Mille Lacs Hosts North American Ice Fishing Championship
Posted by Rod Woten
The official “on-ice” portion of my ice fishing season kicked off with a bang December 15-16 with the North American Ice Fishing Circuit Championships at Mille Lacs in Minnesota. My long-time tournament partner Mike Riley and I punched our ticket to the Championship last February during the NAIFC qualifier on Pelican Lake near Monticello, MN.
We usually don’t have a lot of time to pre-fish for any tournament we participate in each winter, and this was no exception. The plan was for me to spend the entire Friday before the tournament pre-fishing Isle Bay of Lake Mille Lacs to gather enough info that we wouldn’t look too terribly silly when he joined me Saturday morning for the first day of competition.
We would be targeting three different species of fish during the two-day tournament – eight bluegills and eight crappies on Saturday, eight perch and eight crappies on Sunday. My job was to quickly find out as much as I could about these fish in Mille Lacs. I fish it several times a year for perch, but had never been limited to Isle Bay. I was concerned that at least one of the teams would find a pod of those legendary Mille Lacs JUMBO perch and would have a lock on the tournament from day one. In light of this, I started my search Friday morning for the jumbos.
It didn’t take me long to find out that the perch are EVERYWHERE in Isle Bay – the only problem is that most were about six inches long. So, on my lake maps I picked out three or four pieces of typical topography that I like to target for bigger perch and proceeded to drill holes over them for the search. I caught a couple of 9” perch on two of the three pre-selected locations, and noted them as day one spots on my GPS. Then I changed into bluegill mode. Along the way, I talked with several other pre-fishing competitors and was relieved to hear that they were finding the same. The perch were biting willingly, but on the small side. A few teams even proudly displayed their 9” “jumbos” they had caught and I smiled to myself knowing that the perch I had pinned down would definitely be in the running.
Previous experience had taught me that many of the locals liked to fish a very shallow weedbed for bluegills in the early season, so I was not at all surprised to find a small village of portable fish houses on the weedbed as I rounded the island on my snowmobile. I went right into the crowd and started checking holes to see what I could find. It took me a while to find exactly what I was looking for in the weeds, but soon did. I plucked two 8” bluegills from the weedbed and stealthily slid them back into the hole, so no one else would see what I had caught. I was also pleased to see that the water in the weedbed was so clear I could sight-fish the entire seven feet of water depth. I had a warm sense of satisfaction knowing that my 16” sight fishing rods were in the rod bag on my snowmobile anxiously awaiting their chance…to think I’d almost left them at home! I also happened to notice some very large crappies swimming around with the bluegills in the weedbed. Eureka! I had managed to find all three species and it was only a little past noon. I probed a few more likely spots in the weedbed and decided I knew what I needed to know. Now, it was just a matter of drilling it out on tournament morning and hole-hopping until we had the fish we needed.
One thing was for sure…based on the relatively small weedbed and the fact that there were 81 teams competing, it was going to be combat fishing all day Saturday and part of Sunday. I was surprised when talking to other teams that day, and at the rules meeting that night, many hadn’t even seen a crappie. I knew that if we could catch even a few of the big slabs I had seen in the weeds, we’d be in the running. I went from thinking that we didn’t stand a chance because our pre-fishing time was so limited, to thinking we had as good of a shot as anyone…if not slightly better. When Mike finally arrived shortly after the conclusion of the rules meeting, I detailed my findings with him, shared my GPS points from the day, and we developed our strategy for the next morning.
