Thursday, April 30, 2015

2015 ice-out near for many NW Ontario lakes

Summer-like temperatures and bluebird days are putting the ice-melting on area lakes into hyperdrive. Many could be clear in just days.
Brenda and Laurie Marcil from NOTO are traveling throughout the Northwest right now as they attend spring functions for various camp operator associations. Brenda is president of NOTO and Laurie is executive-director. NOTO or Nature and Outdoor Tourism Ontario, is the provincial organization that represents all outdoor tourism businesses. The majority of those, like Bow Narrows Camp, are in the fishing and hunting business.
Brenda reported from Kenora last night that all the small lakes along the road between Thunder Bay and Kenora are ice-free. Thunder Lake at Dryden, one of the last places to melt in that area, was clear around the shorelines and the remaining ice looked sick.
I've heard that a lot of Lake of the Woods is already clear.
In Red Lake, I heard from a friend that McNeely Bay, a shallow bay near the highway by Balmertown, could be clear in just a couple of days. There is open water around the edge of the channel between Cochenour and McKenzie Island. The little lake near Tim Horton's became clear of ice last weekend. That lake is one of the guides many people use to predict when Red Lake will clear. Most people think the big lake will follow suit about 10-14 days later. So that would make Red Lake ice-out between May 6 and May 10.
Brenda and Laurie will be at the Red Lake Sportsmen's Dinner on Saturday and will file a report on what I consider the best predictor of all, Skookum Bay. This long, shallow bay that crosses Forestry Road is virtually always seven days ahead of the rest of the lake.
Everybody agrees that all it would take for the remaining ice to be history would be a big wind to send it crashing into the shore.
The last place to melt on Red Lake is Howey Bay, right where the town is located. This is a deep bay that has an ice-road to Cochenour cleared on it in the winter and that lets the ice get exceptionally thick. A high ridge also shelters the bay from the prevailing west wind so often the ice there has to just melt, not be broken up mechanically through grinding of ice sheets or against the shore.
The clearing of Howey Bay, however, is what most people consider the official ice-out date for the year.
All areas are reporting dry conditions in the bush and already the forest fire danger is high. That's not unusual. The time between snow-melt and green-up is one of the times of year when fire-fighting crews of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forests are on high-alert. It really complicates matters if there is still ice on the lakes since it prevents water bombers from refilling their tanks without needing to fly long distances to a river or some other water body that is ice-free.
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Saturday, April 25, 2015

Knockout punch is coming for Red Lake's ice

We just finished a cold week here in Northwestern Ontario but luckily areas on the west and south of the region, such as Red Lake, Kenora, Fort Frances, Dryden and Thunder Bay, got mostly rain and only a dusting of snow. Northern and eastern areas were not so fortunate. Places like Big Trout Lake and Pickle Lake were buried in up to 60 cm (two feet). Ouch!
But that is all history now. The stalled low pressure weather system that brought this unseasonal weather has now finally moved off and there is nothing but good times in sight.
Weather forecasters are predicting highs in the teens C (50-60 F) for the next two weeks. Also, in just a couple of days from now, overnight lows are not supposed to go below freezing. And bright sunshine is forecast almost every day.
This should absolutely ruin the remaining ice on area lakes. That ice is only a foot or so in thickness or about one-third of what it was last winter. So there isn't much left to melt.
The lack of fresh snow means the ice will quickly turn black and absorb the sun's heat.
Incidentally, the length of daylight here is now about 16 hours. It starts getting light at 6 a.m. and is still light until 10 p.m.
I think we are still on track for the 2015 ice-out to occur the first week of May for most Northwestern Ontario lakes and around May 8 for Red Lake which is deeper than other lakes. A factor that could hasten the process is wind. No strong winds are currently in the forecast but if any do appear, they will multiply the ice destruction force, particularly toward the end. Once the ice has melted around the edges of a lake, a strong wind can make the entire sheet start to move. The momentum of the ice sheet is incredible and will smash the remaining ice against the shore. It is possible for a lake, even big ones like Red Lake, to see its entire surface clear in just a day or two under such circumstances.
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Thursday, April 23, 2015

