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Downstate Smallmouths

Downstate Smallmouths
Whether battling a bronzeback on a wide river or a small lake, most anglers agree that pound for pound the smallmouth bass is one of the most thrilling fish to catch. (April 2009)

Everyone has a favorite fish and while there's much debate about which is the best, most anglers agree that pound for pound the smallmouth bass is one of the most thrilling to catch. Whether battling a smallmouth on a wide river or luring one from the depths of a lake, these aerobatic fish almost immediately head for the surface and give a spectacular performance. And while these fish are a blast to catch -- just ask fishing legend Al Lindner who says smallies are his favorite fish -- there aren't many good smallmouth lakes in the southern half of Wisconsin. (Continued)

Smallmouths prefer rocky lakes and stained water, but lakes in the southern portion of the state lack rocky bars and points and tend to have clear water. Add to that a healthy population of largemouth bass and it isn't hard to see why hot smallmouth spots are rare in southern Wisconsin. Still, there are a few lakes that hold monster bronzebacks in the 5- or 6-pound range. Here are some of the better lakes in the area.

Geneva Lake, also known as Lake Geneva, covers more than 5,200 acres and has depths down to 135 feet. But when it comes to smallmouth habitat, the shallows have great rock and gravel bottoms that the fish love. Local guide John Reddy of Reddy's Guide Service knows that Geneva can be slow to offer up its secrets.

"Geneva is so large, it can take awhile to find fish if you don't know what you are doing," he said. "In the first part of May, I usually find smallies in 12 to 15 feet of water. I'll work the breaklines with Chompers on a stand-up jig. The fish tend to stack up on the breaklines, so I position my boat in deeper water and then cast up to the shallows and bring it back."

In terms of what to use, Reddy has many suggestions.

"This lake has more crayfish in it than nearby lakes," he said. "I've found that plastics in crayfish colors work really well. I've also done well on Senkos, Gulps and Twister Tails in those natural colors. I found in the early season that Rattle Traps and other suspending baits work well. They like the bait a little slower this time of year, so I'll do a pause-retrieve, pause-retrieve kind of action. The fish will hit it on the pause. I've also found that spinnerbaits can work well. They like the in-line spinners better than the tandems. On Geneva, the bass are keyed in on perch, shiners, and crayfish. I've found that colors that mimic these natural foods work the best. For the crayfish, it seems like the brighter the red or orange, the better."

You can also use live bait. Reddy prefers a night crawler on a drop-shot rig.

"The water is still too cold for leeches. They will just ball up around your hook," he said. "Crawlers are much better. I often cast out and bring it back to me slowly. Just look for a twitch in your line to indicate a fish is on. You can try to drop shot vertically, but I've found I've caught more fish with a slow retrieve than with a straight vertical presentation."

Eric Haataja displays two fat Lake Geneva smallmouths.
Photo by Judy Nugent.

Smallmouth hotspots include both shorelines of Geneva Bay, the north shore at The Narrows, the north shoreline west of Conference Point and the military academy shoreline between Fontana and Black Point on the south shore.

Smallmouths average a couple of pounds, but really big ones in the 5- to 6-pound class are caught every year. Occasionally, bass tournaments are held on the lake on weekends, so you may want to plan your trip around these events.

Delevan is very close to Geneva, but don't try fishing both lakes in one day. Both are large enough to take several days to fish. Delevan is smaller than Geneva and as a result warms up faster. Water temperatures will be in the mid-50s for the opener and reach the 60s later in May. Delevan does not have as much gravel bottom as Geneva.

"Try the shallow bays on the southeast end," Reddy said. "This bay has a weed flat that suddenly drops to 50 feet. You'll find the bass adjacent to this steep breakline. I use my electronics to find transitions on the bottom from silt to hard bottom. Otherwise, I'll look for weed flats next to a dropoff.

"Delevan has more sunfish and bluegills than Geneva. The bass here are going to key in on that. I've found that spinnerbaits that mimic these panfish work better than the shiner or perch imitations."

As for other presentations, Reddy suggests plastic creature baits -- Senkos, Beaver Tails, Chompers and Brush Hogs.

"Use these in natural colors like green pumpkin, motor oil and watermelon," he recommended. "I use them with a shaky jighead or a stand-up jig. These fish tend to suspend, so I'll retrieve it with a twitch and a pause."

The fish are generally found on the bottom, but you can still use plastics without a weight. The slow drop can entice these sluggish fish into striking.

When the fish are more active, try suspending baits like Husky Jerks.

"I use blue and silver, black with hints of gold and ghost patterns on Delevan," he said. "As the water warms, Rattle Traps and Shad Raps work well, too."

Spring bass are easily spooked, so you may have better luck if you can make long casts. Reddy suggests using braided line with a 3-foot fluorocarbon leader.

For more information, contact the Geneva Lake Area Chamber of Commerce at (800) 345-1020 or (262) 248-4416. Guide John Reddy can be reached at (262) 949-3470, and Geneva Lake Bait and Tackle at (262) 245-6150 provides bait, tackle, information and guide service.

Madison-area guide Cory Steil knows a lot about fishing for smallmouths on the Madison Chain.

"I like to start at the points, maybe points with new weeds like Maple Bluff, Picnic Point, Second Point or Dunns Bar," he said. "I stay on the shore sides of these points and cast into deeper water. Spawning is foremost in their minds now, so always be near bottoms with chunk rock and sand and gravel. During the pre-spawn, if the water temperature is around 50, try suspending minnow baits like a Rouge or swimming a 4-i

nch Kalin grub. Concentrate on areas 8 to 17 feet deep with a rocky bottom. As the water warms, switch to a tube or Chomper on a Title Shot jighead."

