The muskie may be our state fish, but pound for pound nothing fights harder than a smallmouth bass. You can find out for yourself on these waters.
By Ted Peck
The muskie is Wisconsin's state fish for political and economic reasons.
True, when a muskie wakes you from a trance-like zone after you've thrown 9,990 casts, this fish has a way of getting your attention. But with the proper gear and a little luck, you can subdue even a 48-inch muskie in a relatively short time for quick photos and a release. After your knees quit knocking and you take time to replay the event in your head, it's hard not to ponder whether this fish of 10,000 casts struck early because of cleverness or was too stupid to count to 10,000.
Try to imagine a 48-inch smallmouth bass garwoofling a 10-inch Jake bait. If the initial strike doesn't snap 100-pound-test line, how long would you have to battle this bronzeback before experiencing a Kodak moment? Odds are you could never land such a fish with muskie tackle. And a smallmouth is usually a fish of three casts - allowing for one cast too short and another one up in a tree. With the exception of perhaps a chinook salmon, no fish swimming in Wisconsin waters fights as hard as a smallmouth bass. Talking pound for pound, nothing swimming can touch a smallie in the combat department.
Fortunately, smallmouths only grow to about half the length of our muskie example, with any fish over 20 inches being a true trophy - a fish deserving gentle and rapid release if you ever get her to a net.
Here's a look at some of the best waters in the southern half of our state that are prone to providing piscatory encounters of the smallmouth kind.
WISCONSIN RIVER From its headwaters down to Wausau, the boulder-strewn and rocky Wisconsin River may be classic smallmouth water, but there also are plenty of smallies swimming downstream from the Wisconsin Dells Dam to our namesake river's confluence with the Mississippi at Prairie du Chien.
Rocks are smallie magnets in the lower river, which is pretty much an ever-changing sea of sand. So is any wood in close proximity to changing water depth, and the trailing edge of sandbars as they tumble away into deeper, stained water.
Access is the stumbling block in fishing these waters. Although there are adequate boat ramps between the Dells Dam and the Mississippi, the sandbars that lie between access points seriously limit travel in watercraft powered by traditional outboards. Those who probe these waters seriously use jet-powered outboards on flat-bottomed boats to move between fishing spots, with a push-pole always close at hand for runs of the river that are almost dry land. The only other way to seriously access these fish is float-fishing from a canoe or cartopper with "wet foot" rules in place. Use due caution: The sandbars can drop immediately from mere inches to many feet without notice, which has resulted in several fatalities here each year.
Madison-area guide Ron Barefield knows the lower river better than just about everybody, putting his clients on honest 20-inch smallmouths here on a regular basis. Barefield's armament is simple: an assortment of 3/8-ounce tandem-blade spinnerbaits, clear Zara Puppy topwater lures, crawdad-pattern Short Warts and a few tube jigs. After a lifetime of fishing these waters, Barefield knows what to look for in regard to structure, including placement of the boat in a perfect orientation for bait presentation on the trailing edge of sandbars.
Contact: Ron Barefield, (608) 838-8756.
Madison-area guide Ron Barefield with a nice smallmouth bass caught on Lake Mendota. Photo by Ted Peck
LAKE MENDOTA The nomadic Barefield is also one of the top "hooks" on this crown jewel of the Madison Chain, where a trophy smallmouth population has established itself as the result of a fortunate miscalculation.
About 10 years ago the fisheries brain trust in the Mad City rationalized that the Madison Chain's notorious summer algae bloom would disappear if great numbers of pike and walleyes were introduced, thus creating a predatory ripple effect down to the bloom-causing phytoplankton at the bottom of the chain. Like most plans coming out of this city, the scheme took an unexpected vector, with smallies now present in both size and numbers to qualify Mendota as a true trophy smallmouth lake. A one-fish-daily 18-inch minimum bag limit ensures that the best is yet to come from these nearly 10,000 acres of natural lake that opens to smallie fishing the first Saturday in May.
