There are waters in the northern part of our state with smallmouth bassin' so good that anglers come from all over the country to fish there. The largemouth fishing is pretty good, too! (June 2007)
Roger LaPenter poles his flats boat while Carolyn Swartz casts a fly for smallmouth bass on Lake Superior's Chequamegon Bay.
I first got interested in bass fishing many years ago. During a Christmas break from college, I found myself bored one evening, so I went down to the basement where my brother kept every fishing magazine he had ever received, and I started going through them.
Inside one magazine was an intriguing story of a man sitting in a tavern "up north." Into the bar came a stranger talking about big bass -- "bass as large as your thigh." He told stories about being the only person on the lake, stories about the tricky walk through the wilderness to get there, and stories about 6-pound bass he caught cast after cast. Yet, the man couldn't get the stranger to tell him the name of the lake. After several hours and many beers, the stranger finally revealed that the lake was in the shape of a parrot. Depressed, the man left the bar. But then, several years later, the man was looking at a map, and there in front of him was a wilderness lake with an outline like a parrot! He found the honeyhole!
While this may sound like a fish story, many people now know that Wisconsin has some of the best bass fishing in the nation. Our Great Lakes smallmouth bass fishing can arguably be called the best in the country -- and I'm not kidding. Not just some smallmouths, but plenty of trophy smallies, and in good densities. If you prefer largemouths, you can also find them present in good numbers in many northern Wisconsin lakes. In fact, I saw the biggest largemouth bass of my life last summer after my husband caught it while we were on vacation in Douglas County.
But before I get to that largemouth outing, let's start this story off with Wisconsin's best water to catch huge smallmouth bass.
"Chequamegon Bay is possibly the best smallmouth fishery in the country," said Roger LaPenter, a well-known guide in Ashland and owner of Anglers All (715/682-5754). "The bay is an excellent smallmouth fishery, with 4-, 5- and 6-pound fish. And I don't mean just a few, but lots, and they are very aggressive."
The best place to start in the summer is the east end of Chequamegon Bay. Cast toward shore in 4 to 8 feet of water, which can be very clear, so it's likely you will see the bass before you feel the strike.
"Remember that it's a catch-and-release season until the third week of June, then you only get one fish over 22 inches," LaPenter said. "It isn't required that you use barbless hooks during the regular season, but we sure recommend it."
Move into deeper water as summer progresses. Look for deeper breaks and deeper weedbeds. Fall is the prime time for a trophy fish.
"Bring a full tackle box with mixed gear," LaPenter said. "Grubs, tubes, crankbaits and spinnerbaits all work well. I'd recommend a medium-action rod with 6- to 8-pound-test."
Chequamegon Bay is a large expanse of Lake Superior, so you need to be prepared before you head out.
"There are eight different boat landings on the bay," LaPenter said. "But before you launch, you should pay attention to the weather, have a GPS on board and check all the safety regulations for Lake Superior. We can fog up really quickly."
Will Krueger is owner of Kap's Marina (1-888-847-2640) and Ship's Wheel Restaurant in Detroit Harbor on Washington Island off the Door Peninsula. He knows just how good smallmouth bass fishing can be around the area's islands.
"Our bass average 5 pounds, with the occasional fish going 6 to 6 1/2 pounds," Krueger said. "Some of the top anglers have refused to write about the fishing up here, but slowly the word is getting out."
Fishing off a Great Lakes island may sound like a lot of work, but everything will be fine if you plan ahead. To get to Washington Island, you will need to trailer your boat onto a car-ferry from Northport across Death's Door to the island. The ferry leaves every hour on the half-hour. Once you arrive on Washington Island, you can launch your boat at one of the two free launches or one of the three ramps that charge a fee.
If going across on the ferry sounds too complicated, you can launch your young ship off the mainland at Weberg's Dock in Gills Rock. It is three miles from this point across Death's Door to Washington Island. This isn't a problem for 16-foot boats in normal weather, but beware if it turns nasty. Otherwise, you'll have a brutal ride back to the mainland.
When you are on the water fishing for smallmouths, Krueger said you should look shallow.
"Look for structure, and you will find fish," Krueger said. "Look for small reefs around Detroit Island, Rock Island and the other small islands in the area. Bass will tend to be in 1 to 2 feet of water."
