Door County had been a popular vacationland and sportsman's paradise for years before the dawn of the Bronzeback Age. Families traveled from one scenic town to the next on the narrow peninsula separating the northern Wisconsin shores of Lake Michigan from the teardrop of Green Bay. They toured its shops, savored its foods and marveled at the area's breathtaking scenery.
In this paradise, anglers had their pick of species, from king salmon and brown and lake trout to trophy walleyes, muskies and jumbo perch. For years, Door County's beauty and abundance were enough to distract from the region's richest treasure: its smallmouth bass. In 2014, B.A.S.S. named the waters of Door County the top bass destination in the country. The area's smallmouth riches were no longer secret. The following year, the tournament organization launched its Angler of the Year Championship out of Sturgeon Bay.
”If you dream of catching smallmouth bass, Door County is one of the most magical places on Earth," says Jimmy Doering, owner of Cast n' Catch Charters, who guides anglers to smallmouths from Sturgeon Bay to Washington Island. "With the shallow bays and habitat we have here, this is where smallmouth want to be.
"It's nothing to catch 100 smallmouth in a day in Sturgeon Bay in spring," he says. "And all you need are swimbaits, tube jigs, jerkbaits and finesse jigs."
"Finesse" dictated the catch on the first day of our outing last May near Ephraim and Sister Bay. In the opening minutes, Doering boated two bass on a Ned Rig. Then one of the area's many chamber-of-commerce fish inhaled my hair jig. After a rod-bending tussle, Jimmy netted a glimmering bass just shy of 6 pounds.
The waters of Lake Michigan and Green Bay are slow to warm. Hence, the call for "finesse" in the spring months. The Ned Rig's popularity has mushroomed thanks in large part to its half-worm simplicity. A slow swim, crawl or hopping retrieve will do the trick.
Top lures and techniques evolve season after season along with changes in water level, water clarity and forage species.
"It's a changing fishery, to be sure," says Mike Richard, owner of Howie's Tackle in Sturgeon Bay. "Ten years ago, you could catch all the fish you wanted on a Kalin's grub, but you hardly hear anyone mention the bait anymore. The water level is up 4 to 5 feet from its lowest point seven or eight years ago. The fish seem even more susceptible to wind for their positioning."
Richard credits the rains of recent years for the "major increase of jerkbait catches" along the peninsula. "In high water, baitfish like alewives and smelt are up," Richard says, noting an upswing of both forage species. Megabass jerkbaits are his leading sellers, with the Lucky Craft Pointer, Doering's jerkbait of choice, close behind. Spybait techniques are growing in popularity, too.
Tube jigs are staples for Great Lakes smallmouth. A tube is effective for big offshore fish slow to migrate to spawning areas in spring. Yet it's equally effective as they move shallow.
"The tube is versatile," Doering says. "Mostly, I'm trying to match the hatch with a tube when bass are feeding on crawfish or gobies."
Gobies appear to smallmouths in a wide range of colors, from various shades of brown and green to black, purple and hints of blue. That variation spurred Richard to develop his own line of tubes, now available in 50 distinct color mixes at his shop.
"The number-one food in the smallmouth's diet is the goby," he says. "A lot of guys come up here with 3 1/2- to 4-inch tubes, but smaller tubes of 2 1/2 inches will outfish them by a mile."
Think "small" when stocking up on swimbaits, too. Day-in and day-out, smaller swimbaits conjure the most bites. While fishing with Doering, smallies shunned 4- and 5-inch swimbaits in favor of much smaller offerings. The 2.8-inch Keitech swimbait on a jighead is hard to beat in spring, while the 3.3-inch model shines later in the season.
Doering has added blade baits to his spring arsenal in recent years. Blade presentation in cold water is most effective when executed with short pulls drawing five to seven vibrations along the bottom, each pull separated by a brief pause.
ENJOY THE RIDE
Every town, every view, every bay in Door County has captivating charm. Stunningly clear water at times enabled us to catch the shadowy forms of black-backed smallmouths wandering the flats or swimming far beneath us.
Smallmouths are big and plentiful throughout the county, but a hot bite can take fishing into a Fantasy Land dimension. Doering advises anglers to heed the weather and wind and their effects on water temperature.
"Up here in Door County, we like it warmer," he said on that May day as a wind shift brought in cloudy skies and easterly winds. "We like it sunny. This time of year, fish push up onto sand flats to get ready to spawn. They are up now chasing bait. The key is to keep moving. Keep hitting your spots, continue making your milk run and hit the windblown shorelines like we are doing."
The hot action of each new season begins near Sturgeon Bay, a traveler's first stop on a northerly drive up the peninsula. Waters warm a little more quickly in Sturgeon Bay, which is actually a long channel connecting Green Bay with Lake Michigan proper. To its south, on the bay side, lies Little Sturgeon Bay, which is more compact but of considerable renown.
Ephraim, Sister Bay, Fish Creek and Egg Harbor are "must-stops" for tourists and anglers, too. Other stops on the bass map include Riley's Bay and Sand Bay.
Some prefer the "quiet side" of Door County represented by towns along the Lake Michigan shore—Jacksonport, Whitefish Bay and Bailey's Harbor. The moody waters and scenic landscapes at the top of the peninsula sport a wild beauty, with Rowleys Bay and the Mink River in the Northeast and Gill's Rock and Ellison Bay in the Northwest.
Northport hosts the ferry launch to Washington Island, the scenic retreat from which Doering does much of his summer guiding.
"It's unbelievable how much water we have up here and how much of that water is fishable," Doering said as we were preparing to wrap up a productive day.
I was in "just-one-last-cast" mode as Jimmy launched into an explanation of the importance of one- or two-degree water temperature changes and how he positioned his boat to fish windblown structure. My line snapped tight mid-sentence as a smallmouth of nearly 5 pounds inhaled my swimbait.
"Hold that thought, Jimmy," I said. "I'm busy right now."
NEW BAITS FOR NED-RIGGING
Ned Rig popularity has spawned a host of new baits with all the fish-nabbing talents of Ned but with more fashionable design and personality. Z-Man, which makes the popular 2 3/4-inch Finesse TRD ($4.49 per eight) commonly used with the rig, showed off several new comparably sized soft plastics for Ned practitioners at the 2019 ICAST show.
The 2 3/4-inch TRD TicklerZ ($4.49 per eight) features a quad-tail ElaZtech body and does a baitfish impersonation on a swim or glide retrieve. The TRD BugZ ($4.49 per six) is a wee beaver-style creature that shapeshifts into a crayfish or baitfish in bass haunts.
The new Pro ShroomZ jighead ($4.99 per four) features a heavier gauge hook for bigger fish and thicker cover. It is available in plain and weedless models, the latter featuring a double-wire weed guard. Other Ned Rig alternatives from Z-Man include the TRD TubeZ, TRD Crawz, TRD HogZ and TRD MinnowZ.
Strike King also introduced several new baits specifically for Ned-style presentation. The Ned Ocho ($5.99 per nine) is the Ned-sized (2 3/4-inch) version of Strike King's popular Ocho. The Rage Ned Cut-R Worm ($6.99 per nine) is a 3-inch bait featuring a mini Rage tail. The Rage Ned Bug ($6.99 per nine) boasts arms and craw claws—a "creature" bait with Ned Rig dimensions.