Some anglers go ice fishing—we were out on a trophy hunt.
Not your typical trophy hunt, however. There would be no killing, at least none intentionally. Trophies would be released, a little tired, but no worse for wear.
Whatever the quarry, it’s true that trophies tend to live in special places that require a little extra work to get to. A specific bay on Lake of the Woods was our destination for this trophy hunt and big pike were our quarry.
The mythical number for pike anglers is the 40-inch mark which roughly works out to being a 20-pound fish. It takes a special body of water and the right tactics to land a pike of that size.
Lake of the Woods is loaded with big fish including probably the highest population of pike over 40-inches in the 48 contiguous states. Although there are plenty of excellent big pike entry points on the American side, our trophy hunting crew decided to cross the border into Canada—Manitoba to be specific.
Only a small portion of massive Lake of the Woods is in Manitoba, most of the lake is in Ontario. The segment in Manitoba is known as Buffalo Bay and we stayed at the beautiful Buffalo Point Resort located right on the lake complete with a marina—a great access point for four-wheelers and snowmobiles.
The group leader for my trip was Bryan “Beef” Sathre of Fathead Guide Service. A national pro-staffer with companies like IceForce, StrikeMaster, MarCum Electronics, Rapala and Otter Outdoors, he has fished Lake of the Woods a ton but usually from the American side.
Also along with the group was seasoned big pike angler Sabin Rasmus who has iced numerous big pike and is equally adamant about releasing every pike as quickly as possible into the waters. “Celebrate the catch with a few photos and then let it go again—there’s nothing cooler than that big tail disappearing back in the hole and the gush of water as it swims off to be caught again someday,” Rasmus said.
Trophy pike can be caught in a variety of ways but it’s tough to beat a solid spread of tip-ups over the selected area. Pike roam the lake in search of easy food, often in the form of dead fish floating just underneath the ice. These pike will kill anything they come across as well but an easy meal is tough for any predator to turn down.
Our bait for the day was a dead minnow right around a foot long that was hooked with two trebles on a quick-strike rig. This “Slew-Dog” rig is a special set-up and the rig of choice for big pike anglers. Northland Tackle also makes a quick-strike rig called the Predator Rig and we used a few of them as well.
Anglers can make their own rig as well so long as the treble hooks are big enough to fit the bait. In our case, foot-long frozen herring with one treble through the head and the other between the dorsal and tail. Large baits tend to deter smaller pike. Once a pike is on the line, it’s important to set the hook during the initial run to ensure a hookset in the mouth rather than deeper in the throat. A mouth hook is what makes a successful release possible.
Connecting the Slew-Dog rig to the tip-up was mason line. The thick white line performs very well in these conditions and doesn’t slice and dice your hand as a big pike burns the line on your fingers as you let it run.
Main base was at the midpoint of a J-shape resembling a decoy spread complete with 12 tip-ups set at various depths below the ice. None of the tip-ups was further than 200 feet away but only the end of the “J” was within 50 feet of home base. It makes for some high-stepping sprints when a flag pops, not to mention plenty of falls when your boot busts through the layer of slush and your other leg takes too big of a step.
On the snow, near each hole, we placed a small black bucket to provide for an easy visual reference. Monitoring a dozen or so tip-ups from sunrise to sunset can be quite exhausting without visual references.
Over two days of hardcore fishing, in cold and blustery conditions, our group found its fair share of trophies. Five of the seven anglers in our group caught the biggest pike of their lifetime and seven pike over 40-inches were caught along with many others just shy of that mark.
When you fish this way, the only fair way to do it is to take turns. We decided who would be first before the first flag ever popped but it’s funny how multiple flags tend to pop all at once, knocking that system out of order. No complaints, however. When two or three flags go in succession and you are running from one hole to the next, it’s the peak of excitement and anticipation. It’s also a great way to warm up! This is cross-training at its finest.
Adding to the thrill was the sheer girth of Sathre’s pike. “It was a very thick fish that just rolled over my hands as I held it—definitely the biggest I’ve ever caught. Best of all, it’s still swimming,” he said.
All the pike our group caught were successfully released, often without time to take photographs. Normally a March trip features warm weather and plenty of opportunities for successful releases and photographs. Not this year with below zero wind chills and temperatures in the teens at best.
