In the last two months we've told you about the great fishing for smallmouths and largemouths in southern Wisconsin. These waters are the best in the north.
By Ted Peck
Northern Wisconsin has a wealth of bass waters where both smallmouths and largemouths grow to grand dimensions because there is very little fishing pressure. With inland lakes, flowages, rivers and bays of two Great Lakes to choose from, you are just a short drive from a veritable bass-fishing buffet.
It would take years to fish all of the top waters effectively even once - a fishin' mission that is impeded by the fact that some waters are so productive that a return visit is often more appealing than exploring new waters.
Following is a look at some northwoods waters where once you fish it, you just can't stay away from it.
THE NICOLET THREE
Three of the very best north-country smallmouth lakes are clustered about 10 miles east of Eagle River off of Highway 70 in the Nicolet National Forest, with each holding the potential for both 100-bass days and a chance at one for the wall. Butternut and Franklin lakes are separated by a ridge in the corner of Forest County, with smaller Anvil Lake just a short hop across the line in neighboring Vilas County.
All three lakes are clear to the point of seeming almost transparent, with plenty of rocky cover and occasional deadfalls that practically scream "smallmouths!"
With Butternut and Franklin so close, 398-acre Anvil Lake sees practically no angling pressure. The public access isn't as good on Anvil, which is only half as big as Franklin and less than a third the size of 1,292-acre Butternut Lake.
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
Fishing HotSpots has angling maps for Butternut and Franklin, both of which have considerable notoriety for yielding impressive catches of bronzebacks. Both of the larger lakes also have great launch facilities with adequate parking. In many cases the Fishing HotSpots maps are invaluable in locating fish-holding structure and productive tactics. But this is one year when fishing is so good on the "Nicolet Three" that you won't have the time or inclination to reference a map.
Smallmouths in all three lakes have probably completed spawning by now. But the cool water temperatures and presence of considerable forage has kept these scrappy critters close to shore in all three lakes. Pods of bass numbering five to eight fish are cruising along the 10- to 12-foot contour on all three lakes right now, searching for food. A "pod" of bass is typically fish of the same year-class. You may encounter a group of 12-inch fish, but you might also stumble into a finned gang of rowdy 18-inchers.
Since many bass in these waters are on the move, a "locator lure" like a ShadRap or Mepps spinner cast along the 10- to 12-foot contour is liable to get you hooked up just about anywhere on these waters. The No. 4 Mepps Black Fury and natural bucktail with the orange blade have been very effective here. Apparently the orange hue signals crawfish to a prowling smallie - and crawfish are a favored treat.
You don't really need electronics to find the "fish zone." Slide out to the point where you can no longer see lake bottom. This is 10 to 12 feet. Of course some stretches of shoreline will have better habitat than others and hold more fish. Shoreline rocks and humps off of islands are prime smallie country. Two of the best humps on Butternut top out at a couple feet below the surface - a perfect place to toss a clear Heddon Tiny Torpedo or small transparent Chug Bug during periods of low light or when there is a light-diffusing chop on the water.
Once you locate a good concentration of fish, slow the presentation down and throw plastics. Chompers products marketed by the Table Rock Bait & Tackle Co. have done an admirable job of living up to their trade name on these lakes, particularly in brown/orange crawfish-imitating hues. Rig two rods with Chompers, one with their twin-tailed skirted grub and a stand-up jighead for a vertical presentation, the other with a Salty Sinker or tube jig if the fish are in a horizontal presentation mood.
Kentuck Lake, which straddles the Vilas-Forest county line, is a great place to target both smallmouths and largemouths, with weeds the key to locating both species.
There is good access on this 1,000-acre lake, with a distinct inside and outside weed edge at about 4 and 12 feet respectively. Look for smallies cruising both sides of the weed edge and largemouths tucked deeper in the weeds, where probing pockets with a Senko is a great way to get hooked up. Don't forget to work the big weedflat on this lake's north end. Deep water is nearby and a good place to throw a deep-running crawdad-pattern crankbait.
