Traverse City Record-Eagle

April 5, 2013

Bob Gwizdz: Don't overthink smelt fishing

Outdoors columnist

---- — 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.

Why? My guess is that when I set the hook, I simply pulled the fish up in the water column. Whereas the bigger ‘gills and specks are heavy enough to remain where they were when they bit — and, hence, the hook was driven home — these fish just came up with the hook set.

I caught a few, but my buddies were hammering them. That’s when something fortuitous happened: I broke my line while I was unhooking one. Goniea suggested that rather than re-tie (a significant chore in the poor light with the spider-web-thin line) I just use his spare rod. I did. And I commenced to whaling on them, too.

Goniea’s gear was decidedly low-tech compared to mine — a rather stiff pole with six-pound test line — but the spring bobber on the end of it was sensitive enough to alert me to the take. And though I never caught up to my buddies — I got too far behind in the first hour while I was fooling with the ultra-light stuff — I kept pace for the rest of the evening.

For the uninitiated, smelt live in what the biologists’ call “two-story lakes” — deep and cold enough to support cold-water species as well as the warmer-water species (bass, bluegills, etc.) found in the bulk of our waters.

We were fishing in 50 feet of water (through roughly 18 inches of ice). On our way out, we drilled holes, dropped in the transducer from the depth finder to see what we could see, and finally settled where we were when the depth finder lit up like a Christmas tree.

What we found was fairly typical of smelt. When we started, at dusk, there were plenty of marks on the fish finder in the bottom five feet of water. But as darkness ensued, the fish began rising in the water column and we soon had fish from the bottom to about halfway up.

The drill was simple: Drop the baits in the water, crank the reel a couple of times, and wait. (We used typical baits: a Hail spoon — which features a small single hook attached by a tiny chain to the bait — and a teardrop another foot or so up the line, baited with insect larva (spikes or wax worms). We caught them steadily, occasionally doubles, though we missed a bunch, too.

“You wonder, when there’s so many fish down there, if sometimes they’re just not running into your line,” Goniea said.

He may be right.

At any rate, we stayed for about three hours after dark and we did quite well; Goniea had more than 100, but when I counted mine I only had 66, victimized by the time I spent fooling with the ultra-light stuff. It wasn’t as fast and furious as I’ve seen it, but it was plenty good enough.

I have since rigged a new smelt rod — a stiffer pole, with heavier line and a spring bobber, so next time I go, I’ll be ready to rock. But I learned a valuable lesson that applies not only to fishing, but other intellectual pursuits: Don’t overthink it.

I remember the motto drilled into me early in my journalism career: KISS. Keep it simple, stupid.