Wisconsin's Best Smallmouth Streams
September 30, 2010
This is the prime time of year to target smallmouth bass on these rivers.
By Ted Peck
No matter where you live in Wisconsin, you are never more than an hour's drive away from superb riverine smallmouth bass fishing. The dog days of August are prime time to target old bronzebacks on streams both big and small, with waters generally at low pool levels and the smallie's "eat" button stuck in overdrive mode.
It doesn't take a major investment to be a serious player for these fish on smaller streams. All you need is a light-action spinning outfit, a small tackle box with a couple of spinners, small stickbaits and a topwater or two, and an old pair of tennis shoes to protect your feet.
Watercraft will open more waters, with a canoe or cartopper ideal for floating some of our small to medium-sized rivers. On our major rivers like the Mississippi, Lower Wisconsin and St. Croix, it's nice to have a motor on the back of your boat. The recreational value of paddling or rowing against the current on these wide-bodied rivers feels more like work in short order on days when you can break a sweat just standing still.
Big waters also usually hold a potential for producing larger fish and maybe more fish once you figure out the pattern. Some anglers conclude that taking home a few bass for the pan is all right, "because there's gotta be a million of 'em." It's true that another smallmouth will likely move into a prime niche in a riverine ecosystem shortly after you've killed the fish that called a particular area home, but it takes five years to grow a 3-pound smallmouth in most waters. Consider how much fun you can have practicing catch-and-release on this critter over that time span, and how big she will grow if you let her go.
That said, let's grab the polarized sunglasses, bug juice and camera, and head on down to the river.
ST. CROIX RIVER
This incredibly scenic, rugged river in northwest Wisconsin is one of the first that comes to mind when you think "Wisconsin smallmouths," especially when coupled with "float-fishing." A canoe or 14-foot johnboat with a little "kicker" outboard is all you need to negotiate these waters, targeting current edges near steep banks, driftpiles and riffles.
Look for rocks and shade, tossing crawdad-imitating lures like the No. 4 Mepps Black Fury and copper-colored Vibrax spinners, Rebel Teeny Craws and similar crankbaits, and even crawdad-pattern topwater lures.
The author with a dandy smallmouth bass he caught while wading in one of the many tributaries that empty into Green Bay. Photo courtesy of Ted Peck
There are nearly 40 miles of prime and rugged smallmouth water between Riverside and Grantsburg in Burnett County, with the run of river between Danbury and Norway Point also very popular with local anglers.
Numerous tributaries dump into the St. Croix before its eventual confluence with the mighty Mississippi, with many holding tremendous smallmouth potential in their own right. This river starts to grow true shoulders down around Danbury, where there are good boat launches on both the Wisconsin and Minnesota sides of this boundary river. Don't be surprised if a walleye intercepts your lure here. Both smallies and walleyes are present in incredible numbers, according to Department of Natural Resources fisheries manager Larry Damman. On the lower river you can run a larger boat and move more quickly between likely smallmouth haunts. From Stillwater to Prescott, the St. Croix slows, with habitat that is more like a lake than a river.
Contacts: National Park Service, (715) 483-3284; DNR, (608) 266-2621; guide Dick Gryzwinski, (651) 771-6231.
The character of our namesake river changes considerably between wild riffles and boulders around Merrill and confluence with the Mississippi near Prairie du Chien, where sandy flats drop quickly away into deeper water where smallies are waiting to pounce.
The Wisconsin River is a boating minefield pretty much from one end to the other. The only thing that changes is the character of the mines. The ideal watercraft is an 18-foot johnboat with a jet-drive, allowing both mobility and stability while preventing almost certain damage to the outboard's lower unit. It's a little easier negotiating several flowages found in between the north country and Wyalusing State Park downstream. But the very best smallmouth action is on the river proper, and it gets exponentially better with each mile traveled away from easy access.
The most memorable days I've had on this river were with guides Todd Koehn and Ron Barefield. Koehn guides on the upper river, targeting the run between Merill and Brokaw, and beyond. The last time we launched his jet-drive boat in a place where the Wisconsin is just becoming a river, it took my 4x4 truck tethered to his 4x4 truck to launch and recover the boat. Our efforts were rewarded with several fish over 20 inches and a couple of muskies. All Koehn throws are No. 4 and No. 5 Mepps Black Fury Spinners, noting that most strikes come when you cast upstream and retrieve with the current. This spinner is ideal for the upper river because it approximates the crawfish forage base and effectively covers the entire water column.
