The cold spell had broken on Wednesday. Justin Bailey figured the bluegills would be chomping again on Split Hand Lake south of Grand Rapids.
He dropped the transducer of his Vexilar flasher down the first hole that his fishing partner, Justin Wiese of Grand Rapids, had drilled. The Vexilar’s dial was lit up with orange blips that indicated fish below.
“Full of fish,” said Bailey, a Keewatin fishing guide. “Stacked.”
Understand, Bailey has a thing for bluegills. Split Hand has plenty of crappies, too, and decent walleyes. But it’s bluegills Bailey had come for.
“There’s something special about ’em,” he said. “I like the way they pull. They’re like reeling in a dinner plate.”
Bailey, 31, dropped a jig and a euro larvae down into the hole where his Vexilar had predicted such promise. But after several minutes, he couldn’t get the fish to go.
“Whatever’s here isn’t eating,” Bailey said.
Wiese was fishing another hole he had drilled in about 16½ feet of water. He promptly pulled up a crappie and a perch. Before long, he had several crappies and a bluegill on the ice.
Bailey leap-frogged him to another hole and tied into a couple of crappies and a respectable bluegill. He got the bluegill on a Northland Tungsten Sliver Spoon tipped with euro larvae.
Bailey and Wiese both are fishing guides, and Wiese guides bear hunters and grouse hunters as well. They’re part of a growing number of young guides in the Grand Rapids area.
Bailey grew up in the Lawrence Lake area and learned fishing from his grandfather, Wayne Johnson of Coleraine.
“He never wanted to see me inside,” Bailey said.
That wasn’t a problem. Even when he was very young, he had only two wishes, he said.
“I wanted to join the Army and be a pro fisherman,” he said.
He came from an Army family, and he joined in 2004. He served as an infantryman until 2012, putting in two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan.
“I think the Army made me what I am today,” he said. “It taught me confidence, never giving up. I pretty much don’t take ‘no’ for an answer. It probably borders on arrogance. If someone tells me there are no fish there, I want to prove ’em wrong.”
He had to retire from the Army in 2012, he said, as the result of a shoulder injury. The Army had offered him a desk job, but he knew he wouldn’t be happy there, so he came home.
Once out of the Army and living back in the North Country, Bailey went to work driving heavy equipment for Magnetation in Coleraine. And he went about becoming a fishing guide. To do that, he sought the counsel of longtime Keewatin angler Greg Clusiau.
“I idolized him,” Bailey said. “I just went for it, and he kind of groomed me.”
Clusiau said Bailey is a good student of fishing.
“He’s pretty versatile,” Clusiau said. “He picks up stuff quick. He’s willing to travel to the good bite, and he puts in long hours.”
Bailey guides anglers in both summer and winter. Laid off from Magnetation for just over a week now, he plans to use his extra time for fishing and guiding.
“That’s working out in my favor,” he said. “It gives me no excuse not to chase fish.”
On the ice Wednesday, the fishing slowed after our initial success. Bailey and Wiese kept drilling more holes, perhaps 20 in all, trying to find more willing fish. We would carry our Vexilars like lunch bags from hole to hole, dropping transducers, looking for fish.
Split Hand Lake is managed for quality-size crappie and sunfish, with a limit of five crappies and five bluegills, compared to regular statewide limits of 10 crappies and 20 bluegills.
We were fishing in 16 to 20 feet of water on a drop that went to 26 feet. As the afternoon wore on, a small village of anglers gathered around us.
None of the holes produced more than an occasional fish for a couple of hours. Figuring that hopping around wasn’t helping us, we put up a couple of shelters and fired up heaters. Wednesday was warmer than several frigid days that preceded it, but one could still get chilled outside.
We rallied with a few more fish late in the day, as Bailey put on a brief crappie clinic in his two-person shelter. We finished with a three-person limit of 15 crappies and released several smaller ones. We also caught several bluegills and a few perch and kept only a couple of bluegills. We caught most of our fish on either Northland plastic Mayflies tipped with euro larvae or Matt Milbrandt Custom Tungsten Jigs that were 5mm size.
Passing it on
One of the most rewarding aspects of his fishing, Bailey said, is taking out other veterans of the armed services. He has launched a nonprofit organization called Fishing with Vets (facebook.com/FishingWithVets). In the past year, he and other guides have taken about 50 veterans fishing on 10 trips. The trips mean a lot to veterans, Bailey said, in part because the events allow veterans to be together with others who have served. Sometimes, the trips have a major impact on the veterans.
“One guy had gotten his legs blown off above the knees,” Bailey said. “He came fishing with us. He went home and bought a boat. He said, ‘You saved my life.’”
For more information
For more information on Justin Bailey’s guide service, look up Justin Bailey Fishing and Guide Service on Facebook. Email him at email@example.com, or call (218) 259-9932.
For information on Justin and Alice Wiese’s guide service, Wheezy Outdoors, go to wheezyoutdoors.com. Email firstname.lastname@example.org, or call (218) 402-0086.