Northwoods Bass Fishing
September 30, 2010
Most people head to northern Wisconsin to fish for muskies or walleyes. Why not try the great fishing for smallmouths and largemouths while you're there?
By Ted Peck
A species-specific bass angler in northern Wisconsin faces the same dilemma as a blind dog in a meat market - so many choices that you don't know which way to turn.
This is one reason why northwoods bass don't get the angling pressure seen downstate. Besides, the northcountry is where you go to chase muskies or walleyes - critters you have to fish for, unlike those silly bass that seem to be hiding behind every rock, lily pad or fallen tree.
Willing bass are never more than 30 minutes' drive from the "you are here" arrow just about any place you choose to target north of the base of "Wisconsin's thumb," where folks who pass through Green Bay must decide whether to head northeast into the Door County Peninsula, vector northwest toward Indian Head Country, or take the middle of the road up to Vilas and Oneida counties.
Let's start with bassin' Door County and proceed northward.
DOOR COUNTY Smallmouth bass are the main attraction in the Door Peninsula, mainly because they are present in both size and numbers. Although smallies are cruising within 200 yards from shore along both sides of the Door Peninsula all summer long, this is no place for a little boat anywhere outside the safe haven of a harbor.
Photo by Tom Evans
Virtually every harbor on both sides of the peninsula holds a catchable population of smallmouths. Catching a bass here is usually a simple matter of pitching clear hologram tube jigs or wacky-worm-rigged Senkos on the shady side of larger watercraft at anchor or docks that lie close to the water.
Washington Island, off of the Door's northern tip, has a smallmouth fishery in its own right, with catch-and-release enforced until July 1. Rowley Bay offers the most potential for avoiding the artsy-craftsy crowd and getting hooked up of any ports on the Door Peninsula. The area around Sturgeon Bay is in a class by itself when you're talking smallmouth bass. You're liable to find action from the "flats" and Sawyer Harbor at the west end of the ship canal to the shoreline off of Potawatomi State Park farther east, and many points in between.
The key to catching bass here seems to be directly related to depth, with 8 feet of water a good place to start during June. Once you find the depth contour where fish are holding, catching fish is usually just a matter of following it down the shoreline and casting tube jigs, 3-inch Kalin Fliptails or ShadRaps; counting down to the depth where active fish are holding; and then making a steady retrieve back to the boat. Sturgeon Bay smallies seem to have a real affinity for a particular bait at any given time. Catching bass is a simple matter of matching the ideal depth contour with the lure du jour.
Wind is almost always a factor when fishing the Door. A driftsock can spell the difference between dancing with a pile of fish or just a couple.
Contact: Door County Chamber of Commerce, 1-800-527-3529.
CHEQUAMEGON BAY It takes many years to grow smallmouth bass to trophy proportions in the chilly waters of this southern bay of Lake Superior. The only reason whoppers living here grow both large and old lies in extremely restrictive harvest guidelines. A catch-and-release-only rule is strictly enforced until mid-June, when a one-daily, 22-inch minimum takes effect until March 1 of the following year.
Although you can tangle with numbers of smaller fish right around the docks in Ashland, most of the big dogs are out around the islands and shallow flats around Sand Cut Slough several miles to the north.
This is no place to be in a small boat, even on the calmest of days. Lake Superior is famous for making its own weather that can pop over the trees on the north side of the flats before even the fastest boat can see it coming and head for safety.
Although fly-rodding for trophy smallies is quite popular here, baitcast gear with big Zara Spooks or large spinnerbaits will also fool these wise and wary fish, especially when you get away from the "community" spots and target some of the subtle humps in this vast, windblown bay.
GPS coordinates of the larger midlake structures can be found on the new Fishing HotSpots map. The real honeyholes are harder to find, but certainly worth the effort if a spot over the fireplace is screaming "trophy smallmouth mount here!"
Although there are several guides in the area, two stand far above their competition. Craig Putchat works out of Washburn on the west end of the Bay, with Ashland's Roger LaPenter a primary reason why the smallmouth fishery continues to flourish here.
Contacts: Ashland Chamber of Commerce, 1-800-284-9484; Roger LaPenter, (715) 682-5754; Craig Putchat, (715) 373-0551. Fishing Hotspots, 1-800-500-MAPS.
