Lake Trout "Bobbin" in the Apostle Islands

By Rick Mihalek - January 1, 2002
I remember the first time I logged onto Lake-Link, I thought I was dreaming! Could there really be a Wisconsin fishing web site with so much to offer? No way! When reality finally set in I gradually got brave enough to enter a post or two. Now maybe I post too much!

One evening Steve Huber (from G & S Guide Service) called me to introduce himself and discuss... what else... but fishing. He challenged me to give him some competition, all in fun of course, and list myself in the "Guides Section". Well, I love challenges and obliged. Our common love for fishing and sharing our fishing knowledge with others has made us best of friends. Now he owes me big time for weaseling some of my Chequamegon Bay smallmouth secrets and hotspots. Little did I know then just how good a fisherman he already was!

The next thing I know, he brings up.none other than Lake-Link's very own Novak brothers (Steve & Darin - or is it Darin & Steve). Although we were ice fishing, we all slipped on our hip boots, we knew there would be blood and guts and all too true fishing stories, and braced ourselves for some good times. Talk led to writing articles for Lake-Link - this is my first experience, and hopefully not the last, at writing, so here goes.

It's nearly New Years. Chequamegon Bay is finally making its first ice - 3 weeks later than normal. Tepees and portable shelters will soon be seen scattered all over the Bay between Ashland, Washburn, Bayfield, and the Apostle Islands. Snow machines pulling ice sleds loaded with tepees, power augers, heaters Vexilars, tip-ups, fresh bait... and "bobbin" hoops.

What's bobbin? Well, in simple terms you could say it's deep-water lake trout, whitefish, and burbot jigging. The hoops I speak of are basically an oval, hand-held device (see picture) that holds up to 300 ft. of plastic or rubber coated wire line, a length of good quality monofilament leader with swivel, and a heavy molded bait (most commonly used is the Ban-Tee Beetle) or large Swedish Pimple. Most lake trout fishing is done in deep water ,60-300 ft., so hence the need for a heavy bait to be able to hold and detect bottom. Let's go!

Our short drive around the Bay from Ashland, past Washburn, through Bayfield, leads us to Red Cliff. Our snow machines or 4 wheelers are unloaded and all the gear is tied down securely for the long ride out to the latest "hotspot". This could be anywhere from 2 miles to nearly 15 if ice conditions allow us to get way out. Like all other ice fishing, safety should be your first concern. NEVER assume any ice is safe!

The Garmin 12 GPS says we're getting close to our marker. Sure enough - a smooth ride across new ice (this time anyway), with special care taken to check out any pressure cracks for open water, and we're there. We'll set up and try here first - the fish were here yesterday! Anxious to get fishing, we grabbed our ice augers and drill a hole - anywhere from 4 to 12 inches or more. The ice bar comes next to taper the holes all the way around. This allows for easier turning of the laker's head into the hole and less rubbing of the leader on the sharp ice edges. Chances are it's quite cold out with some northerly wind, so set up of the tee-pees and lighting of our stoves becomes a rush. Quickly throw in your packsack with bobbin hoops, lunch, thermos, and fresh cut bait, and we're set! No you're not! The chair! A last rush to the sled to grab the chair, and now you're set. The zipper on the tepee locks you inside and the warm heater has you taking off your jacket in fast order.

Like a surgeon, the fresh smelt or herring bait is cut and carefully threaded onto the holding wires of the Beetle, and the flap pulled gently over the big single hook. Many fishermen have learned how effective a trailer hook is as lakers are known to be really finicky, boy can I relate this part to walleyes! Sometimes this "trailer hook" can mean the difference between one fish (or none) and possibly limiting out.

With the cut bait all set and fastened onto the Beetle, it is slowly unwrapped from the bobbin hoop and lowered into the water just underneath the ice to see how it looks. A few slow, up and down motions have us convinced it's a killer. Slowly we lower the heavy lead bait down to the bottom, being especially careful when we get close to the bottom so as not to let out too much line. A distinctive bump tells us we've located bottom, time to "lock and load"! A twistee or rubber band on the line marks bottom for quick reference next time. A larger heavy rubber band holds the remaining wire line from unwrapping should you set the hoop down or toss it aside after setting the hook on a fish. Oh, you don't want to just set your hoop onto the ice and walk away - you may never see it again! Cross it over the legs or arms of your chair, and when you pick it up next time, expect the unexpected!!

