A bass fisherman’s dilemma in this Grand Land of Cheese is akin to choices facing a blind dog in a meat market: With so many choices, where do you go?
Largemouth and/or smallmouth bass are swimming less than a 30-minute drive from essentially any point in the state. Barring obscene or potentially dangerous weather conditions, hooking up is a simple study in time and effort required.
Those who chase bass with any degree of passion usually are willing to work beyond the point of certifiable insanity to get their string stretched. Cost is another non-issue. If that were the case, there would be more kids waiting for the command to “drop anchor” working for minimum wage than there are MinnKota Talons on the sterns of bass boats.
The biggest challenge faced by sport-anglers is that of time. With a finite number of days on the water, where do you go for the optimum bass fishing experience?
I feel your pain, brother! Last year I had only 211 days on the water — and on more than half of these trips I was forced to work on the bass-rich waters of the Upper Mississippi as a fishing guide.
The closest worthwhile bass water from home is at least a two-hour drive away.
There is no place better than the Mississippi when the River isn’t angry. This immortal river drains two-thirds of the continental United States. During 2016 my home water ran somewhere between “minor flood” and “action” stage from mid-June through most of September, keeping clients away in droves.
Bass don’t leave a river when it’s running belly-full and dirty, they simply relocate. Unfortunately, the client base relocated too, forcing me to work other waters for much of the summer.
Several forays were spent on Lake Owen, 22 miles northeast of Hayward in Ashland County. When it comes to bass fishing, Owen is in a class by itself. The DNR says there are too many bass there. The DNR wants anglers to keep all largemouths, to enable the native smallmouth population to flourish.
That creates an impossible dilemma for folks who treasure quality bass. I simply can’t bring myself to thump a fat 19-inch largemouth in the head. Law prohibits leaving the lake with water in the livewell to stock fish somewhere else.
Bass as table fare? I would rather eat other fish, but to each his own.
Catching both largemouths and smallmouths in Owen is fairly straightforward and easy all summer long. All you need to bring are some topwater lures — preferably clear plastic ones — and a bunch of Chompers hula grubs and Salty Sinkers in dark melon pepper and blue/black colors.
This 1,323-acre lake is ultra-clear. Lake Owen boasts the best water quality of any lake in Wisconsin. Visibility is incredible.
Envision a tangle of tree limbs on the bottom 20 feet below the boat. You cast a clear Chug Bug out on the glassy calm water above the wood and wait for all riffles to waft away.
Twitch. Twitch. The water explodes with an 18-inch bronzeback leaping clear of the surface and crushes your lure on her way back to cover.
On an average outing at dawn or dusk you can expect this jaw-dropping sensory overload at least a dozen times.
When light penetration is a factor, it’s time to break out the Senko style baits, either wacky or Texas rigged. Target any remaining shady spots, submerged timber, or deep weed edges.
Accessibility is the primary reason Lake Owen has my vote as the state’s best bass water. Owen is long, narrow and deep with good public access on either end. Local guides with clients who dream of catching giant smallmouths on Chequamegon Bay launch their boats on Owen when the big lake they call Gitche Gumee is simply too rough.
If this bass fishing forecast only focused on the month of May, waters on the Green Bay side of Sturgeon Bay and the Sturgeon Bay ship canal would be the hands-down best place to dance with those brown bass, with 5-pound smallies common and fish up to 8 pounds possible.
Riley’s Bay, Little Sturgeon Bay, Sawyer Harbor, The Flats, Monument Shoals — every one of those spots just a short boat ride from the closest public launch — can provide the best smallmouth fishing day of your life this month if wind is not a factor.
Gobies are a major forage base there, so essentially any dark-green plastic will catch fish. Kalin grubs, tube jigs and Chompers Salty Sinkers will produce action that will keep the landing net wet. On those rare days when Green Bay is glassy calm, that clear Chug Bug that works so well on Lake Owen will tear ’em up on the sheltered waters of Green Bay.
