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Watching the bobber sink

Putting walleyes and saugers in the bucket hasn’t been a problem so far this winter on Lake of the Woods. FORUM NEWS SERVICE/Brad Dokken

There’s something about watching a bobber sink that never gets old.

I was reminded of that last weekend during a quick trip to Ballard’s Resort on Lake of the Woods.

As you’ll read elsewhere in this section, the walleyes and saugers were cooperating.

Ice fishing has come a long ways since I started in the mid-1970s. At the risk of sounding like an old person, our ice fishing gear “back then” mainly consisted of those wooden dowels with a couple of pegs to hold the line and a metal spike at one end to jab into the ice.

There was no reel, and when the bobber sank, landing the fish required using the “hand-over-hand” technique, which often resulted in line tangles of epic proportions — especially for new anglers or those prone to getting overexcited at the prospect of a fish at the end of the line.

Today, by comparison, my ice fishing gear consists of graphite rods, spinning reels that operate smoothly even in the cold and high-tech electronics that have turned the winter pastime into the fishing equivalent of a video game.

I can see the fish, I can see my lure, and I can see how the fish respond.

There’s no guesswork involved.

Most of the places I fish allow at least two lines for ice fishing, so typically, I’ll actively fish one hole with the high-tech stuff and put a bobber on the other line to keep the bait a few inches off the bottom.

When a fish hits, the bobber sinks and the anticipation begins:

When to set the hook?

What’s down there?

Spend enough time fishing, and you can usually tell what kind of fish is at the end of the line just by watching the bobber. Walleyes, for example, tend to pop the bait initially and hold it in place for a few seconds before slowly swimming away.

The bobber sits a couple of inches under the surface until it begins a slow but steady descent.

Why that’s exciting might be difficult to understand if you don’t fish, but trust me, it is.

Saugers and perch — especially smaller ones — tend to spend a fair bit of time playing with the bait, resulting in a bobber that dips and darts and bounces all over the hole.

Crappies sometimes pop the bait so quickly you’ll actually hear the “bloop” when the bobber begins to sink.

You never know for sure, though, and that’s a big part of what makes watching a bobber so mesmerizing.

Last Saturday afternoon, as daylight began to dim and the “magic time” for walleyes was at hand, my bobber did the dance that bobbers do when a walleye is at the other end of the line.

It dipped a couple of inches under the water, sat there for several seconds and then began slowly sinking to the bottom of the hole.

Was it a 12-inch walleye? Was it a 12-pound walleye? That I couldn’t tell, but I was pretty confident it was a walleye.

I relished the moment and watched the bobber sink for several seconds until I couldn’t take it anymore.

I had to find out what was down there.

I lifted the rod to set the hook and felt the weight of the fish at the other end of the line.

It definitely wasn’t a 12-inch walleye.

Just like that, though, the line went slack. A nick in the monofilament leader I hadn’t retied since last winter snapped, and my “go-to” lure, a pink-and-glow Gem-N-Eye, was gone.

The afternoon bite was on, though, so I reeled up and began rummaging through my tackle for a replacement lure.

That’s when my fishing partner set the hook on a scrappy fish he’d watched on his electronics as it raced up from the bottom to slam his lure.

Moments later, an 18-inch walleye emerged from the hole — with my pink-and-glow Gem-N-Eye still in its mouth.

Amused by this fortunate turn of events — though it wasn’t so fortunate for the walleye — I quickly retied the Gem-N-Eye, lowered it down the hole and waited for the bobber to sink again.

If that ever gets old, even in this age of high-tech fishing gadgets, I’ll probably quit fishing.

I can’t see that happening. Ever.

(Dokken reports on outdoors for the Grand Forks Herald. Reach him at (701) 780-1148; (800) 477-6572, ext. 1148; or send email to

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Brad Dokken

Brad Dokken is a reporter and editor of the Herald's Sunday Northland Outdoors pages. Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and joined the Herald staff in 1989. He worked as a copy editor in the features and news departments before becoming outdoors editor in 1998. He also writes a blog called Compass Points. A Roseau, Minn., native, Dokken is a graduate of Bemidji State University. 

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