Crossing into Canada at the point of entry just north of Warroad was relatively easy and a passport card or book was all it took. Just a few hundred yards past the international border is the turn-off for Buffalo Point Resort. The resort has a wide variety of accommodations for visitors year-round including cabins for sale right on the lake. Check www.buffalopoint.ca for details or visit lakeofthewoodsmn.com for general information on fishing and accommodations on the American side.
Buffalo Point Resort has a full marina that offers access in the winter and a landing in the summer. When not covered in snow, there is a lush 18-hole golf course with the perfect blend of lakeshore and woods.
That said, Canada is under strict price controls on adult beverages so if that’s part of the after-fishing plans, make sure to come fully prepared. Just not over prepared—customs has strict restrictions on how much adult beverage can be brought into the country.
Positioned on a point, Buffalo Point provides visitors with beautiful views of both sunrise and sunset. Being so far north, and relatively away from metropolitan areas, the stars shine brighter and the northern lights glow more colorful.
Some people don’t like it when bass are called “bucketmouths” or muskies are called “water tigers” but that’s a different argument for a different day. Those same folks might not like it that big bluegills are called “bulls” but I know how to change their mind.
Let them hook into one and try to battle it.
Big bluegills defy the term “panfish” because they exceed the size of your average pan. I’m talking trophy fish in the 10-inch and above range. The kind of bluegill that has a big bump on its head and looks almost freakish compared to the small ones that tend to hang out at every dock in the summertime.
"When these massive creatures turn sideways after a solid hook set, the term “bull” makes complete sense," said Bryan "Beef" Sathre of Fathead Guide Service in the Bemidji and Cass Lake area. Sathre is a bluegill trophy hunter who loves to tie into big bluegill, wrestle with them for awhile, snap a quick photo, then watch it swim away to fight another day.
"Pound for pound, bluegills are the toughest fish in the freshwater world. I tied into one the other day and swore I’d hooked into a pike until I got it closer to the boat," he said.
Right now is one of the best times around for catching big bluegill, Sathre said. That's because this is the time of the year when they are sitting on their beds and are extremely aggressive. It’s also the time of the year when they are at their most vulnerable state. For that reason, if you go after these bull bluegills, please be sure to practice catch-photo-release. "If you want a meal of sweet-tasting bluegill fillets then keep a few smaller ones for the frying pan. Anything 10-inches or larger should quickly be released in my boat. It’s a good rule to consider in yours too," Sathre urged.
He fishes for them like they do for tarpon in coastal areas, "We’re sight fishing a lot of these bluegill locations. What I look for are transition points in the bottom in shallow bays and flats. My Costa del Mar polarized sunglasses help me find their nests that stand out as sandy holes." This is the result of the bluegill fanning out a nest that they guard very vigorously.
Another fantastic location is in the six to eight foot emerging cabbage beds or reeds adjacent to this deeper water. This is where they stage before spawning and hangout as they recover and is a fantastic secondary location. "I’ll move in with the trolling motor until I’m 20 to 30 feet away and then cast to them with a slip bobber and small jig tipped with a waxworm or panfish leech. An ultra-light rod makes everything so much more fun and I really like the castability of the Bionic panfish line in four-pound test. It has low visibility but is strong enough to handle the largemouth, smallmouth, crappie, perch, pike and rock bass that are bound to hit your lure in these locations," Sathre said.
For lure selection, Sathre said he likes a 1/16th to 1/32nd firefly minnow or small jig. "If it’s windy I’ll go with the larger size. You don’t have to worry about spooking them with the cast or getting right on top of them. Get it close and they’ll come to you," he said.
Another great tactic is to go baitless and throw panfish Slurpies tubes on a float system. Case it up there, let the jig sink, reel it in a few feet, wait for the jig to catch up, pause, and repeat the process. "Super pro bobbers from Northland Tackle do a great job in all conditions. If it’s windy then I use the weighted bobbers. Either way, balance the bobber so that you can detect a subtle bite. The other day I had it so my bobber was barely above the water making for very little resistance once a bluegill hit my jig," he said.
Where does Sathre pursue these massive bluegill? Most anywhere in the state has the potential for big bluegill waters. Around the metro they are a well guarded secret but go ahead and try asking your local baitshop. Lake Minnetonka or Waconia might be the best bed in the west metro while Bald Eagle Lake and the Mississippi River backwaters might be the best choice in the east metro.
"In my neck of the woods up here in Bemidji I like lakes such as Turtle River, Rabideau, Grace, Wolf, Andrusia, Grant, Irving and Blackduck," Sathre said.
