You're never very far from great bass fishing up north. Take some time to try these smallmouth and largemouth honeyholes this summer.
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
It's been a long time since the Badger State's bass records were set. The record largemouth bass of 11 pounds, 3 ounces was taken from Lake Ripley in Jefferson County in 1940, and Wisconsin's top smallmouth bass weighing 9 pounds, 1 ounce was pulled out of Indian Lake in Oneida County back in 1950. Even though these records have stood for a long time, bass fishing in our state today is not only excellent but also getting better each and every year.
The improvement in bass fishing is a direct result of Department of Natural Resources management efforts and angler catch-and-release practices. The general inland fishing regulations list a minimum size limit of 14 inches for both bass species statewide, but more than 50 specific lakes and streams have special regulations and larger size limits, which qualify them as "Quality Bass Waters." Most of these quality bass lakes and rivers are located in northern Wisconsin, but they are not the only places where you can find excellent bass fishing up north.
Take some time this summer to try these northwoods honeyholes for smallmouths and largemouths.
James Braun is a bass fishing fanatic and tournament angler from Sheboygan who claims that everyone knows about the Menominee River's topnotch smallmouth bass fishery up on the Michigan border. Everyone might know about it, but the Menominee is still one of the best locations if you are looking for both quantity and quality bass fishing in a wilderness-like setting. Much of the shoreline is undeveloped and picturesque, but this also means the boat ramps are located mostly in remote areas, and are often primitive.
The Menominee is a large river separating the Wisconsin counties of Marinette and Florence from Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Smallies are the dominant species in the Menominee, but the calm water of the flowages produce largemouths, too. It's not unusual to boat several dozen bronzebacks during a day of fishing by casting artificial baits to the shoreline or midriver structure and cover. The rock, wood and weed cover holds crayfish and baitfish, so crankbaits and spinners work well. The size of the bass varies, but trophies over the 20-inch mark are scattered throughout the river.
Crivitz-area guide Mike Mladenik promotes the Menominee's stained water and its bronzeback population, and although he also markets a line of bass fishing tackle, he prefers a simple live-bait rig for much of his bronzeback fishing. "Live bait is the best method if you're after big fish," Mladenik said.
For information on lodging in the area, visit the Crivitz Recreation Association Web site at
www.crivitzrecreation.com. They provide maps detailing the location of boat ramps, bait dealers and other attractions. For guide service, contact Mladenik at (715) 854-2055.
Marinette County's biggest lake contains both largemouth and smallmouth bass. The bigmouth variety is far more common in this 2,409-acre lake, but on some days you will catch more smallies.
Noquebay is located a few miles northeast of Crivitz. It's easy to fish the lake one day for largemouth bass and then to go to the Menominee River the next day for smallmouths.
Bass anglers who get away from the shallow shoreline areas and fish the deep-water weed edges catch the largest Lake Noquebay bass. This is also a lake in which live bait -- minnows in spring and leeches in summer -- will catch the most and biggest bass. Use slip-bobbers to drift the bait tight to the weedbeds.
Visit the Marinette Area Chamber of Commerce's Web site at
www.marinettechamber.com for information on travel and lodging in Marinette County.
If you are looking for a clearwater lake with plenty of bass action, nearly 1,000-acre Kentuck Lake is a good choice. This Vilas County lake located east of Eagle River holds both largemouths and smallmouths, but the smallies are predominant. In fact, it's tough to fish the lake and not catch smallies, which makes this a good place to introduce kids or beginners to bass fishing. You will catch bass while fishing for crappies and bluegills with live bait, too. In fact, you might consider the bass bothersome in that case.
Two boat ramps -- one on the south shore and the other on the northeast in the campground -- provide access, but the southern ramp is the best. There is plenty of shoreline action, but these are the smallest fish in the lake. The largest fish will be in the weeds, especially in the north half of the lake. When the sun is high, fish the deep-water side of the weedbeds with jigs and plastics. White and black are both good starting colors, and you will catch more fish by adding a piece of nightcrawler or a leech to your jig.
