For some great Wisconsin bass fishing this time of year, check out these top locations for smallmouths and largemouths.
By Dave Zeug
There was a time when walleyes were the centerpiece of Wisconsin’s angling. Make no mistake; there’s still great walleye fishing in our state. But Wisconsin’s bass fishing is rapidly gaining recognition across the country.
Dan Degner lives just across the border in Loves Park, Illinois, although this Anglers Edge Bass Fishing Club member does most of his bass fishing right here.
“Wisconsin has exceptional bass fishing,” he said. “Some areas are better than others from year to year, but there’s always opportunity for great fishing.”
Degner likes the Lake Winnebago system, a series of lakes created by the Fox and Wolf rivers. Lake Winnebago, at 138,000 acres, may offer the best largemouth fishing, but the system also includes Lake Butte des Morts, Winneconne and Poygan.
“I like both Winnebago and Winneconne especially,” Degner said, “but the entire system holds both largemouth and smallmouth bass.”
As with most lakes having both species, you’ll find largemouths close to shore near manmade structures, especially if emergent weeds or other cover sources are nearby. Smallmouth bass are found around mid-lake humps, where the lake’s walleyes can be located too. Hardcore smallmouth fishermen will want to try the Fox River or travel upstream into the Wolf River, targeting areas where the river’s current meshes into slower water.
Degner likes the Madison chain of lakes also. “Lake Mendota is primarily smallmouth water, while Monona has both largemouths and smallmouths. The smallmouths are a little harder to catch, but last year there was a five-fish limit during a tournament on Mendota that weighted 25-pounds,” Degner said.
Look for Mendota smallmouth around the lake’s rock bars and humps in the main basin and off the numerous points like Picnic Point, Second Point, Governor’s Island, and Maple Bluff. On the east side of the lake, work the rock bars near the Brearly Street bar.
Another good bass lake in the Madison Chain is Lake Waubesa, although it’s primarily a largemouth lake.
The Rock River running through both Wisconsin and Illinois can provide good bass fishing too, according to Degner. “There were 25 smallmouths caught off one tree during a tournament there last year.
“A couple of other of my favorites lakes are Okauchee (1,210 acres) and Pewaukee (2,437 acres) in Waukesha County. Both are near population centers, but offer good bass fishing.”
Farther north near Green Bay and Lake Michigan, some of the best smallmouth fishing in the world exists. Mid-May, or maybe a week earlier depending on water temperatures, is prime time to chase them. These pre-spawning fish are found near rocky transition areas, fattening up for the spawning cycle.
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In Door County on the east side of Green Bay, anglers have many options. Bays like Little Sturgeon, Egg Harbor, Fish Creek, Sister and Ellison Bay all attract fish and Green Bay smallmouths run big. Last year smallmouths in the 8-pound class were reported and some think 9- or even 10-pound smallies could be caught this year.
North and east from Green Bay, professional fishing guide Mike Mladenik says the Menomonie River, border water between Wisconsin and Upper Michigan can’t be beat.
Mladenik has guided for 34 years, with the last 25 years working at it full time. “Most of my guiding is done on the Menomonie River, but I fish other water too,” Mladenik said. “We catch 18-inch to 20-inch smallmouths regularly. River smallmouths don’t run as big as they do in some lakes, but some are in the 6-pound class. Daily catches of 100 smallmouths isn’t unusual in the summer; this is a world-class fishery.
“The river’s good all year,” he continued, “but the pre-spawn can be iffy because of changes in the river’s flow that time of year. I like the summer topwater bite best and then in the fall too when they’re fattening up.”
When asked about the largemouth fishing, Mladenik is blunt. “Largemouth bass are an underutilized resource; most of the small lakes have them. Shawano Lake is a great largemouth bass fishery too, and High Falls Flowage in Marinette County has both species. Both lakes can provide good fishing.”
In central Wisconsin, the Black River provides miles of smallmouth fishing for anglers seeking a river fishing experience. Beginning in Taylor County near Rib Lake, the Black runs through Clark, Jackson and La Crosse counties before emptying into the Mississippi.
Most of the river, with the exception of impounded water behind the Hatfield and Black River Falls dams, is only fishable from a small craft, such as a canoe, or by wading. Smallmouth bass are found throughout the river, along with a variety of other game fish.
Similar to the Black, the Chippewa and Flambeau rivers in north-central Wisconsin are smallmouth waters. Some of the best fishing on the Flambeau lies in stretches of water in Price, Sawyer and Rusk counties, while the Chippewa’s best water is in Rusk and Sawyer counties. Trip lengths can vary from half-day floats to overnight trips, if you want to take your time and fish the water thoroughly.