Early in the season, twitching minnow-imitating lures and burning crankbaits over the tops of submergent weeds and off of rocky points is a great way to get hooked up. When June rolls around, pitching tube jigs into pockets of developing weeds is very effective, with slip-bobbering a leech off of some of the humps and bars even more productive. However, live-baiting results in a lot of deeply hooked fish that have a very high incidence of mortality.
By midsummer the bite is early and late in the day (primarily to avoid considerable recreational traffic), targeting deep rocky structure, with particular attention to transition zones from boulders to rocky rubble.
Fishing HotSpots puts out a great map of this lake, which is ringed by excellent boat ramps. But if you're after true trophies, finding subtle structure like the third hump off of Second Point is not enough. Orientation of rocks on the bottom dictates the location of dominant fish. And there is no substitute for time on the water in figuring the best angle of attack for smallies beneath the pea-soup carpet.
Contacts: Greater Madison Convention & Visitor's Bureau, 1-800-373-6376; guide Ron Barefield, (608) 838-8756.
MISSISSIPPI RIVER Credit the dubious duo of zebra mussels and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers with making smallmouth bass fishing better than it's been since this river began to flow.
Zebra mussels have cleared the water column beyond anybody's wildest imagination, thus enhancing habitat parameters for smallmouth bass. The continuing placement of riprap by the Corps as an adjunct to their secret agenda of trying to turn this great river into a glorified canal is another plus in the habitat column for smallies. Riprap placed on the leading edge of islands and other critical junctures off of the main channel add to the long-established ambush points of river wing dams and riprap along railroad beds following both sides of the river.
The predator-prey relationship provides the primary drive for smallmouth location in a river. In f
ive miles of river there are typically just a handful of locations that bass find attractive under any given set of river conditions, making a run-and-gun approach the best way to be consistently successful on these waters.
Every river pool has its "go to" spots that tend to produce under a given set of conditions. The Mississippi epitomizes the adage "so much water, so little time." To be a serious player here, pick a pool or portions of several pools and learn the water.
I've always liked the water from Genoa to La Crosse, which offers some of the most spectacular scenery our beautiful state has to offer in addition to terrific fishing for both smallmouth and largemouth bass.
The reputation of this neck of the river is no secret. Bass tournaments operate out of the best boat ramps on both sides of the river almost every weekend, with a five-fish limit approaching 20 pounds required to take home top honors. Signing up for one of these events is a good way to quickly come up to speed on bass fishing the Mississippi. Most tourney bassers chase largemouths for weight and smallies for numbers, with crawfish-pattern crankbaits, jigs and plastics - particularly tube jigs - being favorite lures for smallmouths.
For a quality experience, fish the river during the week, or after Labor Day when most other people are off the water. When you locate active fish, stay with them. Don't fire up the outboard and run away. Find them with crankbaits, and then go after the less-than-eager fish with tube jigs and other plastics. Once the bite slows, try similar parameters elsewhere. But check your hotspot again in an hour, because new fish are likely to have moved in.
Veteran guide Bob Kjos showed me several new spots near La Crosse last October. The best was a closing dam on the Minnesota side of the river below the Dresbach Dam, which shallowed up to less than 2 feet deep. In two days I boated and released over 75 smallies here, with most of them being legal dimensions and beyond. After one stretch of 16 bass in 16 casts, it was time to pick up the cell phone to take a few minutes to call buddies. Sharing fishing success with pals is a special thing - especially when you're on the water and they're at work.
Contacts: Bob Kjos, (608) 783-5160; Bob's Bait Shop, (608) 782-5552; La Crosse Chamber of Commerce, (608) 784-4880.
LAKE NAGAWICKA Lake Nagawicka, in the town of Delafield, has plenty of smallmouth bass swimming just a short hop west of greater Milwaukee.
When it comes to smallmouths, Nagawicka holds a distinct edge over Pewaukee and Okauchee lakes just down the road in Waukesha County because it is both tougher to fish and has less pressure for this species than the other two lakes.
You don't have to travel far from the boat launch off of Mariner Road on the lake's east side to locate fish. Just ease a short distance from shore to the first dropoff and start pitching baits, like the Chomper skirted grub, along the break.