Contacts: Eagle River Chamber of Commerce, (715) 479-8575; Eagle Sports Center (715) 479-8804 or www.eaglesportscenter.com.
UPPER WISCONSIN RIVER
Our namesake river between Brokaw and Wausau in far north-central Wisconsin is some of the wildest water you can imagine for chasing smallmouth bass. Truck-sized boulders, deadfalls, riffles and waterfalls are all part of the matrix here that is best accessed by cartopper or canoe and fished in a downstream float.
Water levels can drop a foot or more in a very short time span as dams on what has been dubbed "the hardest-working river in America" continuously alter flow rates. You can always initiate a "wet-foot" policy and get back downstream. But if the river drops and your boat trailer is upstream, carefree times on the river are over.
Guide Todd Koehn is intimately familiar with this water, running a large johnboat with a jet-drive outboard. Koehn seldom throws anything but a No. 4 or No. 5 Mepps Black Fury spinner that imitates the crawdad forage base in these stained waters. There is no reason to dig through the tackle box for another lure. The big Black Fury tracks over most snags and is just what smallies, walleyes and the occasional muskie swimming by want to eat.
Obvious bass haunts practically jump out at you along the upper Wisconsin, regardless of river level. Since fish in this rapidly flowing river almost lay facing into the current, casting your spinner upstream is many times more effective than pitching downstream or cross current.
Contact: Todd Koehn 1-800-710-8020 or www.rivercatch.com.
Northwest Wisconsin tourism folks call this part of the state "Indianhead Country" because the geographical contour of the region looks like the face of a proud Native American.
Both smallmouths and largemouths are found in a number of lakes and flowages here, with probably the best smallie action found on the Minong Flowage or floating the Namekagon River. There are whopping big largemouths in Minong Flowage, too. But if you're looking to tangle with a hawg, break out the buzzbaits, plastic rats and Slug-Gos and target weeds in Big MacKenzie, Lipsie, Rooney and Bass lakes.
The pace in Washburn and Burnett counties is considerably more laid-back than you'll find around Minocqua or Eagle River. Smaller lakes and the flowages in Indianhead Country are more individual than oriented in a chain where several lakes can be accessed from one boat launch. The boat launches on these smaller lakes are often less than perfect as well, which is a big draw if you like to fish with little or no company.
If you like fishing larger bodies of water, 2,300-acre Yellow Lake is a great place to find action at midday on topwaters and weedless lures. According to the Department of Natural Resources, many largemouths bigger than 20 inches are swimming in these stained waters. There are several good boat launches on Yellow Lake, with the best on the lake's south side off of Highway U.
This system is also home to smallies that return to the lake in late fall after spending most of the summer swimming in this lake's main feeder stream, the Yellow River. Probably the best smallie float is from Green Valley Road a few miles southwest of Spooner to County Highway H.
Two other Indianhead Country lakes worth probing are Upper and Lower Clam lakes on either side of Highway 70 east of the town of Siren. Both of these shallow drainage lakes of the Clam River hold some nice smallmouths in addition to a solid population of largemouth bass. These lakes are among the first to turn on in the northwoods, with the best action happening right now. Weeds are a major key in largemouth location, with smallies hanging around the Highway 70 bridge and other places where there is current.
With many lakes in the Spooner area being just a couple hundred acres, it is possible to probe likely bass haunts on many of them in just a couple of hours, leaving plenty of time to take the kids horseback riding or for ice cream.
Contacts: Washburn County Tourism, 1-800-367-3306; Burnett County Resort Association, (715) 349-2000.
This 3,400-acre flowage west and south of Hurley forces you to slow down and appreciate the cool, blue north within 50 yards of leaving the boat ramp near the dam in Gile. A minefield of stumps and big rocks keep many anglers away, with many of these "growlers" lurking just out of sight in these stained waters in Iron County's best-kept smallmouth bass secret.
