HIGGINS LAKE — Fishing may be considered a rather low-brow pastime by those poor souls who do not have enough sense to appreciate it, but it is actually an intellectual pursuit. You start out with questions — Where are they and how do I catch ‘em? — Then you think your way toward solutions.
But it is entirely possible to overthink things. And I realized as much on a recent outing here targeting smelt.
As many know, fishing for smelt through the ice is an unusual but certainly enjoyable pastime, one I’ve tried to experience at least once every winter. This time, I brought my favorite ice-fishing rig — a whippy-tipped rod with a spinning reel spooled with ½-pound test nylon sewing thread — certain that I had it figured out.
Smelt are open-water (pelagic, in fisheries biology-speak) that are native to saltwater but often head up rivers to spawn. They have been stocked in a number of inland lakes — largely to serve as forage for bigger game fish, such as lake trout — and have produced an unusual fishery for ice anglers.
My thought process was simple — these tiny finsters eat tiny food items and down-sizing the gear seemed appropriate. The ultra-light line couldn’t hurt in the lake’s clear water and the soft tip on my rod would allow me to detect the almost imperceptible bite.
So far so good. But when I took my place in the shanty aside my partner Department of Natural Resources fisheries biologist Tom Goniea — right next to a shanty occupied by recently retired DNR fisheries biologist Steve Sendek — I soon found out I was ill equipped. While both Goniea and Sendek were spanking them, I was missing them.
I had no trouble detecting the bite, but when I struck, I mostly missed, or the critter escaped as I reeled it up. I soon figured it out — the whippy tip and light line didn’t give me enough purchase to drive the hook home on the hard-mouthed little fish. And despite the fact that this rod serves me well when fishing for other diminutive panfish — i.e. bluegills and crappies — it wasn’t working for smelt.