It would be nice if Canada geese weren’t so darn smart. However, talk to any hunter that has spent a lot of time in the field and they will have story after story about birds that have learned to avoid the trouble associated with decoy spreads.
This decoy shy phenomena is not something that comes naturally, it is a learned behavior that develops after birds have been shot at a number of times. I believe the more birds are hunted, the more they are able to imprint the dangers associated with decoy spreads into their brains. Snow geese do it, why not Canada geese?
There are a couple of specific patterns I look for that indicate geese are highly pressured and vary wary. When birds start reacting a certain way, I know it is time to mix things up and do something different.
Decoy wary birds often will approach from the front but slide off to the side at a couple of hundred yards. The next move they make is classic and predictable.
Once off to the side of the spread, they will approach from behind and then make a high pass directly overhead. Generally, this is the kiss of death as these birds rarely come back once they have looked at your spread from directly above.
One thing I like to do when this starts to happen is to turn one of the hunters around to face the back of the spread. This hunter is able to watch exactly what the geese are doing behind the decoys without squirming around in the blind and spooking the birds. They can also call the shot if they approach within range, which does happen. When hunters are all facing the pocket, it is difficult to really know what is going on behind you.
Another sure sign of pressured geese can be heard more than it can be seen. Pressured geese definitely change their calling and vocalization patterns.
As a general rule, spooky geese get silent when they approach a spread. Obviously, they are listening to see what kinds of calling sounds are coming from the ground. As a general rule, these geese have lots of experience with decoys.
Recently, I had a serious discussion on the art of calling pressured geese with hunting specialist, Chad Allen from the internet shopping site of Barrels Up and Dirty Girl Camo. Allen and I were on the same page when it came to working wary birds.
Allen believed that the more a person knew about calling, the more successful they would be in the field. He felt quiet geese should be hunted quietly with a minimal amount of calling. If they talk to you, talk back. If they aren’t talking, be silent until they are close enough for some confidence building moans and soft clucks.
I certainly agree with this. Too many times I hear hunters overcall geese. It is important to remember that the purpose of calling is to help get the birds in range. It is not to try and wear the reed out of your call. All too often hunters shout at geese instead of talking to them.
Hunting pressured birds is always a challenge. No matter what you do in the field, you will not fool every flock. However, if you are not fooling any birds, you may need to change up your routine.
Simple adjustments, such as facing a hunter the opposite way or cutting way back on the calling, are two simple tactics that can help.
When it comes to laying out decoy spreads for Canada geese, there are many different strategies to draw from. How a person goes about setting a spread depends on a number of variables. These variables include things like personal experience, location, weather and the time of the year.
When it comes to my own personal decoy strategy for hunting geese, I would have to say my spreads are family oriented. Although I may switch things around a bit in the very late season, for most of the fall, families are key.
There is a reason I am so hung up on utilizing family groupings for my main theme. One of those reasons has to do with observations I have made from watching live geese.
One instance comes to mind that speaks volumes about my philosophy of utilizing family orientation for my decoy spreads. I was walking with my wife around a park when we heard a bunch of honkers in the distance. We watched as a group of about 30 Canadas made a swing and then skidded to a halt on the water.
Even though this group came as one unit, once on the water, they immediately began dividing up according to their families. A short time later, there were four distinct groups lounging on the pond.
I see family orientation in fields throughout much of the fall, as well. Even though there may be a lot of birds on the ground, one can usually still see the clusters of families as they feed.
There is another reason I like to set up family groupings in my Canada goose spread. This reason has to do with repeated success. Unless it is very late in the year and the geese are bunched in large flocks, I continue to successfully decoy geese with my family group philosophy.
I am not the only hunter I know of that makes use of family groupings for much of the fall. Hunting specialist, Chad Allen, from Barrels Up and Dirty Girl Camo internet shopping site, is a big believer in family groupings.
According to Allen, setting a spread in family groupings has never hurt the overall appeal of his decoys. He is also a firm believer that if something is consistently fooling geese, there is no need to change. I couldn’t agree more.
The one variable I put into my family philosophy happens around my layout blinds. I always set a cluster of full bodies and silhouettes tight to the blinds to help conceal them from oncoming geese. Other than these 20 to 30 decoys, the other decoys are grouped in clusters of two to ten.