On the Lower Wisconsin, Ron Barefield likes to target deadfalls and snags on islands next to current with big spinnerbaits, throwing small topwater lures and plastic fliptails - usually yellow - in those areas below the breaking edge of a sandbar. Anchoring up here is a great option. Get set just right and you can stay hooked up for hours. Rocks are few along the lower river, but always worth a cast.
Float-fishing is a great way to experience this river. One word of advice - if you're taking just one vehicle, always motor upstream. River levels can change drastically north of Wausau in just a couple hours as the numerous dams regulate levels to generate power. Better to be up the creek without a paddle than downstream without one.
Contacts: guide Todd Koehn, 1-800-710-8020 or www.rivercatch.com; guide Ron Barefield, (608) 838-8756 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
August is perhaps the best time to chase smallmouths on the Father of Waters, with a large segment of the bronzeback population relating to current on the main river channel and major side channels, especially where there are rocks. Wing dams, closing dams and riprapped shoreline all hold fish. Crankbaits and spinnerbaits are a good way to find smallies, and plastics like tube jigs, Chompers Skirted Hula Grubs and Senko-type baits keep your rod in a state of constant bendage once you find fish.
DNR fisheries biologist Patrick Short, those river pools that are farther away from population centers like La Crosse, Prairie du Chien and Dubuque typically hold larger bass. "When bass reach 14 inches, a lot of them get removed from the system," Short said. "For some reason, folks like eating bass - both largemouths and smallmouths - as much as catfish or panfish over here on the river."
The Mississippi is the site of perpetual bass tournaments every weekend, making midweek a good time to hit the water if you're looking for a quality bassin' experience. But there are plenty of places for bass to hide in every river pool. If you don't mind boat traffic, getting hooked up is usually just the first rocky structure away from numerous boat launches on either side of the river.
River level - and whether the river is going up or down - is a prime key to fish location and subsequent success. Beyond a doubt the best source of information for fishing the Mississippi is www.in-depthangling.com, which provides a constantly updated table of current flow in the different pools, with links to guides, bait shops and other amenities along the 150 miles of potential bass water that is our western border.
The state should post "Caution - Daydreamer" signs for five miles either side of where Interstate 90 spans the Black River. A glance is all it takes to begin a metaphysical discourse in an angler's mind over the smallmouth potential that simply has to exist here. Get your eyes back on the road and take the Black River exit. The six-mile run of river upstream from the city of Black River Falls will confirm your suspicions. Just launch a cartopper at the Halls' Creek Landing. By the time you take out at the boat launch in town, you'll be one happy angler.
The Upper Black from Greenwood to Neillsville is a great place to target earlier in the summer when there is typically a little more current flow. But with a canoe and a "wet-foot" approach, this 20-mile run of river can be fun all summer long.
Probably the most consistent late-summer fishing is found between the Opelt Avenue launch about three miles outside of Neillsville down to Highway 95. It takes the better part of a day to float these seven miles, with an almost-sure-thing chance of hooking into members of the Esox clan along the way in addition to smallies.
Contact: Black River Falls Chamber of Commerce, 1-800-404-4008 or email@example.com.
RED CEDAR RIVER
A similar glance from the interstate bridge at this small river in Dunn County might not spark your interest as much as viewing the Black, but the run of this river between Lake Menomin and Tainter Lake holds some quality bass and a number of other species.
I'll never forget an outing with Dr. Brad Bourkland here some 20 years ago when Brad and I were both young paramedics on vacation from the Beloit Fire Department. Bourkland is now an accomplished angler. But his first smallie encounter was on the Red Cedar where a 16-incher that garwoofled a triple-trebled topwater bait danced right into our small johnboat. One hook was in the bass, one hook was in the boat cushion and the third hook was firmly impaled in the good doctor's backside. And the bass still had plenty of fight left. I did what any good paramedic would do. I reached for the camera the moment hyperventilation and tears from laughter subsided enough to take a photo.