All you need are three lures: a Chug Bug, 1/4-ounce chartreuse tandem spinnerbait and a good supply of Chompers Skirted Hula Grubs with a 1/8-ounce weedless jighead in green pumkinseed color.
Filling the two-fish 15-inch limit takes about that many casts on a good day. On a slow day you might have to throw 25 times. With nothing to prove about catching fish, releasing everything and catching smallies until the cows come home is certainly a better option.
Contact: Hurley Area Chamber of Commerce, (715) 561-4334.
Both sides of "Wisconsin's Thumb" are covered with smallmouth bass, with a good population in essentially every harbor and bay along the Door Peninsula. From the Sturgeon Bay ship canal, out past Sawyer Harbor, into Little Sturgeon Bay, clear down to Henderson Point in the south to the waters around Washington Island off the northern tip of the Door are smallies in both size and numbers almost beyond belief.
This is big water where wind can quickly become a factor. Plan your outing carefully. And don't leave the marine radio and cell phone behind.
No matter where you fish smallies on the Door, the brown bass seem to be oriented to depth in these exceptionally clear waters. By this time of year the fish are usually done spawning and cruising at about the 8-foot contour.
Plastics are by far the best lure choice, with a white spinnerbait the best tool for locating active bass. They may want a tube jig, 4-inch Kalin Grub or Senko, with avocado by far the hottest color going. The goby, that weird little critter from European waters, has become a favorite forage base of Door County smallies, with avocado approximating their color scheme to hungry smallmouths.
Rowley Bay probably holds the biggest population of smallies, with Washington Island the place to go if you're looking for a wallhanger. Setting up "fish camp" at either Potawatomi State Park near Sturgeon Bay or Peninsula State Park farther up the Door provides a deep appreciation for the profound beauty of our state.
Contact: Door County Chamber of Commerce, 1-800-527-3529.
This southern bay of Lake Superior is some of the most dangerous water in Wisconsin, going from dead-flat calm to 6-foot whitecaps in minutes. The cuts and islands offshore are also where you'll find our state's jumbo smallmouths by using big tube jigs, magnum spinnerbaits and 5-inch clear Chug Bugs.
Chequamegon Bay is a trophy fishery in the purest sense, with bass season catch-and-release only until mid-June when the bag limit "jumps" up to one 22-inch fish per day. With an incredibly slow growing season in the chilly waters of Lake Superior, a fish of keeper dimensions would be old enough to vote if it was human.
Sand Cut Slough about four miles north of Ashland Harbor is the most popular place for folks to chase these big dogs that have come to realize that boats mean danger.
A seaworthy boat equipped with GPS and a good Fishing HotSpots map with GPS coordinates marking small rockpiles and reefs in the vast flatness of Chequamegon Bay is a major key in hooking into some of the biggest smallmouths you've ever seen.
Contact: Ashland Chamber of Commerce, 1-800-284-9484.
With Chequamegon Bay being too rough to fish about one day out of three, having a handy angling alternative is a good idea. Less than an hour's drive from Chequamegon Bay is a pair of bassing options that quickly attain "annual trip" status.
Lake Owen is located about 40 miles south of Ashland on Highway 63. This clear 1,323-acre lake holds both smallmouths and largemouths, mostly around all the fallen timber around the shoreline. All you need is a Heddon Tiny Torpedo, a Chug Bug, tube jigs, Senkos and a No. 4 Mepps Black Fury spinner.
Just south of Iron River is the Pike Lake Chain. Hart and Twin Bear lakes in the chain hold big bass, plus muskies and some hefty bluegills.
Contact: Mr. T's Bait Shop, (715) 372-4356.
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So while southern Wisconsin has its scrappy smallmouths and lunker largemouths, take some time to enjoy the bassin' in our great northwoods.
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