The 2013 edition of The Recycled Fish Big Creek Hardwater Open is now in the books, and what an emotional rollercoaster it was.
My good friends and fellow pro ice anglers, Jeff Kelm and Aaron Berg, arrived at our house on the Wednesday prior to the event. Jeff and Aaron had dubbed themselves “Team 40 Weeks” and they planned to use our home as their base while pre-fishing the lake. I know the level at which they fish and was sure, with that much time on the lake, they might be the team to beat. Unfortunately, my “day job” required that I work on Thursday and Friday, instead of pre-fishing with my Wisconsin colleagues. It was killing me that they were out on the ice while I had to work, however, having my friends’ laughter in our house and knowing they would be sampling some of the fine Iowa fishing I am lucky to enjoy had my rollercoaster at a tremendous high.
Saturday rolled around and my chance to pre-fish had arrived! I was charged up after Aaron & Jeff’s previous nights’ supper table discussions about seeing many fish and lots of good fish being caught. I met my partner, Mike DeBruin, at the Williams Drive boat ramp at about 7:30 Saturday morning and, after a brief strategy talk, we headed out to the ice. We immediately set to work drilling holes across the basin of the lake looking for suspended marks on our Vexilars. These suspended marks would almost definitely be crappies, one of the two species that we were targeting. In previous years of this event, most teams had all five of their bluegills, but only a handful of teams had a full limit of five bluegills and five crappies. Figuring the crappies were going to be the more difficult of the two to limit on, we immediately set to work finding them. It didn’t take us long to realize, however, that the crappies were not in their usual mid-winter locations suspended in the main lake basin that contains the Big Creek channel. Realizing this, we turned our attention towards the numerous brush piles planted in the lake over the years. We hit three or four of our favorites, finding fish in some and finding others completely vacant. We caught bluegills, but the bite was far from hot and heavy. To make matters worse, the bluegills we caught were definitely not the caliber we knew we needed to do well in the tournament. Lunch time came & went and Mike and I were still on the hunt. My rollercoaster was definitely in a downhill coast by now.
Late in the afternoon, we checked out a hot tip we received about a brush pile that was loaded with crappies. Mike and I fished it a bit in the waning hours of the afternoon and never hooked a single fish. Our Vexilars and camera confirmed, however, that there were definitely crappies in, and on, that particular brush pile. With that information in hand, we were content with not catching any of the crappies we saw. We hoped to leave them fresh for the tournament and, if they were still there in the morning, fill our limit with them quickly. We knew from the lunchtime talk that very few teams were finding crappies; we had a good bet for crappies, so we felt if we could be one of the few teams to catch them, we should do really well. While my ‘coaster wasn’t heading uphill yet, things had definitely leveled out.
With the crappies at least located, we still needed to find some good bluegills. Mike and I decided to split up in order to make the most of the hour of daylight we had left. Unfortunately, all I managed to catch was small white bass, but as the sun began to set, I started getting text messages from Mike letting me know he had found the bluegills we needed. My ‘coaster was beginning to pick up steam!
It was in a few short minutes after the text from my tournament partner that I received a text message from Recycled Fish Executive Director, Teeg Stouffer, that would derail my ‘coaster and set the tone for the rest of the event.
“Pray for Jim. He just went through the ice.”
My mind raced to think of a Jim that was registered to fish in the event. I hadn’t seen anyone go through on Big Creek that day, but maybe I had missed it.
I was floored. Jim was a fellow Ice Team Pro, as well as a good friend and mentor. Jim was one of the best guides on Lake Superior and knew the waters of The Apostle Islands and Chequamegon Bay like the back of his hand. How could this have happened? Jim had opened many doors for me and helped me get a foothold in the ice fishing industry. I considered him a brother. I managed to compose myself long enough to text if he was okay, but wasn’t really sure I wanted to know the answer. Teeg soon texted back that he’d been airlifted to Duluth.