Wind can spell trouble on Mendota, but this time of year, a south to west wind is best. Make note of how the wind has blown three days before going out. The wind will push the warm water to one side of the lake. Follow the warm water and you'll find the fish.

As for equipment, Steil suggests using 6-pound clear monofilament, as the water this time of year is transparent. Use a medium-running crankbait in a crayfish or perch pattern when moving around to locate active fish. I've also found that scents are very important all year, but especially in the spring. Many plastics come pre-injected with scent or you can buy scent and apply it yourself.

If conditions are right, you can also sight-fish on Mendota.

"If the water temperature is in the high 50s, you will see fish bedding," Steil said. "I've seen fish on beds as deep as 16 feet in the clear water."

"But seeing fish and catching fish are two different things," he said. "Increased fishing pressure will force bass out of these areas. Anglers must respect this resource we have so it remains strong. Put 'em back or let them spawn. They are very vulnerable now and we should respect that."

For more information, call Cory Steil at (608) 628-4889.

Ron Barefield is well known in the Madison area as well as across the state for finding big smallmouths.

"Two years ago, I got a smallmouth that weighed 7 pounds, 3 ounces, and while that is big, there are still plenty of fish in the 3- to 6-pound class."

Mendota is known for big smallies, but Barefield is seeing more and more of them in other parts of the system.

"You are seeing fish now on the Monona, Waubesa and Kegonsa rivers. The fish are spreading out through the system and it's all because of the success the smallies are having on Mendota."

Part of the key to success is limited harvest.

"I don't fish for the spawning fish," Barefield said. "You just have to leave them alone if we want this great fishery to continue. We've had 10 years now of the 18-inch, one-fish bag limit and it has really made the fishery what it is. We have lots of bass in the 16- to 18-inch range.

"Find the submergent weeds," Barefield suggests. "Often early in the year, the weeds aren't growing as quickly as they are on some of the other lakes. You can fish these areas with a simple leech and jighead. These first weeds hold the baitfish that the bass are feeding on. As the season progresses, bass will move into 12 to 15 feet of water along weed edges. When the water is in the 60- to 65-degree range, the fish turn on. When it reaches 70, they become even more aggressive. When this happens, you will see them move out to 20 feet of water, so don't be afraid to look deep."

Barefield suggests using plastic tube jigs, 4-inch plastic worms and 3- or 4-inch Twister grubs in crayfish patterns.

"If you get a really calm day," he said, "you can have a lot of fun with surface baits. Cast in 6 to 10 feet of water in an area with a rock or gravel bottom or a transition area from sand to clay.

"In general, you don't want to sit in one spot on these lakes. There are plenty of bays and weed areas to fish, so moving around will help your success rate."

Lake Wisconsin
Lake Wisconsin is not as big as the Madison Chain and Barefield feels it is often overlooked as a smallie hotspot.

"You can catch some 5 1/2-pound smallies in most of the river system," he said. "In May, you can fish it just like you would a lake. Look for points and flats with rock bottoms and concentrate on the breaklines in 6 to 10 feet of water. I've found good success with crankbaits that run 8 feet deep. Once you find fish with crankbaits, you can slow up and toss plastics."

Lake Wisconsin has very few weeds and stained water. You would think that with stained water, you would need to change your color preference, but I've found good success with green pumpkin with pepper flakes and crayfish patterns. Pradco makes a good small crayfish you can use with a stand-up jighead. You can also try shad-colored crankbaits. There are a lot of shad in the lake, so the bass are keyed in on that. Other good colors are chartreuse, nickel bodies, and white.

Good places to start are Moon Valley Bay, Stoners Bay and Wiggeins Bay. Moon Valley and Wiggeins are bigger bays that are right next to each other.

For more information, contact Ron Barefield's Fishing Adventure Guide Service at (608) 838-8756 or (608) 235-7685 or D&S Bait, Tackle and Archery at (608) 244-3474.

Big Green Lake
Located in Green Lake County, Big Green is the state's deepest natural lake at 237 feet. While this may sound intimidating, you really shouldn't concern yourself with deep-water fishing when it comes to smallmouths. Instead you will find them on the shallow bars around the perimeter of the lake, especially the north, south and east shores. Because Big Green is so deep and has such a large volume of water, it is slow to warm in the spring, so the bass are often sluggish until May. But once the water warms and the smallies get active, you can catch some 5-pound fish.

Early in the season, try crankbaits and jigs over the gravel bars along the north and south shores. Later in the season, the bass are found near deeper structure. Typical smalllmouths are usually in the 2-pound range with a few larger fish mixed in. Live bait like flathead minnows is the best bet for sluggish fish.

Another spot to try is the deeper water along the outside edges of spare weedbeds. You often find these areas in 10 to 15 feet of water. There are some deep dropoffs like the one at Sugar Loaf Point where you will find fish stacked up along the breakline.

Several free boat landings serve the lake, including one at the marina in town. For bait, tackle and guide services, call North Bay Sport at (920) 294-6462. For other information, call the Chamber of Commerce at (920) 294-3231.

Bronzebacks are so prized for their great fight that it's no surprise that guys can't wait for the season opener. There may be only a handful of good smallmouth lakes in the southern half of the state, but the great news is when you find a good lake, you'll likely have a good chance at a big fish. Five- to 7-pound smallmouths are possible, thanks to regulation changes and these lakes are just getting better and better. If you only fish for bronzebacks in the northern lakes, you may want to think again. After all, we can't let Lindner have all the fun.

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