Visit the Eagle River Chamber of Commerce's Web site at
www.eagleriver.org or call 1-800-359-6315 for lodging and travel information.
If it's bucketmouths you want, give both Upper and Lower Buckatabon lakes a try. These connected Vilas County lakes are located 15 minutes northeast of Eagle River and a few miles southwest of Conover. The channel between the lakes is navigable by boat, so you can fish both lakes during one outing. Both are well-known musky lakes and support both largemouth and smallmouth bass. The bigmouths are dominant, and the lakes have plenty of panfish to keep the kids occupied.
Upper Buckatabon has a barrier-free boat ramp on its far south shore and is the deeper of the two lakes, with a maximum depth of 47 feet. The upper lake is larger, nearly 500 acres, while the lower lake is smaller, 352 acres, and shallower with a maximum depth of 16 feet.
For lodging and travel information, log on to the Conover Chamber of Commerce's Web site at
www.conover.org or call (715) 479-4928.
With nearly 2,600 acres of water, Washburn County's Shell Lake is one of the largest lakes in the county and a great lake if you're interested in catching large quantities of smallmouth bass. Largemouths are present, too, but they are not nearly as common as the bronzebacks.
The community of Shell Lake is small, with just more than 1,300 people, but it's unique because the lake is entirely within the city's corporate limits. The deepest water in Shell Lake bottoms out at 36 feet and the lake
has a half-dozen good boat launches. Shell Lake is the Badger State's largest landlocked seepage lake, the water is clear and clean, and it's the DNR's recommended lake for bass anglers visiting Washburn County.
As is true in many northern Wisconsin lakes, bass anglers can expect to lose some lures to muskies in this excellent muskie lake. Bring plenty of weapons with you.
Additional fishing information on Washburn County is available at
www.washburncounty.com. Simply click on the "fish link." For travel, camping or lodging information, visit Shell Lake's Web site at
If you like to fish huge lakes for bronzebacks, take a trip to Lake Wissota in Chippewa County. This 6,300-acre drainage lake is part of the Chippewa River system and is located a few miles east of Chippewa Falls. Lake Wissota is famous for its muskies, walleyes and bass fishing, with smallies being the primary bass species. Bigmouths are present in the lake, too, but in lower numbers than the bronzebacks.
There are plenty of boat ramps that provide convenient access for anglers, but unfortunately the lake receives heavy recreational boating traffic on weekends. The best time to fish is on weekdays or very early in the morning on weekends before the pleasure boaters hit the water.
Bright colors are the rule in Wissota's dark water, and live bait such as nightcrawlers and leeches often entice the moody fish to bite. Local guides prefer to fish the Paint Creek and Yellow River mouths before trying the main lake.
You can access travel and lodging information at the Chippewa Falls Area Chamber of Commerce's Web site at
www.chippewachamber.org or call 1-866-723-0340.
Also known as Mill Pond, Marsh-Miller Lake is located five miles northeast of Bloomer and is known for big largemouth bass. Rumor has it that 5-pound fish are common, but bass anglers often avoid answering questions precisely. In any event, this drainage lake with a surface area of 436 acres and a maximum depth of 14 feet is a good bet for bucketmouths.
The lake has two boat landings, one on the north end near O'Neil Creek and the other at the south end near Birch Point. The lake has plenty of submerged stumps and vegetation to hold bass.
Chippewa County's Web site at
www.chippewacounty.com has visitor information and maps of the Bloomer area to help you find lodging and other services.
Just six miles north of Hayward you'll find Nelson Lake and good largemouth bass fishing. This 2,500-acre lake has a maximum depth of 33 feet and a mean depth of 11 feet. Three boat ramps provide good access on the east and west ends.
Local bassers recommend concentrating on shoreline areas in the early morning and evening hours for the most consistent action, especially in summer when the bucketmouths can be tough to find and catch. For the best results, hit this lake early in the season and once again in fall after the water begins to cool.