There are many different ways of setting out decoys. However, as a general rule, hunters continue to work with patterns that bring success. Unless it is very late in the year, I have found that Canada geese decoy well to family oriented spreads.
Until these spreads stop being effective, I will continue to focus on the family.
There is no question the pheasant numbers have dwindled across the Midwest. This is especially true in the regions that have suffered through a combination of tough winters and loss of CRP. Still, even though the numbers are down, pheasant hunting is not a thing of the past.
Pheasant enthusiasts are a lot like the Chicago Cubs fans. Even though there is little hope of a great season and little to cheer for, they continue to support their sport and head to the field whenever they can.
If there is one thing I have learned over the 45 years I have been hunting pheasants it is this. There are always pockets of birds that will offer good hunting. If you can find these pockets of birds, you will be rewarded for your efforts.
The key in finding these pockets of birds is to locate great habitat. Without question, hunters need to spend more time in search of these quality locations than they did when the bird numbers were higher. This probably means more road time and knocking on a few more doors.
One of the considerations in determining this fall’s population actually happened last winter. Pheasants that had access to food or food plots last winter fared better than those that had to travel. Birds that fed close to their roost areas experienced less predation and entered the breeding season in better shape.
Adequate cover is always a plus for pheasant hunting. Natural prairie grasses that are four or five feet tall offer a lot more in cover that quack grass and weeds. This is true for both the nesting season and the hunting season.
Corn is probably the favorite food of the pheasant in the fall and winter months. Quality grassland cover next to a picked corn field is going to attract and hold more birds than cover that does not have corn fields adjacent to it.
This year, water is going to be another concern. With so many dry ponds in the Midwest, water is not as easy to find as it usually is.
And water is important. I remember hunting North Dakota one year when there was very little water. Our best location turned out to be a water hole in the middle of grassland habitat. Every morning and evening the pheasants could be found close to this water source.
One advantage pheasant hunters do have this year is the dry fall and early removal of row crops. This greatly reduces the cover available to pheasants and congregates the birds into smaller areas. That can never hurt.
Pheasant hunters that truly love their sport do not give up easily. Although the bird count in many regions is up from last year, it is still significantly below the long term average. Because of this, hunters will be forced to potentially drive farther and spend more time looking for pockets of birds that they used to.
This may not be the year for a record pheasant harvest, but those that do their due diligence and hunt where the pockets of birds are located will succeed just fine.
It was an interesting start to the day. The GPS coordinates I had received from a fellow angler were supposedly going to direct me to a super panfish hotspot on a fairly large lake. Now that I was at the lake, I began to have my doubts.
The super hotspot was in the middle of a sea of ice houses. Although I had expected some competition on this popular body of water, I did not expect to be surrounded by anglers.
I could tell from the looks of my two companions that they had their doubts, as well. When they wondered what kind of mess I had gotten them into this time, I explained that my source for the GPS coordinates was very reliable.
In an effort to calm their fears and to reassure my own doubts, I referenced my GPS and LakeMaster chip (www.lakemap.com) to show them how we were perfectly positioned on a two foot break on an otherwise flat piece of structure. With all of the enthusiasm I could muster, I suggested we start drilling holes.
After scattering a dozen and half holes amongst the houses, we started the search process. Although our Vexilars did not show suspended fish in every hole, there appeared to be plenty of activity. The next step was to see if anything would bite.
It soon became apparent that the sniffers greatly outnumbered the biters. Even so, we did manage to pluck a feisty crappie off of the bottom every now and then, but basically the action was slow
We weren’t too far into the adventure when I decided it was time to mix things up. I knew what was not working and felt I had nothing to lose by doing a little experimentation.
For me, experimentation starts with downsizing both my line weight and jig size. It also means switching to a very light spring bobber rod that will detect the faintest of bites.
From my arsenal, I pulled out a rod rigged with one-pound-test Berkley Micro Ice and a Northland 1/28 ounce tungsten Mooska jig. This combination of super light line and small but heavy tungsten jig had worked for me before.
In a hole that had not yielded a fish, I instantly pulled two 12 inch crappie. They were followed by a couple of very respectable bluegills.