Mystery solved on "Zero Hour Bomb Co." reel

Advertisement that Mike found
No sooner did I ask readers if they knew anything about the old Zebco reel hanging in our dining room than Mike Miller sent me an e-mail. Mike is actually our closest neighbour at camp. He has the cabin that is "hidden" in the trees right across the narrows.
The reel is the Model 22, manufactured in 1953 by the Zero Hour Bomb Company which later changed its name to Zebco.
 Model 22 with thumbing brake
It was actually the second model the company produced. The first was called the Standard and looked very similar.
The Zero Hour Bomb Company started in Tulsa, OK, in 1932. It made electric bombs used in oil drilling. In 1947 a Texas watchmaker named R.D. Hull invented the world's first fishing reel guaranteed not to backlash and took his idea to Zero Hour. The first spincast reel rolled off the assembly line in 1949. The first Zebco 33, with the push-button back used today, appeared in 1954.
The company changed its name to Zebco in 1956 after a friend of President Dwight Eisenhower sent him a reel and White House security threw the parcel into a tub of water when they saw it came from Zero Hour Bomb Company.
The company came out with a redesigned Model 33 in 2004 to celebrate the reel's 50th anniversary and an all-new design for its 60th anniversary in 2014.
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Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Things with a history in our dining room

Our dining room at camp is a treasure trove of fishing and hunting history. Take the photo above. That old chair is actually a relic of the 1926 Red Lake Gold Rush. It is made of planed lumber and held together with clinched nails.
Sitting on the chair is a hand-carved mallard decoy that came to us from my great-Uncle Bill's camp -- Rainbow Lodge on Pickerel River. It and other old decoys on display would have been used in the 1920s and '30s in the Georgian Bay area.
Finally, the three grey boxes are our shore lunch boxes that we give to guests when they cook their fish for lunch out on the rocks. They are packed fresh each time with all the ingredients and utensils needed for the feast. They might seem new by comparison but are actually over 50 years old. This is our 54th year of operation.
Not pictured but hung on all the walls are old steel fishing rods and fishing reels that we all used at one time. There are some real relics including a Zebco that has a rotary dial where the thumb push-button is these days. This reel doesn't have a drag. You played the fish by putting pressure against the rotary dial which I would guess is made of Bakelite. To cast the reel there was a tiny push button on the top that engaged a free-spool. You held pressure on the rotary dial with your thumb until your rod was in the right position, then released the dial. It was sort of like using a baitcaster.
I've never seen another like it and would be interested in knowing when it was made. Anybody know? Unfortunately I don't have a photo handy.
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Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Don't leave home without these this year

Outdoors card, side-cutters, bandages, blue Deepwoods Off. And yes, that is snow this morning.
Bring your Outdoors Card!
Even if it is expired!
Say what?
Yes, even if it is expired!
We have so many people come to camp without their Outdoors Cards it is incredible, perhaps as many as half.
So what?
If you have an Outdoors Card -- even an expired one -- it means you can get your fishing licence in no time flat. We just run the card through a machine, select the licence you wish, and press the button.
If you don't bring it, then you are the person that holds up your entire group from going fishing! That is because now the licence issuer has to key-in all the data all over again. You know -- height, colour of hair and eyes, birth date, etc., etc.
If your card is expired, then the licence machine just prints you out a temporary one along with your licence. The plastic wallet-size card will come later in the mail.
And another reason to bring your card -- it costs $9.
Besides the oft-forgotten Outdoors Card, make sure you bring a set of sturdy side-cutters, another item missing from most tackle boxes. What are these for? Mostly, they are for cutting the split ring that fasten those tiny, incredibly-sharp, treble hooks on your Rapala fishing lures. You need to do this whenever one of those hooks are sunk beyond the barb into your hide.
 Remember, cut the split ring, not the hook itself, because if you make the mistake of cutting the hook, it will slip right inside your flesh. If you come back to camp with a whole treble hook dangling from you, we can remove it, quite painlessly, in about 30 seconds. If you cut the hook and it disappears into flesh, you are looking at a trip to the doctor, possibly in some distant place like Kenora where there are surgeons. Big mistake!
Are you on blood thinners? Lots of us are these days. Then make sure you bring a Ziploc-full of BandAids and a tube of ointment and put these in the bottom of your tackle box. And if you aren't on blood thinners, do the same thing. Along with the nicks and fish-tooth punctures that come from catching a lot of fish, these will come in handy for torn fingernails, minor burns and the like.
Finally, unless a miracle happens, there are going to be some bugs out there. The type of bug varies a bit with the month: May and June -- blackflies; June, July and August -- mosquitoes; July and August -- ankle biters (stable flies); September -- blackflies.
Although there are a myriad of insect repellents out there, if you bring just this one it will work for everything -- blue-top Deep Woods Sportsman Off. I repeat, BLUE Deep Woods Off. Not the green one; it will not work on ankle biters. The difference is the amount of DEET. The blue-top Off has 30%. Anything less than this is just a flavouring for when the flies bite you. ("Mmm, nice and spicy!")
If you want a longer-lasting repellent (the Deep Woods spray may only last a couple of hours on ankle-biters) bring Repel Sportsman Max which comes in a lotion form and is also 40% DEET.
It will keep the ankle-biters away all day when you wear shorts and sandals!
Do you still need reminded to bring your passport? I didn't think so.
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Saturday, April 18, 2015