Just remember to catch-photo-release these trophies so they can continue to raise the next generation of bulls.
No matter what the advertisements might say, there is no official end to summer. Labor Day is the marker for most while the more meteorological types wait until the autumnal equinox. Whatever your definition, summer is on the decline but there’s still plenty of time to take advantage of a terrific late summer fishing pattern for smallmouth bass.
For some reason, a lot of anglers think summer fishing means hitting the lakes and ignoring the rivers. River fishing is great in the spring and fall it is also a great place to fish throughout the summer and especially in late summer when weather patterns are known to be unstable. Rivers just seem to have a more consistent bite and cold fronts don’t impact them as much.
The smallmouth bite can be hit or miss and the fish are very temperamental making it tough to get a bite some days—the bass are easier to find in the river or any reservoir system.
One of my favorite stretches of river is found close to my home in Elk River north to Monticello. I also really like the stretches around Sartell and the one between Royalton and Little Falls.
These are known as world-class smallmouth waters but are often devoid of fishing boats, even on the weekends. Pleasure boaters can be found on these stretches throughout the weekend but they receive very little fishing pressure for the quality of catch they produce. The patterns on these stretches for smallmouth bass can be applied to any similar body of water around the state such as the Rum and St. Louis.
The places to look are where you find the fastest current, big boulders and sporadic weeds. The river flow is like a continuous buffet line and the smallmouth sit in these stretches just waiting for food to come down the current into their mouth.
On the Mississippi River’s Sartell stretch, the water is the deepest and slowest of all the pools with steep banks, lots of shoreline with overhanging trees and slow moving water. River stretches like this are ripe for fishing weightless plastic lures with an oversized hook.
The reason for an oversized hook is because it acts as a weight for the plastic allowing an angler to twitch the lure under the surface of the water in a walk-the-dog retrieve.
Sometimes the fish on these stretches are not in an aggressive mood so a slower approach is best. A 1/4 to 3/16 ounce jig tipped with a plastic trailer such as a football jig and a crawfish style plastic like a crawpappy. You want something where the pinchers flutter really nicely whether you fish it fast or slow and I prefer solid plastics to the hollow ones in these situations.
Using a large piece of plastic on a smaller jighead is beneficial because it allows the angler to have more control over the lure and creates a more natural look because it allows the current to work it.
On a tough bite a slow retrieve works best with this presentation. When the bite is hot you can burn that same jig and plastic rig over the weeds and rocks. It’s tough to beat burning a jig in the heat and you can easily stall your retrieve in some areas and poke a fish that’s sitting there waiting for food to swim by its face.
The north end of the Sartell stretch features faster flowing water much like you’d find further south around St. Cloud and Elk River. In that skinnier water try dropshotting green-colored tubes with a 3/0 hook Texas-rigged on a drop shot with a quarter ounce weight and 12-inch dropper,
Cast the drop shot to the rock shelf and work the big boulders. Face the boat upstream if you can and run the trolling motor so you are just gaining on the current and covering new water as you most slowly upstream. Casting upstream, use a steady retrieve stopping to pop the lure off the rocks and maintain contact with the bottom. Crawfish style lures with a good pincher-flutter once again work great in these locations.
Fishing upstream is the best on the river because you are always bringing your lure down with the current, which is a more natural presentation because the fish are already facing upstream. If the fish are active they won’t care as much. When going upstream is not possible due to current or depth, consider quartering the river or going cross-current and focus in on corner breaks like gravel flats one to four feet deep.
Clam beds are easy to spot because you can see the open clams sitting on the bottom—this is a good place for a top water walk the dog lure because the smallmouth often feed here. Anybody who has spent some time on a river knows what eelgrass looks like. As the current flows over the eelgrass it pulsates in the current like wind flowing over a field of grass. You’ll see schools of minnows on the edges of these weeds and the smallmouth are close by hiding out in the pockets of the eelgrass.
If the topwater approach doesn’t catch them in those eelgrass locations just run a weightless plastic under the surface and get ready for a big hook set. Crankbaits are also great along that deep break most rivers have where the shallow bank drops into the river channel. Smallmouth bass often hang off the edge of the break and have a hard time resisting a crankbait swam their way.
Before the summer leaves us for a few months, get out to your nearest smallmouth river and try these techniques. Hit those upper stretches of the Mississippi if true tackle busting action is what you like.
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