By Rod Woten, Bass Pro Shops Altoona Pro Staff Ice Fisherman
On the morning of December 21, 2013, 78 of the best ice fishing teams in North America launched from Johnson’s Portside in Wahkon, Minnesota, to begin competition in the 2013 version of the two-day North American Ice Fishing Circuit’s National Championships on legendary Mille Lacs Lake. For the 5th year in a row, my partner, Mike Riley, and I were fortunate enough to be among those 78 teams. To effectively tell this story, though, I have to back up a couple of days.
War of Attrition
Ice fishing season got off to a good start on Mille Lacs this year. Favorable conditions meant that the lake had fishable ice well ahead of last year. Things were looking very positive with two weeks to go until the championships. The only thing that might screw up the whole deal was to get a significant amount of snow on the relatively young ice. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what they got. The problem with snow on ice is that it effectively slows down the growth rate of the ice to a near standstill. If there is a relatively thin layer of ice, as there was in this case, the added weight of the snow will actually cause the ice sheet to sink and force lake water up through every available crack and hole in the ice. These are exactly the conditions that greeted us Thursday morning as we arrived to pre-fish. This water forced between the layer of ice below and the layer of snow above created slush pockets that were stopping ATVs in their tracks and even causing snowmobiles to bog down or gets stuck in a few instances. These were certainly the most brutal conditions I had ever seen. To complicate matters, some areas of the ice had frozen into very jagged pack ice, which was hidden below the layer of snow, but very evident once you tried to drive a snowmobile or ATV over it. All of these factors conspired to render useless the ATVs that most of the teams brought. Machines were constantly getting stuck, and the ones that weren’t getting stuck were suffering breakages of one sort or another due to the rough ice. I have never seen such a desolate scene of broken, stuck or iced up machines, broken equipment, and exhausted bodies staggering through the snow. As pre-fishing and the tournament commenced, conditions did improve, but only marginally. We were definitely not immune to the carnage either. Luckily, with my snowmobile, I was never stuck; but, the number of times we had to tow Mike’s ATV out of the slush with it sure made up for that fact. Once the slush was caked into the frame of the ATVs, it was there to stay! Overnight the slush would freeze hard on the machines, which rendered as many machines useless as breakages on the ice did. We actually had to forego a half-day of pre fishing on Friday, so that we could get Mike’s ATV into a local car wash and spend $20 to power wash the iceberg that had been forming within its frame.
Insult to Injury
To add insult to injury, the monster panfish that had ruled last year’s championships just were not to be found within tournament boundaries this year. To put it all in perspective for you, the winning weight for 2012 was near 25 pounds! Sadly, the winning weight for the 2013 version wouldn’t even crack the 10 pound mark. We did manage to weigh three fish of our 16 fish limit (eight crappies and eight bluegills) the first day for a whopping weight of 0.55 pounds. While this weight seems pretty pathetic (which it is, in all reality), it’s still better than 35 teams in the field that failed to weigh a single fish on day one! It was also enough weight to bump us from or 52nd place starting position to 32nd.
For day two, we would be trying to catch a limit of eight crappies and eight perch. During pre-fishing, we had managed to pattern some decent perch outside of the tournament boundaries. These perch were definitely not your typical Mille Lacs jumbos, but were considerably larger than any of the perch we had caught last year during the championships. I was pretty confident that I could pinpoint some structure WITHIN tournament boundaries and apply the same pattern when it was needed. Crappies were going to be a different story, as we were already well aware of their scarcity from pre-fishing. We spent a couple of hours at the start of day two fishing for our crappies, but not seeing any, Mike and I decided to talk things over and re-strategize. So many teams were bound-and-determined that they needed some of those two-pound crappies to win it, so that’s where they focused ALL of their attention. Many didn’t even get a chance to go after their perch, since they were so hung up on visions of a bucket of giant crappies. Knowing what we knew about the improved perch populations, it didn’t take Mike and me long to decide that it was time to go perch fishing. We went to a spot similar to our pre-fishing spot and immediately began catching good perch…some of them approaching a half pound. We ended up catching so many perch that we finally decided that we had caught the biggest perch we were going to and that we should use our remaining time to go back and see if we could add a crappie or two to our buckets.
We didn’t end up catching any crappies that day, but our limit of perch weighed 2.51 pounds which was good enough for 10th place on day two, and bumped us up another 14 places to land in 18th overall. We had hoped to improve on last year’s 11th place, but, based on the conditions and the fact that we didn’t catch a single crappie on day two, we actually felt pretty good with 18th place. There were many really good teams that finished well behind us, including last year’s champions. A lot of that, I feel, is due to us making a good decision at the right time to go after our perch. Many of the top teams from last year that finished well down in the standings this year never even had a chance to perch fish. Truth be told, I doubt that many of them even really took the perch fishing seriously and failed to put any time pre-fishing for them. If they had, I’m pretty sure they would have discovered those bigger perch this year and made sure to reserve some time to catch eight for their bucket.
Next up for Rod - Yellow Bass Bonanza on Clear Lake February 9!