Hundreds of lakes across the northern third of Wisconsin offer good to excellent action on both largemouth and smallmouth bass. Winnowing the options down to just a few waters is a tough task, but Vilas County’s 957-acre Kentuck Lake would certainly be a finalist. Be sure to check regulations if you plan on keeping a smallmouth bass. Smallmouth harvest is prohibited in the northern zone until the third Saturday in June.
If kids are part of the equation in an up-north fishin’ mission, 1,092-acre Spooner Lake is a great choice. This weedy water offers incredible numbers of largemouth bass, some of very respectable dimensions. It also is brimming with toothy pike. Employing a short, flexible steel leader will help protect your tackle inventory. Spooner Lake is home to a tremendous bluegill population as well. Those fish are holding a massive family reunion on spawning beds out around the islands as you read these words.
Should your man cave wall be screaming for a big green north country bass on a board, consider Burnett County’s 393-acre Lipsie or 521-acre Wood Lake — especially if your favorite bass weapon is some variation of a slop frog.
A large percentage of Wisconsin’s population lives within a 90-minute drive of the Winnebago chain in the east-central part of the state. Given this chain’s longstanding reputation as a walleye fishery, only a fraction of folks who fish there target bass.
Both green and brown bass are plentiful in these waters, with May prime time to target both.
Don’t be surprised if a smallmouth inhales a leech under a slip-bobber this month on main-lake points and reefs like Oakwood and Sunset points along the Highway 41 causeway on Winnebago.
A chrome/blue Rat-L-Trap is a very effective “search” bait when looking for pods of active smallies on the rocks at this time of year.
Largemouths are congregating now, seeking the warmest available water. Shallow bays like Sunset Bay on Lake Butte Des Morts are obvious places to look, but less aesthetic waters such as the numerous manmade channels can be fish magnets.
Soft plastics and swim jigs are very effective for catching a pile of these green bass once their location has been confirmed with the Rat-L-Trap.
Grandpa’s observation that you can gain a week on Spring for every 100 miles traveled south holds tremendous conventional wisdom when chasing May bass in the Land of Cheese.
If bass are your primary targets on opening weekend the first Saturday in May, concentrating on waters at latitudes from Madison south is a solid strategy for these cold-blooded critters.
When fishing areas not subject to seasonal restrictions, like Lake Onalaska on the north side of LaCrosse, you can experience incredible success fishing dark-bottomed, northern-exposure bays throwing the Rat-L-Trap once water temperatures warm to 43 degrees — not long after ice-out.
For some reason largemouths become incredibly aggressive shortly after the icy lid comes off of their world in the spring. Once water temperatures warm to about 48 degrees they suddenly become more cautious and more responsive to slow presentations with suspending stickbaits and soft plastics.
When opening day arrives on Lake Mendota, the Rat-L-Trap bite window is already closed. A large percentage of this Madison Lakes’ largemouth biomass is concentrated in relatively small areas, relating to dark bottom areas on the north side near Cherokee marsh and on the south side just a long cast away from walking paths of the University of Wisconsin campus.
Swim jigs and a slow-rolled spinnerbait are effective on these opening-weekend fish, but your best shot at a Wisconsin bucketmouth of a lifetime might come with a clown pattern suspending Husky Jerk Rapala and a ham sandwich.
Cast the Rapala near a fallen tree or large rock on Mendota’s south side. Give the lure a couple of good rips, and then take a bite of the sandwich. When the suspending stickbait starts to move away on its own accord a minute after the cast, set the hook!
Delavan and Pewaukee lakes get plenty of bass fishing pressure on opening weekend, but both are worthwhile destinations early in the season.
Seven-mile-long Lake Geneva is just a short hop from Delavan. Because Geneva is both large and quite deep, the water doesn’t warm up as quickly there as it does on other southern Wisconsin lakes. Geneva is home to some whopping big smallmouths and largemouths.
Regardless of where you chase bass in Wisconsin this month, and how sophisticated your boat’s electronics are, the most valuable component of the fishfinder early in the season is the surface temperature read-out.
Sonar features like side scanning and bottom tracking are of little value when active bass are concentrated in less than 6 feet of water. An advanced degree in computer science is not necessary to find consistent success on May bass in Wisconsin.
Don’t be a deep thinker! You’ll catch more bass!