SHORE LUNCH “A Bad Day Fishing…”

by Ken Hupila

We all know the adage that “A bad day fishing is better than a good day working!” Well, for a fishing guide, “A bad day fishing is, a bad day fishing!” I know many pieces to the puzzle of where to find your target species of fish and how to make them latch on to your hook, but I don’t know all of them. Sometimes there’s a piece missing and I’m looking all over the table for that last bit of straight edge!
At times, the weather can be a factor. A cold front could come through and the fish shut off. A windy day might keep you from being able to hold to a particular spot. A thunderstorm might keep you from even being on the water. A heavy rain or cold temperatures might just make it too miserable to be out on the water.
It might be a particular time of the year. Fish go through cycles of activity that include spawning, moving from one underwater structure to another, seasonal water turnover and some even blame phases of the moon. Big female walleyes notoriously won’t aggressively feed for a few days after spawning. As June moves into July, walleyes move from their post-spawn haunts to reefs surrounded by deep water. During the journey they can “disappear” for a few days. For winter fishing guides, the northern pike seem to turn off when we reach the later days of December into the early new year. Smallmouth bass can be very aggressive, but then get close-mouthed for a portion of the late summer.
I can’t verify that “luck” has anything to do with it, but I’ve seen dozens of cases where there will be two or three people in a boat – all fishing with the same method – and one will catch ten fish and the partner(s) catch little or nothing. Some little detail around equipment and/or presentation can mean the difference between filling the boat and going home with an empty stringer.
A guide can one-off these days. Out of a summer of being on the water, there might be one, or two, or three of these days. For a client that travels hundreds of miles and spends hundreds more of dollars to hire a guide and fish in God’s country, hitting one of these days is a big disappointment. I never met a guide that didn’t work his tail off to put his people onto fish. If it happens, a guide can usually tell the die-hard fisherman from the “weekend warriors”.
The true fishermen understand that days like that can happen. They’ve been wetting a line often enough to know that how ever hard you try, some days are going to be better than others. They are there to learn how “the locals” fish and are willing to try new strategies, differing structure and techniques they’ve never seen before. Many times, my client would be someone staying at one of the resorts and would hire a guide the first day on the water to absorb how to catch fish in these northern Minnesota lakes. I felt – catch fish or not – that if I showed them where to fish, with what kind of tackle to use and how to use it, I had done my job. I would run into many people I had taken out a few days before and they would have had success on subsequent trips even if we didn’t have a particularly good day when we went out.
Those who were occasional fishermen would come in with an entirely different attitude. Maybe they had watched a few YouTube videos of fishing the area. You can bet that not many videos get posted of bad days fishing. Maybe they had read stories in outdoor magazines or talked to friends who came north to fish and “killed it” on a single day of fishing. Could happen but might not. A belief that a guide will automatically put them onto fish whatever day or time of year they happen to be there is indelibly pressed into their mindset. It’s always a sign of problems when someone I’m taking out says “That’s not the way we do it back home” - I know I’m in trouble. What makes up a good day fishing is an ideal that varies greatly from person to person. If filling a boat with fish is what the ideal is, a client might go home unhappy.
Early in my guiding career I was always worried about not satisfying a customer. If shore lunch was on the agenda, I would take some fish from my freezer to bring along in case the fishing wasn’t going to provide enough. I never had to use my own fish but did come close a time or two.
Expectations go a long ways to making a good day on the water. If learning about fishing, experiencing the back country and taking in the chance to visit one of the most beautiful places in the world are high on your list, we can have a good day fish or no fish. If filling the stringer with eight-pound walleyes are what you need to make a successful day, you might be disappointed.
Case in point. Took a fella from Arizona out one time to fish specifically for smallmouth bass. He was strictly an artificial crankbait fisherman. He had a tackle box that looked like a suitcase filled with plugs, the likes of which I had never seen. The fish were active, but he wasn’t able to catch many.
We were in a canoe and I would drag a Lindy Rig or small Mepps behind while we were paddling and catching fish after fish while he churned the water and caught almost nothing. At the end of the day, I asked him if this was what he expected what fishing the Boundary Waters would be like and he very gruffly said “NO”! He had watched a fishing show of some people that had gone to the same lake we had been on and everyone “had caught a limit of six pound-plus bass.” I had pulled in four or five that went four pounds, and dozens in the two-to-three-pound range but without his trophy stringer, it was a bad day on the water.
On the other hand, when I brought my friend from Texas, Boyd, out we had just the opposite kind of day. He started plugging as well, but the fish count by 10:00 in the morning convinced him to fish my way. By the end of the afternoon, he told me it was the best day bass fishing he’d ever had!
Had a father and son combo one summer. The forecast was not good. Cloudy, windy and periods of heavy rain all day. I met them on Moose Lake at six in the morning and offered to take them out the next day if they preferred. Nope. We were going today, and he was prepared because he had stopped at Cabela’s on the trip up and bought some top-notch rain gear. We took off, got taken over Prairie Portage and struggled to make it across Bayley Bay into the rollers. I spent the morning trying to find places to fish that were somewhat protected but did hold out the chance of catching a walleye or two.
The forecast held true, and the rains started to come down heavily about 11:00. Now, when he picked up a several hundred-dollar rain suit for himself, he bought his son a cheap poncho. The wind kept blowing it around his head and it did almost nothing to keep him dry. By 1:00 I was again offering to bring them in and take them out the next day – at no additional charge. “Nope! We’re here to fish and the boy will be alright!” By 2:30 his son was rolled up in a ball on the bottom of the boat – laying in the water – shivering uncontrollably. Dad finally decided we should probably head back. We caught a few fish, but I didn’t consider this to be “a good day fishing.”
Contrast that with a group a couple of years later. Forecast again called for nasty weather in the way of some thunder storms in the middle of the afternoon. My clients had one day to fish and it was now or never. Knowing that there could be some rough weather, I brought some extra gear along in case it got really bad.
The morning was fine, and we caught some fish, although it was a bit slow. By 12:30 storm clouds started appearing in the west. By one we headed to shore to put up a tarp and cook some coffee. The storm came in, lasted for almost and hour and then blew by. Occasionally I’ve had great fishing after a storm passes and this was one of those times. The fish turned on for about an hour and we had plenty of fish by 3:30. A great day!
Had a family on Fourtown one year – Grandpa, mom and three boys. I took the boys out in two canoes to fish walleyes and caught a good mess of them for a big fish fry for supper that night. Grandpa took me behind a tent after the dishes were done and told me that “It was a great fish fry, but tomorrow I want you to teach the boys how to REALLY fish”! He believed only in artificial bait and plugging for bass along the shoreline. For him, that stringer full of walleyes was a bad day of fishing. Had another family from India. He was a doctor working at the University of Minnesota hospital and they were soon going home. His wife and four kids – ranging in age from six to fourteen – were all in the boat and all wanted to fish. This was going to be a challenge! I set them all up with Rapalas and arranged them to keep their lines varying distances from the side of the boat. I went into Hoist Bay and made huge circles to keep them from getting lines tangled. When one of them hooked a fish, everyone had to reel in until it was netted. I don’t think we caught anything over three pounds that day, but hammer handles kept the kids busy for several hours. Lots of smiles on the way home!
So, bottom line. Not every day on the water is going to be a “good day fishing”. Good guides will do everything they can to make a “good day” happen. When a “bad day” comes around, guides are just as disappointed as their clients. More often than not, they’re successful!