I was running less than one minute late, and nevertheless knew I was in trouble. Phone buzzed on the dashboard. With a cringe, I hit the send button, knowing I was on the verge of a verbal backlash from an angler with legendary credentials. Ouch. It was Gary Roach, good-naturedly reproaching me for "holding up the train" en route to one of his backwoods bluegill wrangles. It's a can't miss event we celebrate each year to ring in the end of a hard-working ice fishing season, and the beginning of something Minnesota anglers lovingly refer to as "open water."
Thankfully, helping cushion the blow was Gary's nephew, my trusted pal and legend-in-the-making in his own rite, Tony Roach. "Coldfront Cory!" T-Roach cracked, shaking my hand with a flash of his trademark gargantuan grin. Gary, the famed 'Old Grey Fox', emerged next, exuding the energy and enthusiasm of a third grader on a sugar rush.
Nearly before I'd rigged rods and hit the ON button on my MarCum LX-7 sonar, Gary and Tony had virtually disappeared in a fog of ice shavings and StrikeMaster auger steam. If anglers half his age fished with even a quarter of Roach's verve, energy and skill, it would likely be even more difficult to pinpoint ponderous panfish lacking sore lips. This day, the three of us would cruise across the small frozen lake employing two contrasting approaches.
Inspired by the rewards of heavy metal—tungsten-headed micro jigs that fish like boulders in pebble-sized packages—I opted for fast-sinking offerings from my friends at Poland-based Bentley Fishing.
With sink-rates nearly twice as fast as that of lead jigs of the same mass, pure tungsten jigs rocket down in the water column, putting your hook in the midst of more panfish. Given the pursuit's already sedentary spirit, I'm always inclined to opt for active ice fishing approaches that help keep the blood pumping. Tungsten encourages rapid movements on ice. I dig that.
For T-Roach, who pioneered the concept hardwater fishers now know as 'ice trolling,' tungsten has been a natural next step. Not only are progressive manufacturers such as Bentley Fishing gifting hardwater anglers with the ultimate in Kevin VanDam style speed tackle, even industry biggies like Rapala have boosted the trend, offering a series of tungsten-headed 'ice flies' in their Blue Fox and Cortland "FoxeeFly" ice series.
Fishing with the Roach boys on ice is always a good time, because you never lack for new holes to ply. And so while Tony and I virtually sprinted from hole to hole, presenting the lake's elder bluegill populace with jigs such as the Bentley G-Hopper and Northland Tackle Mooska jig tipped with individual wax worms, Gary hunkered down over what to him felt like instinctually "right" holes. Tied to his classic lead teardrop jig tipped with a single waxy, which descended at half the drop-speed, Roach kicked off his icy clinic with a bang.
It seemed that Gary's subtler, slower approach—not to mention his nearly magical jigging cadence—was putting the hurt on one humpbacked sunny after another. "Whoa-ho boys!" he exclaimed. "''Nother one—that's number 10. What's the matter, Cory? Need the Roachman to come over there and catch your fish for you?"
You've heard of trash talk during a pick-up game. But nobody talks smack on the ice like Gary Roach. And you don't want to stay on the short end of the stick for long, else you'll never live it down.
Thankfully, I eventually solved the riddle: present the micro morsel mere inches above each big sunfish, a move made possible by the staggeringly sharp resolution of the LX-7. Here was the other key—keep the jig absolutely dead still. No jigging, pounding, twitching or spinning. To eliminate the jig spins, I literally had to stretch my entire spool of line. Tying to a shoreline tree, I walked backwards out onto the ice, emptying the spool and gradually pulling on the rod and straightened the 2-pound test Sufix Ice Magic.
Now, when I dropped the tungsten jig and larva combination before discriminating bluegill eyes, the lure hovered motionlessly—absolutely no negative jigs spins. Eventually, sonar would show a thick red mark rising up toward the lure. With a sharp pop! another wide-bodied 'gill would ingest the jig and throw a beautiful arc in my St. Croix ice wand.
Trash talk was flying in all directions—Gary, Tony and I each hoisting palm-stretching panfish in succession. The universe, it seemed, was once again humming along in perfect rhythm.