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Sunday, December 31, 2017

last fish

The last fish of the year, it was too cold to pick up for a better photo...

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Personal lure selection

Very rarely in life do we really come up with an idea that is truly our own. The idea that we can use public data that no one knows about and create a lure selection tailor made specifically for the exact spot that we fish is the closest I've come I guess. Just about every stream in the United States big enough to be of interest to fishermen has been sampled by the EPA. Large creeks and all rivers have been surveyed at multiple points along their length. I know here in Ohio our rivers probably average having been electrofished by the EPA at roughly a four mile interval along their length. What this means is that you can get a snapshot of what lives in not just your river but what lives in the section of river you fish in. And trust me I've been looking at these things for a while now and they can vary wildly, even in the same watershed. The river might have ten darter species in a headwater section with the majority of those being of one or two species in particular while in another section there are literaly thousands of central stonerollers and then in the lower river there may be more shad than anything else. And sections just a few miles apart can vary as well. And quite often the species makeup in the tribs is nothing like that in the main river. For instance here are a couple examples.



So lets say you have looked up your favorite stream and have found a couple fish you want to base your lure selection on, what's the next step? Well then you go to one of a couple of really cool websites. You google either "WI fish ID" or "Species Guide Index ODNR" or preferably both. I won't give you the exact web addresses because as soon as I do they will surely change but if you google those phrases the appropriate site will be the first thing that pops up. I know one site has already changed a couple times even though it still has the same information. One site is managed by the University of Wisconsin and the other by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources and they both give you roughly the same information but in different key ways. For example if you look up spotfin shiner on the WI fish ID site it will give you multiple photos of a spotfin from different angles and explain the differences in appearance in adults and subadults and breeding fish. The ODNR site has one photo that is not nearly as nice but it gives you more detailed information including the most important thing of all, how the fish uses the habitat. If your baitfish is a riffle species instead of a pool species or vice versa it is very important to know that. Armed with the information from both sites you can choose lures that closely resemble the most abundant forage in your stream AND fish each of these lures where and how they will appear naturally. Our spotfin shiner is a dead ringer for a slightly larger flatter lure like a usb swimbait fished higher in the water column on a slightly weighted swmbait hook while something like a channel darter would be better imitated by a rounder lure like a ribeye or grub fished on the bottom on a lead jighead. So not only can you fish lures that look like the predominate baitfish in your river section you can fish different lures depending on whether or not you are fishing wood or rock or riffle or pool. With a bit of research you can have the absolute best lure selection for your particular stream that has ever existed! Yeah, the whole concept gets me a little excited. And this can even be applied to favorite lures you already use. Like to use a topwater? Then use topwaters that mimic the chub and shiner species in your streams that spend the majority of their time high in the water column picking things off the surface. Like minnow plugs? There are a million different lure profiles and color combinations available now that let you fish them anywhere in the water column and imitate nearly anything. And the king of baitfish imitating lures are soft plastics with every size shape and color combination you can think of. For example just in the Vic Coomer line you can fish flatter profile curly shads in different sizes and colors to imitate dozens of different minnows, shad, chubs and shiners, There are USB swimbaits that perfectly imitate different shiner species and grubs, curly swims, and ribeyes that will match every other round bodied darter and minnow species in the river.
I think both the WI Fish ID site and the ODNR site pretty much cover the complete variety of baitfish you will find in any of the streams that hold smallmouth bass in the eastern United States. The problem in some states is getting your hands on the electrofishing data. It is out there but sometimes it takes real detective work to find it. The way each state stores and presents their data is up to that states individual EPA. For example here in Ohio it is extremely easy to find. You google "water quality and biological reports index" and you will get a page that lists every report for every stream. Just scroll down and find the one you want and click on it. The true gold is not normally in the report itself but in the appendices to each report there is where typically is listed the electroshock data for each specific sampling location. Some other states make it virtually impossible to find their data without knowing exactly where to look. Probably your best bet there is to google your states individual EPA and find someone there you can call or email. Another option if you are stuck is to google "wadeable streams assessment epa" and download the pdf. It lists who is in charge of each region of the United States for the EPA on the federal level and their contact information. This also makes for some heavily weighted namedropping with your state EPA. "Well, Harvey Brown that heads the Eastern Highlands Region said I should contact YOU and YOU would help me."
If this all sounds like too much trouble (it's worth it), there are a few general rules you can go by that will still improve your lure selection for your particular stream. Most pool species are flatter in profile and lighter in color leaning heavily towards the shiney and silvery hues. Pool species are also often much higher in the water column on average than riffle species. Riffle species are generally a bit smaller and more rounded in profile. They tend to be darker in color but often have brighter wild colors mixed in. Google darters, madtoms, and sculpins to get an idea of their general appearance. Riffle species usually stay tight to the bottom to avoid the heavy current of the riffle. Riffles are also full of dark or brownish arthropods like hellgrammites, dragonfly larvae and crayfish that smallmouth feed on as well.
"The Stream Fishes of OHio Field Guide" is available online as a pdf that you scroll down and get a quick overview of the various stream fishes, their habits and their appearance and is very useful for getting a general feel for what small stream fish look and act like. If you, like me, live and fish in Ohio, a great book to own is "A guide to Ohio Streams" put out by the Ohio Chapter of the American Fisheries Society. It's full of information on how the food chain in the river works as well as a wealth of information on every watershed in the state as well.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