As for tackle, Krueger has a simple suggestion.
"Stick with what you are familiar with," he said. "If you usually fish with leeches, then fish with leeches here. Sure, you could go out with a tube jig, but it might take you two or three fishing trips to learn how to use the tube jig successfully. If you know how to use your tackle, any bass bait will work on these fish."
In general, anglers use tube jigs, twistertails and hair jigs. Color preference will depend on water clarity and cloud cover, but in general, Krueger recommends muddy, gray and black.
"These colors work the best, and if you have them, try plastic bodies that have a little fleck of yellow in them," Krueger noted.
Washington Island is closed to smallmouth bass fishing until July 1 to protect the fish during their late spawn, but they could still be on their beds into July.
"Water temperatures don't rise as fast up here as they do in Sister Bay, so those bass are on their beds later than you might expect," Krueger said.
Even with the regulations spelled out, some anglers head here in June to fish for smallmouths. They claim they are catch-and-release fishing. While this may sound legal, it isn't in these waters. Know the regulations before you go out. Catching smallmouth bass before July 1 will ge
t you a citation. Besides the law, there are ethical considerations. After a long fight, fish often don't return to the spawning nest, or they return to the nest to find it raided by gobies while they were gone. To keep this smallmouth fishery at its best, follow the regulations and never fish for bass on their beds.
"The best place to go for smallmouths is the Wisconsin River," said guide Brian Uttech of Eagle River Outfitters. "You can find great water from the Rainbow Flowage all the way down to Merrill."
When fishing the larger rivers in Wisconsin, the water is usually stained and moving at a good clip. It can also be filled with stumps, rocks and other hazards. This is especially true on the Wisconsin River, so navigate with caution. As for the fishing, Uttech said it's pretty simple.
"Use presentations with live bait on 4- to 6-pound-test line, light-wire hooks in size No. 2 and larger, and a small split shot about a foot and a half up the line," Uttech said. "The bait is a large or jumbo leech hooked in the middle. Cast this over your target and let it sink. Keep your line tight and also keep your eye on the line. Set the hook hard when the line twitches."
Uttech also recommended Butternut Lake in northwest Forest County.
"The water is deep and clear," Uttech said. "I use 6- to 8-pound-test Sensation line and either a Mepps Black Fury spinner in a No. 2 or No. 4 size, or a crawfish-imitating crankbait with some orange color on it. There are numerous rockpiles on this 1,260-acre lake, and trophy smallmouths live there. Six- to 7-pound fish are not uncommon."
Uttech is a firm believer in catch-and-release.
"On all of these waters, careful catch-and-release must be practiced in order to preserve a quality fishery for our children," he said. "Pinch the barbs shut on your hooks. It makes for an easier hookset and release. A 20-inch smallmouth on any water is a very old fish. The odds of producing another one like it are stacked against the fish, and it may take another 10 or more years to attain such a size."
For more fishing information, you can contact Uttech by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tim Holschlag is a smallmouth bass guide and author, and he has been chasing these fish throughout the Upper Midwest for decades.
"The Flambeau River is one good northern destination for smallmouths," Holschlag said. "It has over 75 miles of good water from the Turtle-Flambeau Flowage dam down to its junction with the Chippewa River, and there are seven boat landings that provide access."
There are other toothy critters swimming here, so be prepared.
"The Flambeau is rightfully known as a top muskie stream, so it is essential to always use light wire leaders when fishing smallies," Holschlag said. "Fourteen-pound-test Tyger Wire is light enough not to turn off the bass, but will still prevent bite-offs from the toothy muskies."
Holschlag said to plan on fishing on top most of the time.
"Aquatic vegetation develops in much of the Flambeau, so 1/8- and 1/4-ounce spinnerbaits are good, and fly-rodders do well with poppers," he noted.
The Flambeau isn't the place for a big boat, either.
"The Flambeau is best fished by canoe and other smaller craft, so those committed to their full-sized bass boats will need to go elsewhere," Holschlag continued. "Conversely, those looking for quieter, less crowded bass waters will love this northern river."
For more information, go to SmallmouthAngler.com.
Another one of Holschlag's favorites is the Gile Flowage in Iron County.
