Live bait tops lure performance on vacation

Ross Bielema

Although I’ve been fishing for just shy of 60 years, I finally bought my first muskie lure last month.

I have spent a small fortune on fishing lures over the years, but I was shocked to find muskie lures averaged $20 to $30 each at the Appleton Fleet Farm store. Ouch.

Since I’m a bargain hunter and Dutch, I managed to find one for $9. I had no idea if it would catch fish, but it was big. I was headed to Long Lake in Phillips on a family vacation and wanted to blend in with the locals.

I’ve had a love-hate relationship with lures, normally refusing to admit that sometimes live bait just works better. The live bait edge once again reared its wormy head.

I have cast to visible muskies before on Lily Lake near Pickerel, using standard-sized crankbaits (the big one in front and the bigger one behind him were not impressed and didn’t even move in my lure’s direction), but I decided it was time to get serious as we planned the trip to this 419-acre lake in Price County.

I looked at photos of giant muskies on Facebook pages linked to the lake and area guides, amazed at how big these leviathans get and how much effort muskie anglers expend to catch them.

I grew up on the Mississippi River in northern Illinois (Fulton, home of Lock and Dam 13), and learned to catch panfish, bullheads and channel cats using my dad’s only bait: a nightcrawler. I also shot some big carp and buffalo with my recurve bows (a 21-pounder is my personal record). I started using lures, especially plastic worms, when I transferred as a junior to Southern Illinois University in Carbondale.

Southern Illinois is a mecca for bass fishermen, and I was pretty happy to pull a 2-pound largemouth out of Crab Orchard Lake within seconds of tossing my first Mann’s Jelly Worm (grape color) in a weedless Carolina rig that a local bait shop showed me how to tie. I had been reading about these lakes for years in the local section of “Sports Afield” but never thought I’d get down to any of these famed fishing holes.

I brushed shoulders with many fishing experts, both local and national, when I enjoyed the best job of my life: full-time outdoors writer for the Quad-City Times in Davenport, Iowa. I bass fished with circuit pro Woo Daves and learned a variety of tricks from a number of catfish, panfish, ice fishing and bass locals. My tackle boxes continued to swell, as they still do today.

I had to pass off one of the greatest fishing assignments of all time in the fall of 1998, thanks to my wife — or should I say our Sept. 19 wedding?

The nation’s bass angling pros poured into the Quad-Cities for a chance to win what was the largest cash prize in tournament history as the Walmart FLW paid out $250,000 for first place. I covered the preceding weeks of the event but had to hand off the event’s dramatic finale to another sports writer.

I was later amazed to find that the winner, Davy Hite, and runner-up Tommy Biffle both found their winning bass at Lock and Dam 13’s upper pool, fishing within mere feet of my childhood haunts. Of course, the pros all use lures that their sponsors build.

A huge pool of water lilies blooms there each year, creating a visual display that conceals the trophy bass lurking below. I never knew until then that all those bass were there. The pros know how to quickly read cover and topography, while many of us hack fishermen are just content to stumble along without seeking expert advice.

Many knowledgeable anglers and virtually all bait shops are willing to share their expertise if we stubborn anglers just ask.

My wife has a slight interest in fishing, preferring heavy Dacron line on an open-faced reel and a metal rod, using only worms. Since she has no patience, she will give up if a fish doesn’t bite in five or 10 minutes.

My daughter, Kalispell, seemed excited about fishing at Long Lake. She bought her first fishing license online, as did her boyfriend, Evan Haugen. Both got the first license deal from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources: A mere $5 (normally $20 for adults, $7 for age 16-17). You can also get this discount if you haven’t bought a state fishing license in 10 years.

They bought some “red trout worms” from a convenience store vending machine, and Kalispell was soon pulling out some small bluegills and decent-sized crappies from the dock. I was casting crankbaits and never did get to throw the $9 muskie lure. I never got a bite with lures, but something took my worm when I switched over to the real deal. Maybe Dad was right.

Of course, there is the kid factor. Kids almost always outfish the adults. I’ll just go with that theory.

Ross Bielema is a freelance writer from New London and owner of Wolf River Concealed Carry LLC. Readers can contact him at