Fish House Spotters

February 8, 2010 by  

By Nick Simonson

Shantytowns are generally a bad sign. Economic downturns, natural disasters and tribal wars all come to mind when such a place is shown on the evening news. However, in the ice belt and points north, it is the sign of something good – a hot bite on frozen waters. While fishing a lake in central Minnesota with some friends recently, a large a city of fishing shacks and its respective suburbs made it hard to figure out exactly where the fish were biting best.

bigbucketsFrom the public access to the other side of the lake, groups of permanent shelters, homemade plywood pop-ups and twenty thousand dollar ice castles, stretched in clusters from shore to shore. About the only area that wasn’t populated by an on-ice abode was a stretch surrounding the lake’s inlet. The bite was on and with the advice of a fishing board buddy, my three friends and I prepared for a panfish bonanza as we weaved our way around the neighborhoods on the plowed road
The lake sported a slot limit on crappies, meaning the only slabs we’d be able to keep for the pan would have to be much bigger than the fish I was accustomed to. Reports from those around us signaled that big bluegills also roamed the spot we set up on. With two shelters, two augers and three sonar devices in tow, we unloaded and set up the grid. But of the forty holes we punched to start the morning, we really would only need two of them.

After running several lines east and west, I joined the novice in our group to show him how the sonar worked and how to watch a spring bobber when the fish moved into view. His tiny jig hadn’t stopped falling when a red line materialized above the bottom and began moving up the display. He closed the bail and the bait hung above the fish. Cautiously, the fish moved up to the jig.

“Watch the tip for any movement,” I explained.
The copper wire and pink bead twitched ever so slightly.
“There it is,” I exclaimed as he set the hook and the rod arched sharply in his hands.

He worked the fish up and a beam of early morning sun caused the reflection of green scales to light up the icy cylinder over which we hovered. I looked over the edge of the hole and saw the gaping mouth of a huge crappie. It tossed and turned in an effort to free itself but the tiny jig held true, and I reached in and lipped the speck like it was a summer largemouth. I hollered to my two other friends as they were readying their ice tackle and held the football sized slab aloft.

“I don’t think it will make it,” the nearer of the two said, “you better put it on the tape.”
I was taken aback, knowing that on any other lake this fish would have had a date with the Fry Daddy, forgetting for a moment that on this water it was the tape measure that would decide its fate. The crappie weighed over a pound and I could barely fit both hands around it. Its eyes uneasily surveyed the tailgate as I laid on the measuring stick, pinching its tail down to get an accurate measurement. In every position, from nose to tail, and then tail to nose, and through every effort except stepping on the poor fish, it fell a quarter inch shy of the legal minimum on the lake. As a result, it was quickly back in the nearest hole.

No sooner had the fish disappeared down the hole than I looked up to see the spring bobber rod bouncing in my buddy’s hands again. After an immediate surge, the fish came up slowly, putting a permanent bend in the ultralight blank. Having a non-keeper size in mind, the fish that splashed in the hole was a no-doubter. I reached in and lifted it up. It was fatter and longer than the previous one. It eclipsed the slot limit by nearly an inch and a half, and our first keeper was on ice.

We popped some new holes and the four of us set our portable shacks over the hot spot. Our sleds were the little green houses, and the permanents around us – with their silent generators and Dish TV receivers – were the big red hotels. But, regardless of the expense of our shelters, we were all fishing the Park Place and Boardwalk squares on the lake.
Schools of bluegills moved in throughout the day, usually concealing crappies that roamed a few feet beneath them near the bottom. The action was fast and satisfying on our light tackle, with very few lulls – a perfect learning experience for the new ice angler in the group and the best action in recent weeks for the rest of us. We landed nearly forty crappies, with many measuring near the slot limit, but requiring release. In between the solid bend the slabs brought were the spinning and whirring battles with the bluegills, some topping ten inches in length.

By the time dusk settled over the lake and the lights began turning on in the shanties from shore to shore, we had a dozen keeper crappies, a handful of nice bluegills, and over 150 fish between the four of us. We called it a day and wound our way through the shanty town as neighbors broke off conversations to return to their winter homes in time to catch the evening bite. The glow of yellow and white through the window of each shack cast squares of light on the snow as guideposts back to the access. Each one was a signal that the slot-spurred action for big crappies continued and the shantytown that sprang up was an indication of the good fishing to be had…in our outdoors.


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