Naturally, my sudden success not only caught the attention of my angling buddies, but also brought a couple of people out of their fish houses to see what I was doing. What I was doing was pretty much what I had done for the first hour. What was different was the equipment.
Catching finicky winter fish is frequently a challenging proposition. I have found that many things can help turn the odds in your favor. Fresh maggots, glow jigs, Vanish fluorocarbon line and quality rods can all help. However, there are still days when downsizing equipment is the most important thing that can be done.
There is no doubt that fishing with super, ultra light equipment is not my first choice. However, there are those days when I tolerate the inconveniences associated with a light rig especially if it will help me catch fish.
During the course of a winter of chasing panfish, I like to roam. I find it difficult to return to the same lake again and again, even if there is a respectable bite taking place. New water and fresh ice just appeals to me.
My roaming itch is easy to scratch. I don’t have to travel hundreds of miles to feel like I have been fishing. Instead, I like to focus on lakes that are relatively close and are within an hour’s drive. In a normal winter on the ice, that usually translates into 15 to 20 bodies of water.
Although I do throw in a few new lakes to my repertoire each winter, I primarily go to the same water each year. This gives me a chance to generate a basic knowledge base on a particular lake and increases my chances for success when I do return to a body of water.
There are several facts I have learned while working panfish on my milk run of lakes. One of these is the concept of repetition. Panfish, especially those that are suspended over a deep basin, have a tendency to show up in the same locations year after year.
Undoubtedly, there are fluctuations in the population of catchable fish. Panfish, especially crappie, are quite cyclical in nature and can go from a big year class to nothing in a short period of time. The opposite is also true.
Fishing pressure also has an impact on panfish populations. There have been winters when the bite has been consistent for extended periods of time on a particular lake. During these long stretches of activity, a population of respectable fish can be decimated over the course of a winter. It can actually take a couple of years for one of these lakes to recover.
There are some important tools involved with locating and catching fish on many different lakes. The first ingredient for success is having a quality lake map and GPS. I have come to depend greatly on LakeMaster products (www.lakemap.com) to help guide me to fishing locations. Once I do find a spot, you can be sure it will get saved as a waypoint.
Even though fish may not be located in the exact spot every time I head to a lake, having a starting place to look is extremely valuable. I find it astounding how often fish are found in the same general vicinity year after year. This is especially true of deep basin fish.
Another tool that is absolutely critical is a sonar unit. If you are fishing where there are no fish, you cannot catch anything. It is that simple.
Sonar units, such as the Vexilar I use, are extremely important when working through the fish location process on different lakes. If you are not certain where the fish are going to be, it is absolutely critical you have some idea of what is under the ice. This includes weeds, depth, bottom hardness and of course, fish.
None of this “looking” process can be accomplished unless you have a way of getting a reading to the bottom. Many times this translates into drilling a hole every time you want to check things out.
Whenever possible, I try to avoid drilling holes until I am ready to fish. Usually, I find that by kicking away the snow and pouring a little water on the ice, I can get my Vexilar to read through the ice to show me what is happening underneath. I only drill holes after I find fish or an area that needs better bottom definition.
Fishing different water throughout the winter period has always been something I enjoy. As a general rule, fish are somewhat predictable and are frequently found in the same locations year after year.
Spending the time to locate new fishing hotspots and checking out the old ones is an enjoyable part of my winter routine.
It was our sixth year in a row that our group of anglers had spent a week on Rainy Lake. As we pulled into the landing at Island View Lodge, anticipation was running high. We knew that within an hour we would have the boats launched, gear packed into the cabin and be ready to head out for an evening of fishing.
After launching the boats, lodge owner, Ron Opp, stopped to welcome us back for another week of adventure. His words were encouraging as he said the walleye bite had been impressive. That type of news is never hard to take.
Once on the water, our boats split up and headed in three different directions. One of the advantages in working with a group of anglers is being able to check out different parts of the lake and then compare notes back at the cabin. This technique is very valuable and certainly shortcuts the information gathering process.
The small hump my fishing partner, Charlie Simkins, and I targeted yielded a number of fish. We slipped a couple into the livewell for supper and photographed and released several others. It was a great start to another fabulous week on Rainy.