crayfish

Lately I've been studying crayfish. What a weird little creature they are if you take the time to really look and learn about them. Here's a bit of what I've learned...
Crayfish are part of the largest grouping of animals on earth called arthropods. Arthropods have hard exoskeletons and include insects, arachnids and crustaceans. Crayfish are crustaceans and differ from insects in that they breathe with gills and have two pairs of antennae. Crustaceans are also the yummy group and include stuff we love to eat like lobsters, crabs and shrimp. And well, crayfish. If you haven't ever eaten crayfish but like the other stuff on that list your missing out, they are delicious. And as every fisherman worth the name knows, the fish think they are delicious also. So here's more than you ever wanted to know about crayfish:
Back to those antennae, crawfish have a long pair and a short pair. The long whiplike pair help the crawdad keep track of what's going on ahead and behind it while the shorter stubby ones are for close in work. From everything I've read they are like a poor man's version of catfish whiskers in that they are sensitive to both touch and smell. Crayfish also have compound eyes on the ends of little stalks.
I'm not sure exactly how clear a crayfish sees it's world but compound eyes detect movement extremely well. The eyes mounted on stalks are called pedicles. If you watch a live crayfish, you can see the eyes move independently of each other. Instead of ears crawdads have thousands of tiny sensory bristles that can sense vibrations. The "brain" of a crayfish is just a mass of nerve ganglion just in front of and above the esophagus. I'm pretty sure most crayfish behavior is instinctive and they aren't exactly rocket scientists.
A crayfish has four pair of walking legs. The small appendages along the underside of the abdomen are the swimmerets. These help the gills circulate water through the body, so the crayfish can breath. And if you ever want to, you look at the first pair to determine the sex of a crayfish. (don't ask me, you might want to...) In boy crawdads, this first pair is used to deposit sperm into the oviducts of the female. They are larger and harder than the others. In girl crawfish, all the swimmerets are soft and used to carry the fertilized eggs and newly hatched young. Crayfish have 3 sets of tiny appendages around their mouth called maxillipeds. These appendages help the crayfish manipulate food.
All in all crayfish have 38 pair of appendages! Of course the ones we are all familiar with is that first pair with the big pincers on them. These are used to gather food and defend the crayfish from predators like fish. And don't think they don't use them to defend themselves, just let a big one you catch out of the river sometime latch on to you and you will change your tune. In fact studies have shown that smallmouth bass over and over again select crayfish with smaller claws if given choice. The old river rat trick of pinching the claws off crawdads you use for bait really does up you catch rate.
Along with claw size, studies show smallmouth bass select crayfish by body size also. The interesting part is that the biggest smallmouth bass, the trophy fish are the most selective by size. They consistently choose a crayfish about an inch and a quarter long if given a choice. I wonder if, given a smallmouth's long lifespan, that a ten or twelve year old bass has just learned by experience that those big craws can be bad news. Those big lobsters you sometimes see are shovelhead bait not bass bait unless the fish is really hungry. And even then the bass is going to suck that big craw in and blow it out several times trying to kill it, making it harder to hook on a bigger crayfish imitation too. If it's claws can't defend it, the crawfish's other option is to flee. This it will do by a sudden flip of its tail which will cause it to jet backwards a foot or so amazingly fast.
In the Midwest most crayfish mate in the fall. (don't ask me how, don't know, don't wanna know)
Then in spring the female will lay eggs which she glues to the swimmerets on her abdomen. These then hatch in 5 to 8 weeks into tiny crayfish which hang on another week or two before dropping off to fend for themselves. And along the way feed nearly everything in the river it seems. Everything from minnows like larger darters and chubs to dragonfly and hellgrammite larvae. There are some you tube videos of dragonfly nymphs eating little crayfish out there that are right out of a horror movie.
