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The Northwoods River News | Rhinelander, Wisconsin

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September 17, 2019

9/7/2019 7:30:00 AM
The Lake Where You Live
What to do when nothing bites
Ted Rulseh

So you go fish a lake you haven't tried before, maybe one you've seen along a road or highway that looks inviting, or one that a friend told you about.

You spend half a day there, and maybe you catch little or nothing. In that event you can blame your newness to the water, or just an "off day" on that particular lake.

But what happens when the lake where you live or vacation, a lake you have fished for decades, where you know almost every weed bed, rock bar, mid-lake hump and sunken brush tangle, a lake where you have caught fish reliably time after time, goes dead for a long spell?

Has this happened to you? It has happened this year on Birch Lake, where I live. I wonder if other anglers have figured something out that I have yet to discover. I wonder if I have become too attached to familiar spots and tactics and have failed to adapt as the lake has changed.

The fact is, though, I have tried to adapt. I've tested different baits, live and artificial. I've probed deeper-water areas I had mostly neglected before. Nothing has worked. My last day fishing here that I would call good was back in July. It is now (as I write this) Sept. 2.

Tomorrow I am supposed to guide three members of the Northwoods Unitarian Universalist Fellowship on an evening trip here on Birch, an item I offer each year in our summer service auction.

All I ever guarantee with the trip is a good time, but in past years I've managed to put my guests on some nice fish. What will I tell them this year? I've already warned them to keep their expectations appropriately low.

Then this weekend (Sept. 6-8), two brothers are coming in for some fishing. Last year, right here on Birch, they experienced fishing good enough that people would pay money for it. This time we might have to visit some of my other favorite lakes if we want some good sport or fish for the fry pan.

Of course, I've experienced these doubts before. This isn't the first walleye and smallmouth drought I've experienced on my home water. In past cases, just when I've begin to question my angling skills, or started to wonder if something catastrophic has befallen the fish population, a cosmic switch is thrown.

The fishing turns on. Techniques that worked before start to work again. Favorite spots once more become productive. It's as if the long dry spell never happened. I keep asking myself: When will that be?

Here things have a habit of picking up dramatically as we get deeper into September and cross over into October. In past years there have been autumn days when it was impossible to keep a slip bobber on the surface: A fish pulls it down seconds after it hits the water.

I hold out hope of seeing those days again. How about you?

Ted Rulseh resides on Birch Lake in Harshaw and is an advocate for lake protection and improvement. His Lakeland Times and Northwoods River News columns are the basis for a book, "A Lakeside Companion," published by The University of Wisconsin Press. Ted may be reached at

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