Ice-out for Red Lake likely first week of May

What a difference a week makes!
We're just finishing up a wonderful week of weather here in Northwestern Ontario with very warm temperatures and strong winds. The result is the snow is gone and the ice on the lakes took a severe beating. Reports from Red Lake are that the ice is black and sick-looking. If the great weather would only hold for one more week the ice might be gone before the end of April. Unfortunately, that scenario isn't exactly in the cards.
Next week is supposed to bring day-time highs in the single digits on the Celsius scale and the nights are supposed to be below freezing. So, the big melt is going to stop for awhile. The week after next, however, is seen to bring a return of the sun and fun and my guess is that there is only a week or two after that before the ice will be finished. That would make it about the first week of May, probably right around May 8 which is the average ice-out date.
The summer-like temperatures of the past week, combined with the strong snow-eating winds, has meant most of the winter moisture went straight into the atmosphere through evaporation rather than sending stream and lake levels soaring. So things are kind of dry.
That should end this coming week. Lots of rain is forecast starting Sunday. Rain is also good for ruining lake ice but with the single-digit highs predicted, there is also a good chance some of that precipitation will turn to snow, at least flurries, but enough to whiten the ice back up. White reflects the sun and retards the melting process. So, overall, I think next week is going to put the melt into a holding pattern.
No matter, everything looks good for an on-time ice-out. After being burned with airplane costs the previous two years, we at Bow Narrows Camp aren't opening this year until the actual second week of the fishing season, May 23. It will be a real pleasure for us to get into camp a week or two before the guests and get everything running and into shape. It is utter misery for us to basically get there the same time as the guests which is what happened the last two years.
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Sunday, April 12, 2015

Unconventional walleye techniques

A loon takes a stretch by a likely-looking walleye spot. Vic Fazekas photo
Right from the start let me say that if you want to catch large numbers of walleye, and almost nothing else, than you should stick to regular walleye fishing methods like back-trolling walleye spinners laced with worms, leeches or minnows, or fish with 1/4 or 1/8 ounce jigs with the same bait attached. That is how the best walleye fishermen do it. But I'm not one of those people. I'm a northern pike fisherman who, while casting the shorelines and weedbeds for my favourite fish, notices a likely walleye spot and with no live bait whatsoever, tries a bit for walleye. And I frequently get some, maybe not as many as the dyed-in-the-wool 'eye anglers, but enough to make it interesting.
I find these fish in places that I strongly suspect normal walleye fishermen never even consider, like weedbeds and lily pads, and I always cast for them, with the same lures I'm using for pike. One of these is the quarter-ounce Beetle Spin which catches the daylights out of northern pike and does pretty darn good on the golden fish as well. It's just that I fish it differently when I think there might be walleyes at hand.
For northern pike, a Beetle Spin, or just a plain quarter-ounce jig with a three-inch or 3.5-inch twister tail should be cast to shore or through a break in the weedbed and reeled steadily back to the boat while letting the lure run about three feet down, at least after it clears the shallows. For walleye I use the exact same rig but usually cast it to a likely-looking spot, let it sink all the way to the bottom, then slowly crank it in, letting it run as deep as possible.
The trick, if there is one, is knowing what is a "likely-looking" spot.
I look for a pile of boulders among the weeds or for a place where the bottom drops off to deeper water, often signaled by the fact there is no weed growth. Sometimes I fish for walleye right in the midst of the weeds but only because I have caught walleye in this place before, probably while fishing for pike.
In the photo above, the water looks like it gets deep pretty close to the weed growth on this little island; so, it would be worth a try.
Usually I just get a walleye or two and move on but sometimes I hit the mother lode and find a cluster of fish in these spots.
I would probably do better on the walleye if I didn't fish with a steel leader but since it's northern pike that I'm really fishing the most for, I always have a leader. However, I usually make my own out of 10-pound-or-so Knot2Kinky wire which is so fine I don't think walleye pay it much attention. I also use small swivels and snap-swivels which don't shout METAL! to keen-eyed walleye.