I rounded up Mike, broke the news to him, and we made our way back to our trucks and proceeded to load up. We had dinner plans with the Recycled Fish crew and were already late, but I was so numb it seemed like it took forever to get loaded. From that point on, I don’t really remember a whole lot…I remember ordering something at Bennigan’s when we met the rest of the crew, nervously checking my phone every few minutes for updates, and scanning Facebook for any recent updates from Jim’s wife, Hannah, or any of my other ice fishing family.
Shortly before the rules meeting, messages started to appear that Jim had lost his battle and, despite their best efforts to resuscitate him, he was no longer with us. I was devastated.
My rollercoaster had just come of the tracks.
We started the rules meeting with a prayer for Jim. Somehow, despite all that was going on, I managed to work through the numbness and focused on the task at hand. With the rules meeting over, it was time for a tear-soaked drive home to get some sleep and get up the next morning to catch our limit of fish. It was how Jim would have wanted it.
We checked in for the tournament the next morning as freezing rain pelted our Ice Armor. How appropriate. Mike and I decided to go after our crappies first. We had a pretty good starting position and were hoping that no one in front of us would be onto our crappie spot. We were very relieved when we stopped at our spot and the rest of the field either went right by us or headed south instead. At 8 a.m. the horn blew and we dropped our lines in. I caught our first fish on that first drop, and it was a dandy ¾ pound crappie! Even despite the tragedy we had just experienced, I managed a smile. Within 15 minutes we had all 5 crappies, and soon began catching bluegills in the same spot. I was very encouraged that we had caught crappies so easily. If we were the only ones on the lake that had found them, we would be in GREAT shape. Within an hour we had our “five & five” and began to switch our focus towards maximizing the weight of our limit. We continued to fish that spot and upgraded a crappie or bluegill occasionally, however, as time wore on the bite began to slow. Not completely happy with a couple of our crappies, and several of our bluegills, we decided to move to the bluegill spot Mike had found the day before at the 11th hour...and proceeded to catch NICE bluegills, quickly upgrading several of our smaller ones.
Time was starting to get short, and there was still one spot we wanted to try we caught a couple of very nice bluegills during pre-fishing. There wasn’t much there for quantity, but the quality had definitely made up for it. We moved to that spot, but didn’t end up staying long. There definitely wasn’t much fish activity, so we returned to our first spot of the day to see if we could still upgrade a few crappies. It was a good call. I got the scale out and began sorting our fish to determine exactly which five bluegills and five crappies we were going to weigh. Based on that, I knew our total weight was going to be right around 5.5 pounds. The winning weight of the previous edition had been just a hair over 5 pounds, so I thought our chances would be very good with a 5.5 pound limit.
Although it was moving very slowly, my rollercoaster was back on the tracks.
It became obvious at the weigh-in that the crappies had turned on for just about everyone with a winning weight over seven pounds! Fortunately, that weight belonged to my
good friends from Wisconsin, so I was really glad to see that their three days of hard work and long distance travel had paid off. Our weight came in at exactly 5.5 pounds,
which put us right in the middle of a cluster of teams that weighed between 5 and 6 pounds. Good enough for 8th place. I was a little disappointed with our finish, especially after thinking that we could be the only team to find crappies. Truthfully, any team in the top 10 was within one good fish of winning the event. Overall, I felt good about it. We left it all out on the ice, we developed a game plan and stuck with it, and persevered through tragedy when it would have just been easier to stay home, curl up in a little ball, and cry.
The next Sunday Jim was laid to rest. Teeg, Mike Riley (my NAIFC partner) and I drove to Bayfield, Wisconsin, for the beautiful tribute to Jim’s life. I had always wanted to go back up there sometime to fish lake trout with Jim again, but never dreamed my next trip to Bayfield would be for his funeral
As for my roller coaster, it’s had a few dips and a few rises, but it mostly keeps trucking right along these days. Jim leaves some big shoes to be filled and will truly be missed, so this one’s for you, Jimmy!
Photo from Outdoor News - www.outdoornews.com/January-2013/Wisconsin-guide-Hudson-remembered-for-love-of-outdoors/
Rod Woten is a member of the Bass Pro Shops Altoona Local Pro Staff. Questions or comments? Post them here or find us on Facebook at facebook.com/bpsaltoona or on Twitter at @bpsaltoona!