Rainy Lake is an impressive fishery that seems to get better every summer. For six years it has provided us with such impressive walleye fishing we have felt no need to cross the border to look for anything better.
Our group has learned a lot during these six years. Unlike many anglers, we prefer to go during the summer months when the fish are setting up on the deep reefs. Although this midsummer pattern is a challenge for some, we find the deep reef fishing to be very enjoyable.
We have also learned a lot about the different presentations that work. Even though the jig is probably the most utilized presentation on the lake, we have had very good luck with live bait presentations as well as bottom bouncers and spinners.
For the standard live bait rig, we often use shiner minnows. Minnows work well on Rainy even during the summer months. We also take along leeches and crawlers and there are days when one of these other choices is clearly the favorite.
As for bottom bouncers and spinners, double hook crawler rigs, single hooks with three inch PowerBait tails tipped with live bait and smile blade spinners with slow death hooks all work. The key is to experiment to find what the fish want on that particular day.
Although live bait rigging with Vanish fluorocarbon line is my favorite walleye presentation, being able to cover water and search out active biters with bottom bouncers is pretty impressive. The bottom bouncer strategy needs to be part of the game plan.
As for the reefs and other fishing locations, they aren’t hard to find. The key is marking fish in an area before spending time fishing. If we don’t find fish on a reef, we keep looking.
Naturally, quality sonar equipment is critical for the process of searching for fish. Our group utilizes LakeMaster map chips for identifying potential hotspots (www.lakemap.com).
There is a 17 to 28 inch protected slot on Rainy. In my opinion, this is one of the reasons the lake is so full of walleyes. We catch lots of fish in the 20 to 25 inch class but have no trouble finding fish for supper.
Rainy is also home to other species. We always catch quality northern during our stay as well as smallmouth bass.
Anglers are missing out if they are ignoring Rainy Lake. This water is a remarkable fishery that is well worth a visit.
The bluegill and crappie bite had been quite impressive on this Northern Minnesota lake. Although the fish weren’t record breaking in size, they were very respectable. Even though they weren’t stacked in every single hole we drilled, there were enough fish in the area that we never had to look long to find action.
As is often the case with the late season bite, our Vexilars were showing the active fish several feet off of the bottom in deep water. The bottom huggers were lethargic sniffers while the suspended fish could frequently be coaxed into biting.
It was business as usual in the particular hole I was working when I noticed a line on my Vexilar above all of the others. Instantly, I made the adjustment to see if this new visitor to my screen was an interested biter.
Once in front of the fish, it only took a couple of shakes from my Hexi Fly and maggots before my spring bobber dipped and I set the hook. I knew instantly this was not a bluegill or crappie. It had weight and power that I hadn’t experienced on this trip.
It took quite a long time on my light tackle to tire this critter out. When I finally got its head started up the hole, I was not surprised to see a good sized whitefish on the end of my line.
It seems that several times each winter I end up hooking something out of the ordinary. Over the years my crappie gear has yielded suckers, walleye, bass, northern, catfish, and yes, tullibee and whitefish.
The trick to catching the unexpected fish starts way before they are seen on your electronics. The process actually starts with your equipment.
Although I fish two-pound-test line for most of my winter panfish, I am very fussy about which line I use. There is not a lot of forgiveness in light line. One mistake and it is over. I have found Berkley Micro-Ice to be ideal for winter angling.
Next, the rod and reel need to be matched to the weight of the line. Longer rods offer more forgiveness than shorter ones. The bend in the rod absorbs a lot of pressure and helps tire the fish out.
The reel is also critical. It has to have a drag that works smoothly even in very cold conditions. If your drag hangs up on a good fish, you will be retying.
I also believe in using a tightline system of presentation. This allows me to quickly change depths to get in front of the fish. These unexpected fish are usually just roaming through and if you can’t get their attention quickly, it won’t happen.
Catching unexpected fish through the ice is not an unusual phenomenon. I wouldn’t say I expect the unexpected, but it does happen often enough I am no longer surprised by the event. Large fish seem to have no trouble sucking in a tiny morsel if it is presented right in front of their face.
The key in successfully landing the unexpected fish is being able to react instantly when it comes onto your screen and then have equipment that will handle the ensuing battle. When it all comes together, catching the unexpected can really make a day!