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Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Now is the time to sharpen your hooks

The weedless Johnson spoon needs its hook honed every day
Everybody is itching for the ice to melt on the lakes and get out there fishing, at least as soon as the season opens. Now is a good time to do something that most anglers never get around to -- sharpening your hooks.
This is especially important on spoons for northern pike. Many of these have cast hooks which aren't sharp even right out of the box. How do you know if your hooks are dull? Well, one clue is when you get strikes but not hook-ups.
The thumbnail test
It is amazing the difference once you have put a fine point on the hooks.
If there is one gizmo that most fishermen don't have, it would be a hook sharpening stone or other honing system.
The simplest is just a small stone but you can also get diamond-surfaced rods, such as the one in the top photo, and even battery-operated systems.
The Johnson Silver Minnow, with a single cast hook, needs honing every day. Other lures, such as the Dardevle probably only need touching up once a week. Of course, if you hook a rock or something like that the hooks will need sharpened again.
Straight hooks are not so good
You know a hook is at its sharpest if its point can catch on your smooth thumbnail. Some, like the Johnson, may never quite get this sharp but treble hooks usually will.
Wire hooks, like those on jigs, are very sharp and stay that way longer than cast hooks.
Another trick to help you with hook-ups on fish when using spoons is to flare the trebles outwards. Did you ever notice how an older lure that has already caught lots of fish works better than a new one? Part of that may be due to the beat-up finish to the lure but another reason is that the hooks naturally get bent outward as you remove them from many fishs' mouths.
Just use needle-nosed pliers to flare the hooks outward a bit. A real handy device for many fishing applications that works here as well is the needle-nosed Vise Grip. You can clamp it on to the shaft of the treble and then use standard pliers to grasp the hook and bent it. Unless you want to have barbless hooks, be careful not to grasp the hook on the barb, because you will flatten it.
Flared hooks are better
I find that flattening the barbs is an excellent idea on plugs like Rapalas that have more than one set of trebles. Fish never seem to get away, even with the barbs pinched. But on lures with one set of trebles and especially on single hooks like a Johnson, you better leave the barb. Otherwise the fish can wriggle off.
Pinching the barbs on plugs not only makes these lures easier to remove from fish, but also from yourself.
Something like 90 per cent of the hooks that we have removed from anglers over the years at camp have been attached to one particular lure maker -- Rapala. These hooks are so needle-sharp and tiny that you can actually drive them through your skin just by picking them up roughly.
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Sunday, April 5, 2015

Scene is set for normal ice-out on Red Lake

This spectacular shot of a loon is by Dave Myers who will be in camp opening week.
In only a month we may be watching loons again on Red Lake. Although the weather has been nippy the last few days, the forecast for the next two weeks looks wonderful with highs in the mid-teens C (50s F). That should take off the remaining snow and seriously damage the 30 inches of ice still on the lake.
We have our fingers crossed.
Ice-out was exceptionally late the previous two springs, coming near May 20. Normally the ice would be off the lake by May 8.
Late breakups are bad for spring fish spawners like walleye and northern pike. They do best with early ice-outs and then lots of warm weather. Getting a late start is also miserable for all fishing camps but especially so for remote ones like ourselves. It means none of the work we needed to do before camp opens gets done. Once fishermen are in camp we all have our hands full until things quiet down again. That often means September or even October.
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Thursday, April 2, 2015

Tricks for when the walleye turn finicky

Bass Pro XPS walleye spinner rig
No sooner does your walleye spinner trolling rig and 1/4-ounce sinker hit the bottom behind the boat than you get a walleye. So does your partner. And not far away, your buddies in another boat both connect to walleye with 1/4-ounce jigs baited with worms or leeches. And it happens again and again, for maybe an hour. Then, as if someone threw a switch, it stops. The feeding frenzy is over.
What happened?
No one really knows, but this is a common scenario: walleye hit like crazy for awhile, and then they stop. They will start again but it might take hours.
What happens to most of us is that we work the area thoroughly with exactly the same tackle, perhaps picking up a couple more fish, before we change locations and look for another frenzy.
Some fishermen, however, don't switch areas, they change how they are fishing. As a general rule, when walleye turn finicky you want to use less metal and fish slower. The fish aren't as aggressive now so you need to cater to their whims.
Instead of trolling with a metal-bladed walleye spinner, you might try just drifting with a Lindy rig that has a small float and hook. And instead of a 1/4-ounce sinker you should probably switch to a split shot. If you were jigging with the 1/4-ounce, switch to a 1/8-ounce, even a 1/16 ounce. Or even better, use a split shot and a floating jig head and just let the floater with a bit of worm or leech rest just off the bottom and wait for a fish to pick it up.
Think of it as the walleyes that were gorging on minnows (and your lures) earlier are now full and lazy, kind of like us after Thanksgiving dinner. They may be lying on the bottom doing the equivalent of watching football games on TV.  However, when someone passes a plate of snacks, well, there's room for a little bit more, just as long as they don't have to chase it.
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