But crayfish are omnivores and get their revenge if they are lucky enough to grow up. Along with a bunch of vegetable matter they will chomp on pretty much anything that's small enough to kill with those pincers including things like small minnows. And as anyone who has went after crayfish with a minnow trap will tell you, dog food is a classic crawdad bait. Like I said an omnivore.
Crayfish undergo periodic moults, shedding the hard exoskeleton in order to grow larger, and then forming a new shell. During this time they are in fishing lingo, "soft craws" and extremely vulnerable to predators. And fish know this and moulting crayfish are just about the best live bait you can use. But don't discount using "hard craws" that are not moulting. Just remember what I said earlier about bigger bass preferring a small crayfish in the inch and a quarter range. Another interesting tidbit is that a crayfish can regenerate a claw if it loses it battling a fish or I dunno, a bigger crayfish. Over the course of two or three moults the claw will grow back. Which reminds me that when catching crabs in South Carolina it was illegal to keep the huge but somewhat rare stone crab. But you could keep one of the huge claws of this overgrown relative of the crawdad since it too would regenerate. (And one stone crab claw had more meat that a couple whole blue crabs.)
Speaking of eating crayfish, they aren't just for smallmouth. Besides smallmouth, channel and flathead catfish, walleye, saugeye, carp, trout, largemouth bass, freshwater drum and I'm sure a host of other fish eat crayfish. And of course people eat crayfish. My personal favorite way is grilled smothered in garlic butter and Cajun seasoning. But of course crayfish are famous as smallmouth food. And with good reason, a 12 inch smallmouth bass in late summer fills up to 70% of its diet with crayfish. Larger bass eat a lot of baitfish but they still eat a bunch of crayfish too. BTW don't ever, even on a drunken dare for a hundred bucks eat a live crawfish (or a raw dead one). A big percentage of crayfish are infected with a parasitic flatworm called a lungworm. After you scarf down the crawfish, the parasite comes out and burrows through the walls of the intestine, hoping to make it to the lungs where they can complete their life cycle and mature. Once in the lungs they form nodules that mature and grow. But sometimes they don't make it and get lost on the way to the lungs and they can end up in other organs, even in your brain. Yeah, YUK.
There are approximately 600 species in the world. Of those something like 350 live in North America. Which I'm guessing is more than the number of people who could tell them all apart.
Btw an Astacologist is someone who studies crayfish. And if you think the crawdads in grandpas pond are huge, the world's largest crayfish lives in Tasmania and can sometimes grow up to ten pounds! These giant crayfish can live up to 40 years too! Google Astacopsis gouldii, which is their latin name if you want to see some amazing photos. There are also colorless blind crayfish that have evolved to live in caves. According to ODNR there are twenty species of crayfish in Ohio.
If you keep crayfish for an extended period of time before using them as bait they will stay alive for a long time if you remember a couple things. First and foremost don't keep them in a bucket half filled with water unless it is aerated. But they don't need to be in aerated water if you keep them in something like a cooler with just a tiny bit of water in the bottom and something like grass that they can crawl up on. You see if they can keep their gills moist they can breathe air also. And try to keep the same size crayfish together, the big guys will definitely kill the little guys.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Fishing tackle show this weekend

I'll have some things set up at the fishing tackle show this Sat at the Towne Mall in Middletown. The show runs from 10 to 4 and I'm hearing there is like twice as much tackle as at the last one so it should be pretty cool. I'll also be giving a talk on smallmouth fishing at noon. The weather is going to be cold and nasty, ya might as well stop by and talk fishing with me....

