particular fish in mind.

When the screenplay is finally written that lays bare this country’s foibles and fortunes, the movie’s set will remain unchanged, scene to scene: that of a bait shop – a place of fatheads and suckers, also dreamers, high achievers and not a few liars.

I was thinking about this one morning when I pulled up to Frankie’s Live Bait in Chisago City, where Ol' Brad Dusenka is usually behind the counter dispensing minnows and waxies, leeches and night crawlers. Also, without provocation he might toss in a little advice, which can be a good thing, depending.

But that morning, Brad was gone and Dick Wermersen was filling in. The place wasn’t yet hopping, as it will be when the area’s lake ice further thickens. Still, one moment, Dick’s fingers were wrapped around a minnow scoop handle, and the next, they punched cash register keys. In this country, trading this for that can turn a lot of wheels. And Dick was turning wheels.

Griz – Dick Grzywinski – was waiting when I arrived. If the subject is fishing, he’s early. And for him, the subject is always fishing. He already had the bait, too, a five-gallon bucket filled with suckers, on top of which whined a battery-operated aerator, bubbling oxygen into the container’s water and keeping the oversized baitfish alive.

“The ice is thick enough to drive our trucks along the edge of the lake,” Griz said. “Then we'll park, and walk from there.”

Griz and I would have fished together earlier this winter, starting with panfish. But it’s been too cold to be comfortable on the ice without a shelter. And Griz won’t use a shelter. He won’t wear a hat, either. Ever. Summer or winter.

But mostly we haven’t been fishing yet because bluegills and crappies bite better when ice thickens more slowly.

So, for now, an opportunity lost.

Still, there we were Friday morning, Griz and I and also Frank Weeda, another fishing buddy.

Tip-ups in hand, we’d be looking for northern pike, another good fish to target in early winter and a plentiful one. As a bonus, northerns eat well; in part because their flesh holds together in a frying pan, and in part because their complex flavor triggers multiple taste buds.

“I'll eat a northern any day over a walleye,” Griz said. “It’s just a matter of learning how to take out the Y bones when you clean ‘em.”

The Chisago area is rich with lakes, and most have plenty of northerns. As do many metro lakes and rivers.

So waterway choice in this type of fishing isn’t as important as technique. And technique centers on the tip-up, as well as a basic understanding of the depth and bottom structure of the lake being fished, including the presence of any weed lines.

Griz’s choices that morning made the point:

Knowing fairly well the contour of the lake bottom we fished, he nonetheless double-checked the depth each time we drilled a hole. Not with an electronic flasher – though this would have done the trick as well. Instead, at each hole, he clamped a heavy weight to his line, and dropped it to the bottom, a method that also helped detect weed growth, if any.

Then, with a treble hook, Griz stuck each sucker through its back, nearer to its tail than its dorsal fin, so the baitfish could swim freely when submerged, helped by a sinker.

All of this occurred in about 8 feet of water, with the sucker placed about a foot off the bottom.

“If it’s going to attract a northern, a sucker has to be able to move,” Griz said. “If it’s dead, or it’s hooked so it can’t swim, you won’t get ‘em. And if the sucker is in weeds, so it can’t move, you won’t catch fish, either.

“So you want to find the edge of a weed line and fish there.”

We hiked a couple hundred yards offshore before drilling our first hole through about 15 inches of ice – a lot for so early in winter.

Griz often deploys some equipment “that isn’t made anymore.” On our trip, this included a homemade sled that was a half-century old and some tip-ups that were fashioned entirely from metal, not plastic, like new models are.

Per winter fishing rules, each of us was allowed two lines, and we quickly had six holes drilled and rigged. Perhaps 50 yards separated one hole from the next, a distance that distributed our baits widely and increased our chances of intercepting moving fish.

“Northerns move into and out of areas where you’re fishing,” Griz said. “When they do, you want to have a bait they can see and that’s moving.”

We caught no fish the first time a tip-up flag was triggered. Nor the second time, perhaps because a walleye, bass or even a northern had grasped onto the bait and swim away, without hooking itself.

But the third flag produced an unexpected prize: a walleye.

“Maybe it was a walleye that mouthed the first two baits,” Frank said. “That could be why we missed them.”

When we re-rigged, or drilled new holes, we retreated to a sort of neutral zone that allowed us to watch all of our tip-ups, without being on top of any of them, creating noise in the cold depths below.

Soon, the northern action heated up, with one fish pulled onto the ice, then another and another. The biggest might have pushed 7 pounds. All were big enough to clean.

Then we had two on at once.

“There’s a flag,” Frank said.

“There’s another over there,” I said.

Quickly, Griz shuffled toward one tip-up, while Frank and I hightailed it to the other.

Reaching the hole, Frank knelt, threw off his gloves, cast aside the tip-up, felt the line for tension –there was a lot – and set the hook.

For a few moments, he had the big fish of the day.

Then the leader broke. Or was cut by the fish’s sharp teeth.

And the fish was gone.

“All of these lakes have big northerns,” Griz said. “There'll be more.”

Then we re-rigged and settled in.

And waited for the next flag to pop.

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