BAYFIELD PLAN B There are days when Gitcheegumee simply isn't going to grant you access to Chequamegon Bay, especially now when the northcountry is grudgingly trying to accept summer weather patterns. Two options that lie 45 minutes inland offer nearly sure-fire success on smallies in both size and numbers.
Lake Owen is one of our state's most scenic lakes, located about 40 minutes south of Ashland on Highway 63. Tall trees of the Chequamegon National Forest ring these 1,323 acres, with fallen timber at many points on the shoreline allowing smallmouth and largemouth bass that swim here to hide behind logs that can be seen over 20 feet down.
Stealth and long casts are major keys to success when working the shoreline for June bass. Since the shoreline is so well protected from wind, with shade a factor most of the time, a topwater lure is always a good bet. Clear lures like the Heddon Tiny Torpedo and Chug Bug are very effective on these fish, with clear tube jigs, Senkos, shallow-running natural-pattern crankbaits and No. 4 Mepps Black Fury spinners all you need to find success.
When serious summer arrives, bass that swim herein take refuge in developing weed growth, with some of the larger specimens moving offshore to humps that are easy to find with electronics.
Weeds are also bass magnets in the Pike Lake Chain, located just southeast of Iron River on County H. As in Owen, several offshore humps in Hart and Twin Bear lakes hold bass and other species, most notably muskies and jumbo bluegills.
Water in these far northcountry lakes is also exce
ptionally clear, making natural baits your best bet in what may be the best kept fishing secret in this neck of the woods. The only reason folks stay away from the Pike Lake Chain in droves is the access. There are only two boat launches, both of which charge access fees. The launch and Twin Bear Campground will accommodate the big boat you intended to fish Chequamegon Bay with, but you will have trouble passing under the bridge that essentially splits the chain in half. With a 4-wd vehicle, waders and a fair amount of determination, you can get a big boat in the water at the Heritage Inn launch to access other parts of the chain.
Contact: Mr. T's bait shop, (715) 372-4356.
MILLER DAM FLOWAGE Access on Miller Dam Flowage, also known as Chequamegon Waters Flowage, in Taylor County is good - once you get there. Taylor County is just slightly off the beaten path between Interstate 94 and Interstate 39.
This is largemouth country, with just enough obnoxious northern pike swimming around to put a serious dent in your spinnerbait inventory. Plastic baits are cheaper, especially when rigged weedless. A 4-inch watermelon-pattern centipede (a.k.a. "french fry") is a sure-fire bait here. Buzzbaits can also be effective in these off-colored, stumpy waters.
Navigation can be challenging on this 2,715-acre flowage on the Yellow River located near Medford on the south side of the Chequamegon National Forest. Because these waters are stained and shallow they warm quickly, making now an ideal time to hit the water here.
Contact: Fuzzy's General Store & Bait Shop, (715) 785-7977.
BUTTERNUT & KENTUCK Butternut and Kentuck lakes, about 10 miles east of Eagle River, are two of the northcountry's very best bass waters.
Kentuck is a sleeper. There's not much in the way of structure or obvious cover, with a maximum depth of about 20 feet. These 1,000 fertile acres in the Nicolet National Forest warm quickly, causing weeds to grow and bass to turn on.
From this point until fall it's a no-brainer. Work the weeds with topwaters and buzzbaits for largemouths, and target smallies at the deepwater weed edge with Kalin Grubs, the Chomper twin-tailed Hula Grub, or if you have the kids along, a jumbo leech on a gold-headed 1/8-ounce jig.
Butternut is tougher to fish. It's ultraclear, with little weed cover, and smallies tuck tight behind boulders, manmade cribs and similar structure.
This is a big-bass lake, with essentially two productive ways to attack bronzebacks: get on the water at low light and pitch clear topwater lures and in-line spinners toward shore, or sight-fish with polarized glasses, marking likely bass hideouts mentally and returning a few minutes later to make a long-distance cast.
Contact: Eagle Sports, (715) 479-8804.
UPPER WISCONSIN RIVER Our namesake river makes quantum changes between Lac Vieux Desert and its confluence with the Mississippi River near Prairie du Chien. By the time the Wisconsin River reaches Old Man River, it is a roiling sea of sand - the result of this river's unimaginable power, making little rocks out of big rocks all along the way.