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

a pretty pair of 18's

From the looks of the weather forecast I figured tonight was probably the best smallmouth fishing I'd get for awhile. More saugeye and stripey fish weather coming up for a while anyways. It's not that they cannot be caught when it's winter, you just are going to do much better fishing the tail end of a three or four day warming trend like we've been having rather than fishing the first few days of a cold period. Sure enough you could just feel the temperature drop minute by minute this evening. But last nights warm rain still had a couple quality smallmouth willing to bite. Same drill as the day before, a pearl ribeye swimbait on a 1/16th ounce jighead fished as slow as I could fish it on light line. Same location as well, right on the very edge of the hole, fairly shallow but out of the current.

Monday, December 4, 2017

magic

I love watching Timmy Horton Outdoors. He will be fighting this bass and the rods bent double and he will finally get it up where he can see it and he will say in this excited almost half whisper, " oh, oh, oh, he's a giant!"
Well tonight walking back to the truck in the dark and reliving the previous hour in my head I realized I'd done that exact same thing. The fish had come up and kind of wallowed on top shaking it's head and I'd said to the trees I guess since no one else was around... " oh, oh, oh, he's a giant!"
All pumped up after seeing all of Erik Watson's photos of the hawgs he had caught the day before I'd decided to take the long walk back to one of my most favorite fall and winter spots. The problem was I got off work at 3:30 had to drive 30 minutes and then walk back there. I'd have at most an hour or hour and a half till dark.
I fished a pearl ribeye swimbait on a light 1/16th ounce jighead so I could work it really slow. I only caught two fish but oh my goodness what beautiful two fish. It was truly just about the most magical moment of the entire year. Two smallmouth that together totaled almost forty inches on six pound test in December. I'll remember this hour of fishing till the day I die.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

A bit of fishing and hunting...


I still had a tag I could use on a doe so I decided to spend one last long weekend in the deer woods. Such odd weather and hard to dress for, freezing cold at night then warm by afternoon. About nine thirty down the hill I could see the body of a deer making a beeline right for the deer feeder. Please please please be a doe. Though I was afraid it wasn't since it was walking steady. Which is more like something a buck would do. Sure enough it was a pretty nice eight pointer, almost a twin to the one I'd harvested a couple weeks ago. He walked right up to about 15 feet away and then stopped. You could almost see the look of shock on his face as he stared up into the tree. He walked sideways a few feet staring hard the whole time then just froze and the big stare down began. The deer feeder was really too close to the tree for the muzzleloader but it had worked out great for bowhunting. Finally he actually stepped backwards two or three steps then turned and walked back the way he came, tail up nervous as all heck. A check of the trail camera showed only the buck visiting the feeder the last couple weeks and two more sits up the tree confirmed this so with a buck and a doe already in the freezer I decided to fish the last day and a half of my long weekend.
First up was a dam on the Ohio. Like seemingly everyone else that is fishing a dam on the Ohio right now I was soon completely covered up in saugers. Unfortunately all of them small. They made up for their lack of size with numbers though and I soon lost track of how many hit my pearl ribeye swimbait. Right at dark a couple pretty nice hybrids hit the swimbait as well which made me very happy. Then I felt something and set the hook into something very very heavy. I'd snagged a huge paddlefish. One hundred miles upstream from where I'd caught the other paddlefish this fall. This guy was huge though. I had a really hard time holding it up and controlling it to try and take a photo which is why I have such lousy ones of the fish. Not wanting to keep it out of the water too long I finally decided those would have to do and let the fish go. Then it was back to never ending saugers till it got a bit too cold. Back to deer camp and a roaring fire. It was dead calm and with the fire baking me I leaned back and looked at the huge full moon thru the binoculars. What a magnificent sight. If you have never tried it you are missing out.
The next morning the sun rose on me at the mouth of a pretty good sized trib to the Ohio much closer to home. But not much was going on and I managed only one small bass before finally calling it quits.
That afternoon found me joining Rob on an exploratory trip to a pipe that was pouring warm water out into the river. The photo of the bridge I took about five minutes before the plants security officer pulled up and ran us off. Sigh...it all looked so good too.
All in all a pretty swell weekend in the woods.