Every year I look forward to spring. It isn’t that I don’t enjoy my time on the ice in the winter, because I certainly do. However, there is something about getting back in the boat and on open water that I greatly appreciate.
I am not alone in this feeling as it is shared by most anglers I know. Drive by a few landings after the lakes open up and you will see just how many anglers like the idea of getting back in the boat.
There is more to the story than enjoying the feeling of open water, however. These early season anglers are not just joy riding, they are searching out some fishing action, as well. Generally, this means crappie and bluegill.
Most springs I make frequent trips to area lakes in search of panfish. Even though these fishing trips take place on many different bodies of water, the fishing locations on each lake share some very strong similarities.
The fact that I fish similar structure on different lakes is no accident. Instead, it is a matter of following the habits of the panfish. Once anglers understand the habitat panfish are looking for in the spring, finding and catching fish becomes a lot easier.
After ice out, spring crappie become very interested in eating. This is due to the fact they spawn when the water temperature reaches the low to mid sixties. Female crappie, in particular, need extra energy to help the development of their eggs. In addition to that, spawning takes a lot of energy for both sexes.
Water temperature is one of the keys to finding early season panfish. These fish are looking for places where the insect larvae are active. It is the protein found in the larvae the fish are looking for.
Mud bottoms are also a part of the spring equation for two reasons. Insects live in the mud, and dark, mud bottomed areas absorb sunlight and warm faster than other locations.
When I think about my favorite spring crappie hangouts, most of them have the same thing in common; they are somewhat disconnected from the main part of the lake. This is a huge consideration when picking a place to fish and here is why.
Shallow bays that are connected to the main lake by a narrow channel are going to warm much quicker. The protection provided by the necked down entrance is ideal for creating a mini environment for fish.
On the flip side of things, when the cold wind blows and fronts come through, these areas will cool off just as fast as they warmed up. Like fishing any place else, timing can be extremely important.
Sometimes I believe the fish will actually move out of these sheltered bays during spells of bad weather. Other times, they may stay in the bays but become inactive until the sun comes back and warms the water up.
There are other considerations when fishing these bays that anglers need to think about. First of all, these shallow water fish are quite spooky. Light line, such as four or six-pound-test Berkley Trilene or five-pound-test Northland Bionic are good choices.
I also like long rods that allow me to cast far from the boat. Spooky fish are very much afraid of boats so keep your noise to a minimum. This concept alone can make or break a day.
As for lures, I rarely use minnows at this time of the year. I love 1/64 ounce pink and white Fire-Fly jigs. I usually fish them plain but sometimes a little PowerBait will help, especially if you are targeting bluegill.
Early spring is a great time of the year to be on the water. It can also be a great time of year to catch those early panfish. Disconnected bays that warm quickly will usually produce plenty of action.
Every year I try to get together with long time fishing friend, Kelley Cirks. Cirks is a great angler that spends a lot of time on the water in the Park Rapids area of Minnesota. Normally, when he calls to say the fish are biting, I can pretty much count on a sure thing. Of course, there is that word “normally.”
It was early in the morning when I pulled into the driveway of Cirks’ residence. He had the boat hooked up and was clearly pumped about the prospects of a good day of bass fishing.
As we drove to the lake, he filled me in on the bite that had been taking place. With the spawn over and the fish recuperated, the bass had moved into the cabbage beds and were hungry and ready to eat. His hot baits had been the Salmo Hornet and PowerBait worm.
Once at the lake, it took little time for us to land the boat and motor to a weed flat that was littered with clumps of cabbage. As we worked along through the weeds, we reminisced about big fish we had taken from this very location on previous outings.
The conditions were ideal and at any moment I expected to tie into a bruiser that would get the morning started in a big way. It didn’t happen. For some reason, the fish that had been camped in this location a couple of days earlier had moved. Two futile hours and several weed beds later, we gave up on lake number one and loaded the boat.
Lake number two was high on my list. The biggest bass of my life had come from this water as had several other five pound fish. We were both confident that this lake would be the ticket to success. An hour later, we had nothing but a few small fish to show for our efforts.
At this juncture, we realized we had hit an off day and needed to change things up. For some reason, the bass had gone negative and were not going to cooperate with a normal presentation.
