We had all three kinds of fish during our annual ice fishing trip to Lake of the Woods: aggressive, passive and (in the case of the preponderance of fish that showed themselves as red blips on my sonar screen) passive aggressive.
The aggressive fish, which seemed uncommonly scarce the last week of January, would rise to meet your lure and strike it with forearm tingling ferocity.
The passive fish, which constituted the bulk of our catch, would hover near your lure indefinitely before finally committing to eat it.
The passive-aggressive fish, of which there were plenty, would repeatedly approach your lure, bringing its red sonar line into apparent contact with your jig’s yellow line, and then fade from the screen. Just when it sensed it had exhausted your patience, it would slurp the tail of the minnow and lightly tug, prompting a hookset that invariably ended after two turns of the reel handle with the fish letting go of the minnow.
My shack mate, Doug Reck of Winthrop, said he was not used to cuss words spoken with such vehemence.
Like most ice anglers, we deploy two rods: one which we hold in hand and actively jig to entice bites from fish we “see” on the screen of an electronic flasher and another rod that suspends a bait near the bottom.
Theoretically, the jig rod, with its flash and action, attracts the aggressive fish while the “dead stick,” so called to denote its comparatively lifeless approach, appeals to the passive ones.
They were almost all passive during our recent visit — a generally undesirable circumstance that, at least, suited my resolve to become a better dead stick angler.
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The fishing had been slow for more than a week, the fishes’ appetite for minnows suppressed by a surfeit of mayfly nymphs emerging from the lake bottom, according to Kelly Berggren, co-proprietor of Long Point Resort, which provided our lodging and ice fishing huts.
The fish also may have been responding to increased angling pressure from occupants of wheeled fish houses, whose recent proliferation prompted the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources a year ago to reduce the aggregate walleye-sauger limit from eight to six.
The reduced limit did not affect me or my companions: Doug, Jim Brace, Don Dutler and Mike Stafford of Winthrop and Bill Sloan, Ted Wieland and Mike Mulnix of Quasqueton. As usual, we ate fish for supper twice and brought home our limits.
In years past, I always treated my dead stick as an afterthought, paying little attention to it until I heard it clattering on the floor of the shack, bouncing to the pull of a hooked fish 30 feet below the ice.
Unlike my fishing buddies, who sometimes caught more than half their fish on dead sticks, I seldom caught one — a disparity that finally convinced me I was doing something wrong.
On the drive north, in the happy lane, as we like to call it, Jim explained he often deploys both rods as dead sticks — a practice that doubles his chances to catch a fish when they are lethargic. Jim also advised to carefully watch the tips of the dead stick rods. A bobbing tip, he said, signals a nervous minnow, whose anxiety may well be prompted by the nearby presence of a predator.
I heeded Jim’s advice, which (in the comparative absence of aggressive fish) worked so well I caught almost all of my fish on one dead stick or the other.
Now, for the sake of my shack mate’s tender ears, I need to find a technique that foils the passive aggressive fish.