For lodging and travel information, visit the Hayward Area Chamber of Commerce's Web site at
www.haywardareachamber.com or call (715) 634-8662.
Douglas and Washburn counties share the 1,564-acre Minong Flowage, which is located a half-dozen miles northwest of the town of Minong. There are four good boat launches spread around the flowage.
Recent reports claim bass approaching the 24-inch mark. That's a big bass in any lake, and not the size you catch everyday. As with many bass waters, Minong's bass fishing can be hit or miss depending on the time of year, weather and other factors, such as boat traffic.
To find accommodations near Minong, log on to Washburn County's Web site at
DNR QUALITY WATERS
Some of the DNR's Quality Bass Waters require special mention when we talk about fishing in northern Wisconsin. For example, Lake Superior -- including the Kakagon River and Kakagon Slough -- has a 22-inch minimum size limit. Fishing is good in Lake Superior right now and will only get better as the restrictive minimum size limit allows the fish to grow to trophy sizes.
Most of the Quality Bass Waters listed by the DNR have an 18-inch minimum length limit, and most of these lakes are in northern Wisconsin. You can read the full list at the DNR's Web site at
www.dnr.wi.gov/org/water/fhp/fish/qwaters.htm, but the current fishing regulations will also specify any special regulations for each specific lake in the county sections.
Another category lists a 16-inch minimum size limit for smallmouth bass and contains only one lake -- Pallete in Vilas County. In addition, there is one lake -- Round in Waushara County -- in a category where 14- to 18-inch bass are protected.
The final special category the DNR lists under Quality Fishing Waters is Catch-And-Release-Only Lakes, and all are located in Vilas County. They are Big, Bittersweet, Oberlin, Prong and Smith.
Largemouth and smallmouth bass are popular targets for Wisconsin anglers, but they're not always easy to catch. We'll never really know why one day the bass bite and the next they don't, even when we can't detect anything different between the days. Fishing guides who spend all their time chasing bass haven't figured that out yet either, but they have learned to pattern the fish and adapt to the conditions.
It's always a good idea to hire a guide for your first trip on a lake or river. If you don't want to do that, check with the local bait dealers and see what information they will share with you about where the bass are biting now and what they're hitting.
Cold-front conditions are the worst times to fish for either type of bass, but we can't always schedule our trips for the best fishing weather. Under cold-front conditions, fish deeper and slower than you normally would, and use live bait or at least some fish-attractant scent. If you have a choice, fish a river rather than a lake after a storm. River fish seem less affected by the passage of fronts.
If you choose to fish a clearwater lake, try fishing early and late in the day. Bass are sensitive to sunlight and will seek cover near shore or under weedbeds when the sun is high in the sky. If the lowlight periods don't produce fish, try fishing after dark. Largemouth bass often become nocturnal in clear water where there is excessive daytime boat traffic.
Lakes and rivers with dark or stained water usually have th
e best midday bass fishing, and the fish are often shallower than in clearwater lakes or rivers. Precision casting will be necessary to drop your bait right next to the riprap in dark waters.
No matter where you plan to fish, take a good selection of lures in a variety of colors. Bass often show a definite color preference in specific lakes and rivers. Check with the locals and see if they will share any advice on good colors to start with.
There are countless options for catching bass in northern Wisconsin. If you're lucky and can find a hidden lake, quarry or farm pond that hasn't been fished in awhile, you may catch some big largemouth bass. Many "hidden" lakes are located in national, state or county forests and can only be accessed by foot travel. Most fishermen won't bother, so get yourself a map and take a hike. Of course, pack in a light rod and small tackle box. You could find yourself a largemouth bonanza.
You will need permission to fish small lakes and ponds on private land, but these too can produce big largemouth bass simply because the fish have had time to grow, and they haven't seen many lures or baits.
If you like river fishing for smallmouths, consider wading some of the smaller tributaries and working far upstream. Surprisingly, a large bronzeback doesn't need much water over her back to survive.
Northern Wisconsin offers a wide range of lakes and rivers for bass anglers. Why not take advantage of it this summer?