As is often the case when things go south, we downsized our rigs to something more along the snack size instead of the full meal deal. For me, that meant an eighth ounce Lip Stick jig and a five inch PowerBait finesse worm.
By starting shallow and working our jigs down to the deep weed line, Cirks and I began to find a few fish. It wasn’t anything spectacular, but it was action. The finesse approach was obviously more appealing than our standard rigs.
By the end of the outing, we at least had a couple of opportunities to get the camera out. We also had once again learned the value of not giving up.
Too many times, anglers end a trip early because the fish are not cooperating. My advice is to be cautious about quitting too quickly. When the fish get lockjaw, it is important to pare down your expectations but also to change your presentation strategies.
On this trip, Cirks and I were successful because of two factors. First, we downsized our presentation to something small and simple. Most importantly, we caught fish because we didn’t give up.
It has happened to me more times than I care to count. In fact, it is such a common occurrence during the late spring and summer months that I have grown to accept it and expect it. Just when I think I have the bite figured out, the fish up and move.
Big water walleye are roamers, plain and simple. They are nomadic in nature and will be on one piece of structure for a few hours and then be gone.
It isn’t an occasional occurrence, either. I have found this late spring and summer pattern to be true on Leech, Kabetogama, Lake of the Woods, Lac Seul, Mille Lacs, Rainy and other big water environments.
The last few years, I have been fortunate enough to spend considerable time on Rainy. Our group of anglers has consistently been successful because we have learned to cope with the roaming characteristics of the walleye.
It is not uncommon to spend as much as two hours searching for walleye on Rainy before we ever drop a line. We make the rounds from structure to structure looking for fish on our sonar units.
The first step in this process is having a boat and motor rig that provides the mobility necessary to do the extensive searching. The other is to have a GPS system that allows you to quickly find structure that has fish holding potential. LakeMaster chips (www.lakemap.com) can be critical for shortcutting this process.
Regardless of the lake you are fishing, structure doesn’t have to be very big to hold fish. Some of my most memorable bites have taken place on small humps and insignificant points.
There are other factors involved in the nomadic walleye characteristic that need to be noted. These fish are not just roaming because they enjoy swimming. They are looking for food in the form of minnows.
Large schools of forage will spend time in open water and sometimes offer a good deep basin bite. However, when the baitfish move onto structure, the walleye are usually not far behind.
Walleye do not take a long time to feed. Countless times we have come across structure that is stacked with fish only to find them gone in an hour or less. Being efficient at working these fish when you find them can be critical.
Once fish are found, they can be caught in a variety of ways. There is no doubt that a short shanked Fire-Ball jig is an excellent way to present bait. Leeches or crawlers work well in late spring and summer, but sometimes shiner minnows are the best.
Live bait rigs are also very effective when targeting feeding fish. A number six hook on the end of six feet of six-pound-test Vanish Fluorocarbon is hard to beat. The bait that will get the most attention may depend somewhat on the day so we always have options available.
There are days when locating scattered fish is the best we can do. During these situations, a two or three ounce bottom bouncer and Rainbow Spinner rig can be the most productive. Occasionally, I will clip off the normal hooks and substitute a long shanked hook with a PowerBait twister tail. I add a piece of crawler or leech for good measure.
Wind plays a major role in where fish setup to eat. Walleye love to feed in the waves. Part of this is due to the baitfish activity and part due to the sight advantage walleye have over baitfish in poor light conditions. Playing the wind is very important.
Walleye on big water rarely setup housekeeping in one spot for very long. Instead, they will come up onto structure, feed, and move back to open water. Success under these circumstances depends on an angler’s ability to find fish.
On big water, walleye are nomadic in nature. Anglers need to be on the move, as well.
- Pressured Geese? Adjust Your Tactics
- Family Ties Are Strong
- Searching for Roosters Brings Rewards
- Tough Day? Try Downsizing
- Many Lakes, Many Fish
- Rainy Lake Walleyes
- Adjusting to the Unexpected
- Target Disconnected Bays for Spring Panfish Action
- Quitting is for Quitters
- Nomadic Walleye and Big Water
- Twitch Baits Are a Viable Option
- Target Weeds, Catch Bass