"This is just south of Hurley and a good smallmouth lake," Holschlag said. "Quite undeveloped and rocky, so it has a beautiful and rugged north-country look. Plus, it has good numbers of smallmouths of various sizes. It is somewhat stained, so the bright colors are good, as is black."
While smallmouths steal much of the bassin' attention in northern Wisconsin, there are several good largemouth lakes that are often overlooked. Bayfield County's Lake Owen gives you the best of both worlds -- great fishing for both bass species. LaPenter guides clients on this lake throughout the summer.
"All of your traditional largemouth tackle will work," LaPenter said. "Twistertails, spinnerbaits, plastic worms and Senkos fished wacky-style all work well. Most fish average between 2 and 3 pounds, but Lake Owen is really starting to come along, with some fish reaching 6 pounds."
Lake Owen has crystal-clear water, so watch your color scheme.
"Use lighter colors on bright days and darker colors on dark days," LaPenter said. "When it's bright, try silver, chartreuse and white, while pumpkinseed, brown, purple and darker crayfish will work well on dark days."
There is a boat launch at Two Lakes Campground and another ramp is off Lake Owen Road.
PINE LAKE CHAIN
The Pine Lake Chain is another group of lakes LaPenter recommended.
"This is a collection of six different lakes," he said. "They all have a lot of structure, but it might be hard to find unless you know the lakes. The good news is, you can start catching bass the minute you push off from the boat landing."
This lake is similar to Lake Owen in that the water is crystal clear, and the bass average 2 to 3 pounds.
"Find one bass and you'll find several bass," LaPenter said. "Just keep casting to the weedbeds along the shore and you'll be successful. In fact, for those who like to fly-fish, this chain offers some great action. Use a minnow-imitation like a white streamer and cast it just as you would a spinner."
This chain has two access points, one on Bushy Bay at The Heritage and the other at County Campground at Twin Bear.
FOREST SERVICE LAKES
I've saved the best for last. LaPenter recommended, and I agree, that for the really big largemouths, nothing beats the U.S. Forest Service lakes.
"There are so many of these, it is hard to pick out just one or two," LaPenter said. "Most of these have walk-in trails that you can easily access with a canoe or belly boat."
LaPenter said these lakes are where you should go to catch the largest largemouth of your life.
"You know, there are two great things about these lakes," LaPenter said. "First, they give you your
best chance at catching an 8-pound bass because they don't get the fishing pressure. Second, when you are finished bass fishing, they are all loaded with panfish."
When I asked LaPenter if his catch-and-release ethic he employs on most bass waters would be needed in the forest, he laughed and said, "You know, some of these lakes have such high densities of bass, they could stand a little harvesting from anglers."
* * *
So, back to that big largemouth bass from last summer. We were three days into our trip when we decided to go to a new lake. I always hate going somewhere new because I don't know the structure, and I don't have any memories of big fish to give me confidence that they can be caught there. But that's what my husband wanted, so off we went.
We picked a canoe-only lake with crystal-clear water, and the sky was bright and blue. He chose a Mr. Twister with a chartreuse tail and placed some casts toward the weedline. In the bottom of the canoe, my young daughter was happily picking apart the skirts of my spinnerbaits because "my Barbie likes the colors, Mommy."
About a third of the way around the shore, the wind started to hit the canoe broadside and I spent all of my time keeping the canoe in position. My husband cast near the tip of a pier in about 6 feet of water, and then a fish hit! My husband knew at once that he had a big one on. At first, I thought it was a northern, but then it jumped. No, this was a gigantic largemouth. Wow! The fish took a dive and I thought the rod was going to break. I shouted to my husband to back-reel as I tried to gain control of the canoe. We were now heading dangerously close to the pier and the last thing I wanted was for that bass to get the line wrapped around the dock. I quickly headed for a clear patch of shore and beached the canoe. Now I could watch the battle.
That fish went back and forth, dove down, jumped a few times, and did everything it could to throw the hook. I jumped out of the canoe with the net and helped my husband land the largest bass of his life. It looked long and fat and healthy.
So, do you want to know what lake that happened on? Well, when you look at it on a map, it looks like the cap of a mushroom laid on its side. Hey, at least it's not shaped like a parrot!
(Editor's Note: You can listen to Judy Nugent on the radio every week on "Outdoors with Dan Small and Judy Nugent" on stations across the state and at Lake-Link.com, keyword: radio).