Comfortably positioning your chair almost directly over the hole, you begin very SLOW up and down motions -sometimes barely wiggling the bait. Your body is tense at first, wondering if and when you might get your first "hit". The current seems perfect, just enough to keep the fish moving. Are they down there, and will they bite?

Suddenly you get a good rap! An instant hook set is critical. Your jigging arm instinctively reaches for the roof of your tepee - fish on! Tossing the hoop into the corner of the tepee, away from the heater, as you grab the wire-coated line, you begin bringing up the fish hand-over-hand, being careful not to tangle or step into the wire pile. The typical laker headshake of a good fish has you watching down the hole, looking for glimpses of your fish. In most cases, the clear water in the Apostle Islands coupled with a dark tepee enables you to see the fish up to 50 feet below the ice. It looks HUGE down deep! Finally, the leader is reached. Being careful not to horse the laker, you look for signs of how good the fish may be hooked. If the big single hook is securely lodged into the fish's nose, you've got the ultimate hook set. Anything other than that nose set warrants careful watch to see that no part of the bait hooks onto the bottom of the ice, causing a "quick release". Should this happen, and your heart sinks as you watch the fish swim away, chances are good there's a few harsh words of disappointment said for all your fishing buddies to hear. This time you're lucky! The laker comes through the ice hole and is flopping and belching air. Keep it away from your coiled wire line! Some fishermen have their zippers of their fishing tent partially opened to kick the fish outside.

All this sounds easy, right? Well, maybe. What about when the lakers are just nibbling? This is where you must be able to detect the slightest of hits. If you feel anything - set! Sometimes your line will suddenly go limp - set! Frequently the lake trout will hit the bait in the down motion, creating a little slack in the line. If you don't set immediately, it will quite possibly throw the bait. Should you miss the hook set, many times (if it hasn't already ripped off your cut bait) it can be teased to strike again. Experienced bobbers can even detect the loss of the (cut) bait, or when a fish rubs against the wire line.

Learning all the techniques to being a successful "laker-taker" can take years. Most of us are still learning. Experimenting with different baits, colors, jigging techniques, as well as the best places to fish takes both time and patience. During tough fishing conditions is when most new tricks and techniques are learned. Unfortunately, sometimes even the best fishermen get skunked or never feel a fish - maybe even for days. Does he give up? Never! Chances are he'll be ready again tomorrow - or the next chance he gets. Maybe another spot. A few phone calls, or a quick stop at the local saloon on the way home to get some idea how his buddies did may be in order. I'll bet they all filled up!! Yea right!

One cannot overstress the importance of safety. DO NOT attempt this on your own on unfamiliar ice!! If your pocket book does not allow you to hire a professional, or you can't find anyone to take you, at least follow someone who's familiar with the ice. Stay back far enough as not to let on that you're a novice. Keep several hundred yards away from them. If you see fishermen moving around a lot or frequently checking with others in their group, chances are the fishing's slow. Hang on though, things can change instantly.

I hope you enjoyed my first attempt at writing. Hopefully I'll be asked to write more. Guided fishing trips both for Chequamegon Bay and the Apostle Islands can be arranged. Please feel free to e-mail me through one of my posts on Lake-Link, or through my personal e-mail at cheqoutfitters@centurytel.net.

Thank you - please exercise caution on all ice outings.

Author Rick Mihalek
Rick Mihalek
Rick was born and raised in Northern Wisconsin and has hunted and fished all his life. The love for the outdoors lead him to start his own guide business, Chequamegon Outfitters, 5 years ago. Rick is the Vice President Ashland Rod & Gun Club, he also sits as the Vice Chairman for the Ashland County Conservation Congress. He has been featured in the The Duluth News Tribune and the St. Paul Pioneer Press for his guided nightime walleye trolling on Chequamegon Bay, Rick's specialty.