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Going deeper

A few hours of staring at unpopped flags on a small pike lake didn’t pay off a couple weekends ago for me and my oldest son, but the glare from the snow on the ice did provide my first sunburn of the season. Last weekend’s fast-melting conditions made a trip for trout with my boys on a small impoundment enjoyable as we were able to run about freely on the ice and splash in the growing surface water, but the fish were less than active despite the warm and stable weather. So, with temperatures rising into the low 60s this Saturday, I abandoned the thought of any late-ice action and set my sights on the accelerated spring movements of the fish in the open water of the small power plant lake north of town.

Peeling the storage tarp off my puddle jumper and readying it for a quick scouting mission in the middle of the week, I headed up to the water and was on fish with the first cast. A stack of largemouth bass from one to four pounds occupied a sharp break between the outflow from the plant and the main water body. The shore angler within shouting distance found them on his side of the delta as well, and we carried on a “that’s a nice one” back-and-forth as the morning warmed and the fish regularly came to hand. As my time on the water waned, I switched to a light rod, still rigged with a small white tube jig from the previous season, to inspect the tiny bumps and ticks I experienced in the pocket between shore and where the bass were located.

On the second cast, the line went dead and I set the hook, lifting a 10-inch black crappie to the surface. A couple of casts later a black-barred white crappie rolled up. Every other cast produced a speck of about the same size, and I quickly released a dozen before I pulled up the anchor and headed back to the launch. “Piece of cake,” I thought of the upcoming weekend adventure with my boys, certain that with the similar conditions predicted, the fish would be there and the third outing would be the charm. Simply anchor up, set slipfloats and watch the fish jump into the boat.

The boat launch was far busier than the midweek adventure as anglers of all stripes — die-hard bassers, kayak adventurers, families and college kids — convened in the sunshine and light breezes of the weekend noon hour. Boats were coming in, boats were headed out, and I prepped our little craft as I waited in line on the one-lane approach to the cement ramp. Donning my waders for the dockless facility, I released the strap, pushed the boat out and grabbed the anchor rope, tying it off to the launch sign before parking and carrying both boys over the muddy area and lifting them into the bow of the boat. With a bag full of juice boxes, Dot’s pretzels, fruit bars and various other necessities for such a trip stashed in the bow of the boat and rods rigged and ready to go, we cruised over to the open spot along the outflow.

Anchored, I flipped the small white tube back into the water and let it drift along in the current to figure out where the fish were and just how deep to set the boys’ floats for the fast action that was sure to come. A slight tick triggered a reactive snap of the wrist and one of the cookie-cutter 10-inch crappies came up. “Here we go,” I said aloud as I readied their rods, with fast fishing expected to follow.

Only it didn’t. Five minutes of staring at bobbers turned to ten minutes of restlessness and a dive into the pretzel bag, which became fifteen minutes of rod waving and crushed juice boxes finally ending with “can we go home now,” in the 20th minute. The lone crappie felt like a setup, as I jigged and probed the rocky shoreline on out to the depths behind the boat in various levels of the water column, finding nothing to offset the growing disappointment in the hull around me, and the frustration mounting in my brain as I tested the depths of my boys’ tolerance for boredom.

I suggested a new spot and fired up the 25-horse motor and we cruised off the area, the motion providing a refocusing of sorts for the boys as we watched geese sail overhead and a few honk their way along the steep northern shoreline of the lake. Dropping the trolling motor as we arrived in a small bay, I cast furiously to a flooded boulder field where I had found so many willing fish last spring. But like our first spot, I was met with empty water as we moved along the lakeshore casting shallow and deep. Another 30 minutes of searching, watching unmoving bobbers and disinterest settling in, it felt more and more likely that bad fishing would indeed come in threes, despite the wonderful weekend conditions yet again. I suggested one more stop back at our starting place, still too convinced that the fish were there, and promised we’d leave if we didn’t connect with something.

With pretzel levels dwindling, bar wrappers mounting in my pockets, and providing every distraction I could from trying to quickly count the geese flying overhead to guessing which boat was the fastest on the water, I set both boys’ bobbers in the water and switched to an orange Road Runner jig and chartreuse twister and began jigging behind the boat as the anchor took hold. “Five minutes, guys” I pleaded as the two-toned request for departure began to echo between the aluminum gunwales of the boat. At about the 4:30 mark, I felt a bump and set the hook, bringing up a nice white crappie. I glanced at the sonar and saw a small arch just off the bottom. Letting my oldest boy release the fish, I slid the bobber stops up the line and suddenly, the afternoon changed.

The stash of waxworms began to disappear, and we dipped into the leftover spikes from last weekend’s ice outing as finicky crappies and big bluegills started to bite down along the bottom of the lake. I popped a hookset into a weighty opponent and handed the rod off to my youngest boy who battled a three-pound bass to the boat. As he was reluctant to hold it, I lifted it in for him and he laughed at its big mouth, before my oldest son lipped it and dropped it back into the water. We’d drain the worms, and I’d break off a couple jigs before a solid run of fishing ended and we headed in with a few dozen crappies caught and released along with some nice bluegills and the bass. I hauled the boys back over the mud to their seats in the back of the truck and loaded the boat for the drive home, happy to have logged the trip, saved by adjusting to the mood of the fish and going a bit deeper … in our outdoors.

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