The Upper Red Cedar is quintessential canoe water, especially the 30-mile stretch between Chetak to Colfax, launching at County D.
Contact: Menomonie Chamber of Commerce, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Smallmouths weren't the highlight of another outing with Dr. Brad on this river, even though we caught plenty of them. The highlight occurred near the dam at Park Falls and is a toss-up between Brad tangling with a 6-foot sturgeon and squealing like a little girl, and catching a 3-pound walleye a few minutes later, which involved falling off the dam's wing wall into the river and breaking his rod in the process.
The best late-summer stretch of this river is the 29 miles from the Crowley Dam in Price County to the confluence with the Flambeau's South Fork, with a canoe your best way to travel. There are several places to put in and take out along this float, so you can tailor fishing to your available time frame. DeLorme's Wisconsin Atlas & Gazetteer is invaluable in logistical planning.
Contact: Park Falls Chamber of Commerce, (715) 762-2703.
This Wisconsin/Michigan boundary river is a personal favorite of mine, with nearly 100 miles of prime smallmouth fishing broken into pools that are separated by power dams.
There are boat launches located above and below every dam from the White Rapids Dam down to the Menominee's confluence with Green Bay a couple miles below the Hattie Street Dam in Marinette/Menominee. Fishing below the Hattie Street Dam usually produces a duke's mixture of fish, with a shot at salmonids during coldwater periods.
From a bassin' standpoint, the pool directly above the Hattie Street Dam is probably the best. You can launch larger boats here and navigate without too much difficulty on this pool's lower reaches. Several bass tourneys are held here each year, with the big fish typically pushing 5 pounds.
An almost cookie-cutter similarity is in place on pools of the Upper Menominee, with fast, rocky water immediately below the dam. Rocks and fallen wood are obvious places to look. But don't overlook weeds! If there is a single major key to smallmouth location on slower-moving runs of this river, it is weed edges where a tube jig rigged weedless can offer phenomenal results.
My favorite Menominee River pools are those that lie above "the Oxbow" just east of the town of Wausaukee, particularly the two pools that lie about 10 miles east of the little town of Amberg, where my friend Umberto Spataro creates some of the finest meatballs and pasta on the planet every time I stay at his Italian Inn motel.
Contact: Marinette Chamber of Commerce, 1-800-236-6681.
Also known as the Fever River, this little Lafayette County river in far southwestern Wisconsin meanders between high limestone bluffs and through pastures, offering an entirely different flavor than previously mentioned waters.
Access is possible at a number of road bridges, with almost the entire length of this wadeable stream bordered by private lands clear down to the Illinois border. It is important that you honor the landowner's rights and stay in the stream at all times if you haven't obtained permission. DNR easements have been obtained for considerable access along the Galena, but you want to avoid posted lands without permission for access.
Although it is possible to cast across this str
eam at any given point, one large lure that doesn't even come close to resembling anything swimming here is red hot. Try an X-5 yellow Flatfish with red and brown spots. Truth be known, the big Flatfish in this color scheme is an ace on just about any smallie stream.
Contact: Platteville Chamber of Commerce, (608) 348-8888.
Taylor County's Jump River isn't much wider than the Galena, but it's deep enough in most areas to allow a canoe float. If you launch on River Road with the river at normal levels, it takes about 10 hours to float downstream to a takeout point in the village of Jump River. A slightly shorter but often more productive float goes from the Highway 73 bridge in Jump River to the wayside in Sheldon.
This river is no place for a new canoe because of plenty of rocks and overhanging brush that is almost impossible to avoid. But few fish here see a lure in an average summer, and Jump River is full of smallmouths.
Contact: Taylor County Tourism, 1-800-257-4729.
Our two Great Lakes have numerous tributaries that offer super smallmouth action. Lake Michigan hotspots include the Milwaukee, Oconto, Peshtigo and Pensaukee rivers, with Lake Superior offering Bear Trap, North Fish and Whittlesey creeks near Ashland, and some stretches of the Iron River east of Ashland off of Highway 2 being well-kept secrets. In south-central Wisconsin, the Bark and Crawfish rivers that flow into Rock River are hidden gems, as is the Rock itself. So much water, so little time. Just remember to let the smallmouths go!
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