Get north of Wausau and the Wisconsin is all big rocks, with the timeless battle between water and stone well joined. Piano-sized boulders cause the river to tumble and fall into deep holes. Runs of shallow riffles deny passage to all but float-fishers in canoes and cartopper boats - and guides like Todd Koehn, who tempt fate by running the river with a jet-drive outboard.
The Wisconsin has been called the "hardest-working river in America" because of all the power dams. Herein lie both a key and a warning for those fishing above Wausau: Always go upstream and fish your way back to the launch. River levels can drop drastically and quickly as dams come on-line. This impacts both fish location and activity level, with river travel an extreme hazard if you don't know what you're doing.
Enter Koehn, the portly pirate who thrives on the challenge while giving the river due respect. When an angler is armed with a medium-action spinning rod spooled with 10-pound mono and a No. 4 Mepps Black Fury spinner, 30 to 50 bass a day become educated before a quick release. If you're up for adventure and more than a hint of danger, this is the best smallmouth water in our state.
Contact: Todd Koehn, 1-800-710-8020; www.rivercatch.com.
MENOMINEE RIVER This Wisconsin/Michigan boundary water is one of the most overlooked fisheries in the state. A major reason is tough access to long runs of river because of shallow riffles and other hazards.
The pool above the Hattie Street dam at Marinette/Menominee is accessible for larger boats and it's the site of bass tournaments every summer. Larger boats can also access the river at the lower end of pools above dams maintained by Wisconsin Electric Power Company.
Fishing at these mostly accessible sites is typically between good and excellent. Is there a rating above excellent? That's the kind of action you can expect if you take on this river's nether reaches with a jet-drive outboard.
Imagine pitching a little Yo-Zuri topwater bait at the tail end of an island with an ultralight rod and 2-pound-test. A 19-inch smallmouth garwoofles the lure. Your partner figures this is going to take a while and makes another cast with a No. 4 Mepps Black Fury spinner. A 21-inch smallmouth eats his bait. The net is still secure for travel from the next dam upriver. Riffles and big rocks are rapidly approaching as current pulls the boat and all combatants downstream. Somehow you manage to free the net while maneuvering between the rocks with the trolling motor and net both fish with one swoop. All days should begin like this.
Lower reaches of river pools on the Menominee have slackwater areas where largemouth bass wait in ambush near deadfalls and similar cover, ready to whack a Texas-rigged worm. The Menominee has muskies, too.
Contact: The Crivitz Recreation Association, (715) 757-3253; www.crivitz.com.
BALSAM LAKE This fertile 2,000-acre fishery in the heart of Polk County has a well-earned reputation as the northcountry's premier largemouth bass lake. Remember those old Miller beer mirrors with a largemouth exploding out of lily pads near a gnarly old stump with a red-and-white plug hanging from its jaw? That's Balsam Lake in a nutshell.
Shallow bays warm quickly after opening day, with a matrix of fish-holding weeds. Target those bays on both sides of the narrows at the entry point into the east side of Balsam Lake early in the season, and then work weed edges and stumps around mid
lake islands after about the middle of June.
You can access this classic bass water from ramps on the west, east and south sides of the lake, with the best ramp on the west side off of Highway 46.
A variety of presentations will work here, from plastics to stick baits, buzzbaits, spinnerbaits - and an old red-and-white plug.
Contact: Ward's Balsam Beach Resort, (715) 485-9590.
SPOONER'S SECRETS Largemouth bass are also the main draw in several lakes near Spooner in northwest Wisconsin. Both Lipsey and Big McKenzie lakes have well-deserved reputations for producing bucketmouths, with good access on both lakes. But less accessible, smaller waters are the places you want to target for a truly memorable northwoods bassin' experience. Bass, Rooney and Mystery lakes take some map reading skills to locate and a cartopper or canoe for the easiest access.
Once you're on the water, seeing another boat is rare. Each of these little lakes can be fished in just a couple of hours - the perfect end to a perfect day spent bass fishing in Wisconsin's northcountry.
Contact: Washburn County Tourism, 1-800-367-3306.
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