We lined up for the blast off the next morning in a cold miserable constant rain. We were cold and miserable most of the day. Once we finally blast off, it was no surprise to see almost every team round the island and head for the weedbed. Fortunately, about twenty teams headed to a second smaller weedbed adjacent to the one we wanted, so that helped alleviate crowding. We managed to get fairly close to the spot I had marked where I caught the two 8” gills in pre-fishing, but the fish weren’t there. I struggled for a better part of the morning after that spot failed to produce for me. Mike and I started to cover some territory over the weedbed, trying to determine where the concentrations of fish had moved to. Mike managed to start catching smaller gills and ended up carrying me while I was struggling. Eventually we found the kind of edges and pockets in the weeds we had been looking for, and Mike’s next few fish verified that this was the spot we wanted. I finally took my Fish Trap down off my snowmobile and started sight fishing in earnest. This is where my slump ended – the second fish I caught was a crappie! I knew there would be many teams that wouldn’t even catch a crappie, so bringing that first one in was a major relief. The third fish I caught was a bruiser bluegill and at a solid 9”. When it was time to sort our fish, pack up, and head in to weigh, we had a full limit of bluegills, one nice ¾ pound crappie, one slightly smaller crappie and one significantly shorter crappie.
As more and more teams weighed, the trend of no limits and no crappies was evident. Our day one weight of 5.34 pounds landed us in tenth place –and top ten was exactly where we wanted to be. It was also immediately clear that busting into the top three was going to be a monumental task since the top team weighed a full limit of 16 fish with a weight of 13.52 pounds.A full eight pounds more than what we weighed, and second and third place weren’t too far behind, with 11.37 and 10.54 pounds, respectively. All three of the top teams had managed to find some LARGE crappies…at least a pound or more. In fact, the first place team had the big fish for day one with a 1.63 pound crappie. I took some consolation in the fact that my bluegill was one of the biggest bluegills caught on day 1 at 0.82 pounds.
Day two dawned much colder than day one, and it continued to get colder as the day wore on. We were just happy it wasn’t raining anymore. It took almost the full evening to get all our gear defrosted and dried from Saturday’s excursion. Our plan for day two was to start with our crappies. We knew where they were located – crappies tend to bite a bit better earlier in the day and we felt we could pick up eight perch pretty easily based on how well they bit during pre-fishing. We agreed to crappie fish until 10 and then we’d go after our perch. Luckily the crappies bit much better for us on day two. We had four crappies in the bucket with our self-imposed deadline looming. I rolled a very nice one pound plus crappie shortly before 10 a.m., so Mike and I decided to stick it out an extra half hour. That extra thirty minutes resulted in two more crappies for our bucket, one of which was as large as our biggest crappie from day one. From there we went out to our first perch spot, and were very surprised to see that the perch bite had gotten very tough. Who would have ever guessed that those little perch that bit so readily during pre-fishing, now had to be coaxed and teased into even opening their mouths? I finally managed to bring in an 8” fish, and a couple of other shorter ones, before we decided to pack up and head for spot #2. I managed to catch a couple more there, but it was clear that Mike was struggling. Mike did finally manage to catch a couple, and really came out of his slump after that. We went to a third spot and caught a few more perch that allowed us to sort out a few of our shortest ones, and I was so relieved to finally have our limit of eight perch. We had a few minutes left, so we decided to hit a weedbed closer to the weigh-in, in an effort to put a few more crappies in our bucket. Mike fished, while I sorted our entire catch with the scale. Unfortunately, more small perch was all the weebed would yield, so we packed it in and crossed the timeline with only a minute or two to spare.
The weights from day two showed that it was a tough day out there for everyone. Many teams decided to go for crappies first, but spent so much time on them that they had trouble with the tough perch bite and caught few or no perch. Some teams spent the entire day on crappies and didn’t even get a chance to chase perch. I was glad we’d made a plan to crappie fish until 10:30 and stuck to our guns. Our day two weight of 3.69 pounds was good for 12th on the day, but dropped us to 11th place overall. We were a little disappointed that we missed our goal of finishing in the top ten, especially after finding out we missed the top ten by only 0.09 pounds! But we took solace in the fact that there were a lot of good teams that finished behind us. Some of the really good teams from day one struggled on day two in the same exact spots, so we felt fortunate that things went fairly well for us.
I have a newfound respect for Mille Lacs as a panfish lake now. The biggest fish of the tournament was a 1.92 pound crappie! I also saw several in the 1 to1.5 pound range while we were sight fishing, not to mention all the ¾ to 1 pound bluegills. Now that the championships are over, it’s time to get back to ice fishing in earnest, but our 11th place really has me chomping at the bit to get back out there next December and improve on that!
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