INTERLOCHEN — You’d think that by now, having done what I do for as long as I have, I wouldn’t have all that much more to learn. But every time I go fishing with Doug Smith, I get schooled.
Smith, a 76-year-old retired refrigeration mechanic, is an absolute ice fishing machine.
I recently met up with Smith, his nephew Tim Smith, and a couple of his buddies for an afternoon on a small lake near here. I caught fish. Smith’s nephew and buddies caught fish. But Smith killed ‘em.
And even he can’t tell you why the fish gods smile so broadly upon him.
“I don’t know if I have just the right jiggle or what,” he says with a trademark laugh. “We’re all fishing the same flies, the same line, the same rods. But I don’t stay at one depth for long. I’m up and down. I jig up and jig up all the time, whether that’s the difference, I really don’t know.”
Smith is semi-legendary amongst those who’ve encountered him. He’s devised a system that, just about everyone I know who’s ever fished with him has adopted at least a few elements of.
Smith fishes with monofilament sewing thread for line, a spring bobber, and a long (53 inches) limber rod. Ninety percent of the time, he has a small, simple fly – and no bait – on the end of his line.
Smith’s drill is simple: Lower the bait to the bottom and jig, jig, jig, moving that fly up into the water column, watching that spring bobber until it as much as quivers. Then he sets the hook with a simple lift of the rod tip. He doesn’t miss many.
Smith has been fishing that way for 45 years, he said, something he started doing with his dad, though he’s improved his technique and gear over the long haul. He now makes his own spring bobbers (Got-cha bobbers, which are available at some of Michigan’s bigger sporting goods stores). He ties his own flies, too and he likes them small; what really put him over the edge, he said, was when he started tying his flies with tungsten bead heads instead of lead.
Tungsten is heavier than lead, he explained.
“That way we can use a much smaller fly and we can fish much deeper. You can fish down 25 feet with a No. 14 fly with a tungsten head,” he said.
And if he has to go deeper? He goes all the way up to a No. 12 hook.
That’s all there is to it. He doesn’t bother with a fish finder — like a lot of panfish anglers — because he finds the fish himself by exploring the water column.
Smith’s flies are pretty simple: a wool body, silk wing, and a strand of flashabou in the silk tail.
The long rod, Smith said, helps him cover more of the water column. Starting with the rod tip pointed at the hole, near the water, he jigs it up until the tip is skyward, making a 45 degree with his hand. If he’s standing up, he can cover 10 to 12 feet of the water column, he said.
But he’s not entirely married to the long rod.
“If it’s real windy, a shorter rod’s better,” he said. “You have a little more control.”
Controlling that line is a trick. The so-thin-it’s-nearly-invisible thread flies away in the wind. And it will hang on a shadow. Controlling it takes attention.
And Smith is willing to abandon his flies, if they aren’t working, as well.
“Once in a while they won’t take that fly,” Smith said, acknowledging that his system isn’t always perfect. “That’s why I carry jigs and bait. There are days they don’t really want that fly and why I don’t know.”
On those days he likes a small tungsten tear drop with bait.
“There are days that those jigs and spikes or mousies are pretty hard to beat,” he said. “But flies work 90 percent of the time. There’s very few times we can’t catch them with flies.
“And I’m a firm believer in a clean fly — no bait — for the bigger bluegills.”
Frankly, I don’t think I’ve ever been out with him (and I’ve fished with Smith at least a half dozen times over the course of the last decade) that the fly hasn’t been working. There have been days, when I’ve had trouble getting bit on a bare fly, when I’ve draped a spike on the fly hook, and it’s increased my catch rate. But I’ve never come close to Smith when it comes to putting fish on the ice. And even then, his fish generally ran larger than mine, giving credence to his bare-fly philosophy.
Smith said he likes dark-colored flies – olive, brown, black or purple — for bluegills, but will go to a bright fly (chartreuse) if the water’s dark. He likes a bright-colored fly (red or red and white) for crappies and perch. But he’s mostly a ‘gill guy, so it’s dark flies the majority of the time.
Smith promised to call me if he gets ‘em going on a lake closer to his home (near Kalamazoo) he’ll give me a holler. And if he does I’ll come running.
You’re never too old to learn, eh?.