As is the case with other natural lakes, smallies in Nagawicka relate closely to transition zones where big rocks meet little rocks or little rocks meld into hard bottom. Don't overlook steep breaklines around the islands, where you're liable to find smaller bass cruising for an easy meal all summer long.
If you just want to catch fish, it's hard to beat a jumbo leech under a slip-bobber. But those folks who want to protect this valuable resource stick with plastics, most notably the Berkley Power Leech, tube jigs and Senkos - especially rigged "wacky worm" style.
Contacts: Delafield Chamber of Commerce, (262) 646-8100; Dick Smith's Live Bait & Tackle, (262) 646-2218.
LAKE GENEVA Hundreds of big boats ply the clear waters of this Walworth County recreational lake from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day.
On the first Saturday in May, all you have to do is figure out the location of the big boats' mooring pads by checking the orientation of the boats, and then pitch a tube or drop-shot rig to the surface of the 36-inch-diameter mooring pad. Geneva's bass regard these pads as ready-made spawning beds. This is pretty much a night bite that only lasts until water temperatures reach 70 degrees. But there is no quicker way to get hooked up on this ultraclear lake.
For smaller fish and larger bass not quite in the spawning mode, bass location is also driven by water temperature, with the 8- to 12-foot contour very attractive with surface temperatures below 65 degrees.
Once smallies spawn they move deeper - and much, much shallower. Either way, the basic split shot and hook is the best way to go, using a minnow in colder water and a 'crawler or leech once water temperatures pass 70 degrees and fish move into a summer pattern.
In this clear water you're liable to find smallmouths holding 30 feet deep by midsummer. A tougher but sometimes more productive tactic is chasing fish on the inside weedline where a portion of the bass population takes refuge once the fleet is in. For the inside weedline bite, nothing beats a night crawler hooked through the breeding ring and allowed to flutter toward bottom - a destination seldom reached if a bass is nearby.
Geneva has ample boat launches, but generally outrageous fees once Memorial Day arrives. Concentrate on fishing this lake before the end of May and after Labor Day, and you can experience success that sometimes borders on spectacular.
Contacts: Lake Geneva Chamber of Commerce, 1-800-345-1020; Geneva Lake Bait & Tackle, (262) 245-6150.
WOLF RIVER The upper Wolf River is better known for white bass and walleye runs. But there are plenty of smallmouths swimming here that can legally stretch your string anytime you can get a boat in the water.
Although it's possible to cast across the upper Wolf in most places, this narrow river runs deep, averaging more than 7 feet even during summer. Some caution must be used around riffles when running a deep-V boat. But don't pass this water by without throwing crawfish-pattern crankbaits or a No. 4 Mepps Black Fury spinner - probably the best-kept smallmouth lure secret in Wisconsin. To a smallmouth, the Mepps Black Fury with orange spots looks like a crawfish - the meal of choice for brown bass. Many have forgotten the in-line spinner as a bassin' tool. But the Mepps has an edge over safety-pin-style spinnerbaits in most riverine situations where fish are relating to gravel or rocks. Sometimes smallies on the upper Wolf are relating to wood, which there's plenty of along these shores. If this is the case, go with the spinnerbait, because it's less prone to hanging up.
The best fishing on the upper Wolf lies in the stretch between New London and Fremont. But you're liable to find bass all the way down to Lake Poygan, where plastics and crankbaits are your best bets along the riprap found there.
Contacts: Lang's Landing, (920) 582-7501; Critter's Wolf River Sports, (920) 582-0471; Double B Guide Service, (920) 836-2377.
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Although southern Wisconsin has a number of good smallie-producing lakes, this critter is riverine by nature, and it's swimming in more waters than those mentioned above. Other rivers worthy of note are medium-sized rivers like the Rock, Milwaukee and Lower Fox, and small rivers like the Pecatonica, Sugar, Black, Jump, Grant, Platte and Yellowstone, where a good pair of waders makes you a serious player.
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