During a recent survey, the DNR found the Flambeau had a higher angler catch rate (1.6 smallmouths per hour) than the Chippewa (0.9/hour), although the size structure for smallmouths over 14 inches was a bit lower on the Flambeau. The survey also found mid-summer catch rates were higher than late summer and early fall.
Interestingly, the survey showed catch rates of muskies on both rivers (1 fish per 10 hours of angling) was higher than the statewide average (1 muskie/34 hours). And it’s not unusual for a smallmouth fisherman to tangle with one either.
Close by, the Chequamegon Waters Flowage (2,366 acres) in Taylor County holds largemouths, but you won’t find any smallmouths. Surveys have found the largemouth fishing has been declining a bit in recent years, possibly because of competition and predation from northern pike, although prolonged periods of low dissolved oxygen in winter may be a factor.
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To the west, it’s hard to beat the Mississippi River for both species of bass. Running along the western border of Wisconsin, the size of the Mississippi can be intimidating to bass fishermen. Anglers need to remember the river’s fish don’t stay in one place, they move throughout the system.
With so many locks and dams on the river, there are plenty of backwaters to lure fish and fishermen during high-water periods like those found in the spring. These bays warm up sooner too and are hotspots for bass early in the year.
Pool 8 near La Crosse is one of those. The pool has a reputation for being a bass factory with both largemouths and smallmouths found there, with ample opportunities to fish wing dams, shorelines, river mouths and bays. Veteran anglers like to use dark-colored 4-inch grubs on a swim jig early in the season, although white swim jigs with a single grub trailer work too. Some prefer 3/8- to 1/2- ounce spinnerbaits, especially in the backwaters as they warm up and bass gather for the pre-spawn activities. As with any spring angling, look for new weed growth and chances are you’ll find fish.
You can’t go wrong concentrating on 8,000-acre Lake Onalaska, which actually is part of the Mississippi, a few miles upstream of La Crosse. Lake Onalaska features 7 boat landings too, and so access shouldn’t be a problem.
Moving north, bass addicts can find countless lakes with robust populations of both bass species. Shell Lake in Washburn County is one of them. Early in the year, not long after ice-out, both species can be seen cruising the warmer shallow water in their pre-spawn mode. Although ice-out usually takes place before fishing season opens, by the time the first Saturday in May rolls around, these bass will be active. Look for them around docks and submerged logs in shallow water and be prepared for a double-digit day.
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Another lake with both species in the north is Grindstone Lake in Sawyer County. Smallmouth bass were five times more abundant than largemouth bass in the lake during a recent survey, but that’s to be expected in a lake that has little nearshore aquatic vegetation and a lot of rocky habitat. The survey also showed that while 79 percent of the smallmouths were over 11 inches, 33 percent were over 14 inches and 7 percent were true hogs measuring more than 17 inches.
Nearby Lac Courte Oreilles is another lake that harbors both species of bass, but is better known for smallmouths. With more than 90 feet of water in some places, this 5,000-acre lake holds a lot of fish.
In Bayfield County the deep, clear 1,250-acre Lake Owen also holds both bass species. The lake has been historically known for its excellent smallmouth bass fishing, but a survey a few years ago showed largemouths were more than twice as abundant as smallmouths. This is becoming a common theme in the north, although in a 1988 survey no largemouth bass were found in Owen. That’s not the case anymore.
No bass fishing report would be complete without mention of Lake Superior’s Chequamegon Bay. Anglers travel from all over the country to fish the bay’s smallmouth fishery from mid-May through the end of October, when the biggest fish are fattening up for winter.
The bay, which is about 12 miles long and from 2 to 6 miles wide, has a variety of rockpiles and breakwater structures that all hold bass. The big smallmouths are covered by a protective size limit, where only one fish 22 inches long can be kept. The Bay’s smallmouths grow big, but they also grow slowly, which is why the protective regulation exists. Smallies in the 18-inch class are considered average-sized fish in the bay.
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Chris Beeksma of Get Bit Guide Service knows the Bay well. “I spend 90 percent of my fishing time on the Bay. Bass fishing is as good as it’s ever been in Wisconsin, I start fishing the bay opening weekend, if the weather and water temperatures are there.
“The pre-spawn is my favorite time to fish bass staging in the wooded areas on the east side of the bay. I find them in 4 to 6 feet of water and catch them on crankbaits or suspended jerkbaits and follow them into shallower water as the bay warms.”
Wherever you fish this month, be sure to handle carefully the bass you release. After all, the idea is that they survive to fight again another day!