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updated: 4/3/2014 12:39 AM

Some early surprises from the Chicago River

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It pays to keep a rod and reel with a small box of tiny jigs and plastic lures in the back of my truck. One never knows when opportunity knocks.

It was as good a time as any as I made one of my early forays to check the possibly open water on the North Branch of the Chicago River. I have fished there before in warmer months, but never this early.

Even with our never-ending hard freeze, this area would sometimes show some promise.

Houses lined the shoreline, and I was able to find an opening where I could navigate my way down to the water.

The main reason I was here was because I received a phone call on my Sunday morning outdoor talk show. The caller said he just got through fishing the North Branch and caught several largemouth bass using a night crawler for bait.

It's funny, but a week before his call I had driven over the river at three different locations and didn't imagine I could score any fish then. And a week before that there was a lot of ice pushing up to the edge of the shoreline.

What's an angler to do?

I parked my vehicle, grabbed the rod and some jigs and set off for an inspection.

At the very western side of the river channel I spotted a lot of debris. I thought this was unreal, but I went ahead and tied on a tiny weedless jig to use with some wax worms. I put two of them on a tiny, 1/100th oz. jig head and gently tossed the rig into the open water.

Even before the jig sank to the bottom, a fish grabbed this afternoon meal and took off. The major problem was the 2-pound line started to rub on the debris as the fish moved around.

I applied pressure and landed the scrappy sunfish. Another flip into the open water brought another strike. I kept at it for close to an hour and the sunnies were in a cooperative stage.

I had never caught sunfish or bluegills from this river -- just carp, bass, and a gar fish.

I had to get home and take care of some "orders from headquarters," but I figured I would try the old Spence Petros gimmick, whereby I would use two tiny jigs with one of them as a dropper.

I started catching two fish on every cast. The crappies suddenly appeared, and they seemed to fight the sunfish for the wax worms.

These weren't big fish. In fact, the crappies measured a mere 6 inches in length, while the sunfish averaged 4-5 inches. But all of that didn't matter. I wanted something to do, and I accomplished that mission.

Mind you, I had gone decades and never fished the North Branch while some locals swore by the great angling in the spring and summer months.

On the way home I passed a grouping of ponds that had a small opening in the ice. I figured I might as well give it a shot, so I tied a slightly larger jig onto the thread-like mono and dropped it in the frigid water.

Because there weren't any other open spots and I wasn't getting instant gratification like the other location, I was ready to call it a day -- until I felt a strike.

Up came a small largemouth bass with the jig and wax worm tucked into the corner of the fish's mouth. For me, that was a rarity in these waters.

I've always believed that unless a fish is desperately hungry and under a thick layer of ice, one of the better times to go for them is when the water temperature reaches the mid to high 60s. Of course the ice would be gone under those conditions.

This straggler defied protocol and helped end my day on the plus side.

One never knows, especially when cabin fever runs rampant.

• Contact Mike Jackson at, and catch his radio show 6-7 a.m. Sundays on WSBC 1240-AM and podcast at

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