March 17, 2016
As a plastic frog nears a gap in the lily pads, anticipation rises. Sudden and violent, strikes on frogs throw water and vegetation in every direction — and commonly cause a skipped heartbeat or two. Forested banks and a few cabins surround the small lake, which looks a lot like three others in the same chain. It is best accessed with a canoe, and supports a strong population of fat largemouth bass.
Across the state, twin Power-Poles hold a bass boat atop a rock ridge in an open bay, and two anglers swim grubs through exceptionally clear water. The bass that hit will be bronze in color, and any given one is apt to be a genuine giant.
From the Great Lakes to backwoods ponds, and from mighty rivers to wading-sized streams, Wisconsin's pallet of bass waters is extraordinarily diverse. Some waters produce only largemouths or smallmouths, while others provide mixed opportunities. The primary common denominator of many lakes and streams is that they serve up excellent action.
Bass fishing opens next month in most of Wisconsin, but some waters remain open year 'round while others open a little later. That means bass season is either here or just around the corner so let's explore some of the rivers and lakes that promise excellent bass action this spring.
We'll begin with the Mississippi River. For starters, the Mississippi is one of only a couple of Wisconsin destinations to offer a continuous bass season. Just as important, the Mississippi supports excellent populations of largemouth and smallmouth bass, and the fishery is tremendously vast and diverse in character.
Largemouths get the most targeted pressure from bass fishermen in most of the river, but the smallmouth population is in great shape and includes a lot of high-quality fish. Either species is apt to dominate the top bags in any given tournament.
From the mouth of the St. Croix River to just north of Dubuque, Iowa, the Mississippi River runs nearly 200 miles along Wisconsin's western border. That section includes riverine runs, broad lower ends of pools, natural lake sections and an extensive network of backwaters. Parts of the floodplain are bound by cliffs. Some sections are much flatter, allowing backwaters to spread much farther from the river channel.
Just as the Mississippi is diverse in its offerings, any given stretch of river is hugely dynamic and can vary enormously in character based on the temperature, level and color of the water. The river tends to run high and stained or even muddy during April because of snowmelt, although in years of low snow, it might settle down during April. High flows, as a rule, move bass into backwaters and away from the current. Dirty water pushes them shallow and causes them to push tight to wood and rock cover.
Good fishing can be found throughout the river, but tournament angler and Get Bit Baits (getbitbaits.com) owner Dan Elsner likes the area around La Crosse best. He noted that Pools 7 and 8 support excellent bass fishing, and he especially likes that area during the spring because the bass pile into the coves near the mouths of creeks and into backwater areas when the river is running high.
Elsner's favorite Mississippi River lure during the spring is a swim jig. That's because he can cover a lot of water, fish it through cover and draw reaction strikes. He also pointed toward a Chatterbait as a good option for Mississippi River largemouths.
Many smallmouths spawn during April on the Mississippi River, so target areas that offer good spawning habitat and waters just downstream of spawning areas can be productive. Prime smallmouth spawning habitat on the Mississippi River is out of main current, but not well up into backwaters. Look for gravel or sand bottoms in eddies on inside bends, behind islands and downstream of other obstructions. Dragging a Get Bit Baits tube across the gravel is tough to beat for getting smallmouths to bite.
Reciprocal agreements between Wisconsin and both Minnesota and Iowa allow Wisconsin-licensed anglers to fish either side of the river. Boundaries do not include all backwaters, and the border for the agreements is defined by the railroad tracks that parallel both sides of the river. Limits vary by state and even by river section so be certain you know the rules for the area you plan to fish.
Of course, we can't discuss Wisconsin bass fishing without talking about the extraordinary smallmouth fishing that exists in Sturgeon Bay and in the broader Sturgeon Bay area on the bay side of the Door County Peninsula. Many anglers from near and far consider this to be the finest trophy smallmouth fishery in the nation.
The crazy big limits that are brought to the scales every spring at the Sturgeon Bay Open absolutely support this notion, and those weights have been getting even bigger in recent years. For the past two years, the winning team has brought in two six-fish limits of smallmouths that averaged more than 5 1/2 pounds. Last year, the top 48 teams weighed two-day limits of smallmouths that averaged more than 4 pounds.
Creel surveys and sampling conducted by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resource show that the Sturgeon Bay fishery is in outstanding condition right now. In addition to tremendous numbers of quality fish, the fishery currently holds high numbers of young bass, which bodes well for the fishery's longevity.
Most years, red-hot fishing begins in some Door County waters as soon as the season opens the first Saturday in May. Often the early bite is best in areas just south of Sturgeon Bay, including Little Sturgeon, Rileys and Sand bays, followed by Sturgeon Bay itself and then continuing up the shore to places like Egg Harbor, Eagle Harbor and Sister Bay. the bite doesn't go away at the south end when it heats up farther north. The fish just change their positioning.
From Sturgeon Bay south, Elsner has found that the fish move shallow early. "It's not uncommon to catch them in 3 or 4 feet when the water is only 48 degrees," he said.
As the season progresses they move gradually deeper, going farther out onto the flats and breaks out in the bay.
Interestingly, Elsner has found the opposite to be true farther north, where the water is clearer and banks are generally steeper. Those fish suspend 10 or 15 feet deep out in the main bay before they move closer to the shore or into the smaller bays. They stop first on points and other structural features that are at that depth. Then as spring progresses, they tend to move shallower.
Good spring baits in this area include hair jigs, grubs and tubes, but based on Elsner's experience the best specific bait seems to vary from season to season. "One year the guys throwing the hair jigs will do best. The next year, the best catches might come on plastics," he said. "You just have to experiment and see what they want.
Access points are scattered all around the Door County Peninsula. Howie's Tackle in Sturgeon Bay is a good source for reports from specific areas and for tackle needs.
Elsner also pointed toward the Winnebago Chain as an outstanding bass destination, noting that the fishing can be excellent for largemouths and smallmouths and that the season is open year 'round.
"There is great bass fishing in Lake Winnebago, but when the wind blows too much, you can move into the rivers or fish the other lakes and can usually find somewhere to get out of the wind," he said.
The Winnebago system includes four lakes and the upper Wolf and Fox rivers and encompasses more than 165,000 acres and 142 river miles. Recent sampling showed a high number of smaller bass, suggesting good fishing for many years to come, but the sample also included several large bass. A five-fish tournament limit from a typical "good day" would be in the 15- to 17-pound range, according to Elsner.
Lake Winnebago offers plentiful natural structure in the form of points and humps, and many areas within the system have extensive weeds that provide excellent largemouth habitat. Elsner also pointed toward many rock reefs that were created to provide walleye habitat as being excellent places to work for largemouths and smallmouths. The rock reefs are marked on a map that is available from the DNR.
Elsner likes a crankbait or a Chatterbait for drawing reaction strikes during the spring. If the fish seem somewhat fussy, he'll slow his approach with a tube or a Get Bit Finesse Worm on a drop-shot rig.
Access to the Winnebago Chain is very good, with boat access points in several locations.
Chippewa County's Otter Lake is relatively small at a little more than 600 acres, but its offerings to largemouth fishermen are big. A recent electrofishing survey produced excellent catch rates with a very good size structure. More than 67 percent of the fish sampled were more than 12 inches long. Otter has produced some very large bass, with the biggest fish caught in the same survey being 22 inches long.
Otter Lake generally is fairly shallow, but a couple of defined holes in the open main basin have water as deep as 40 feet. A few distinctive coves, many points and smaller pockets, stands of timber, and stumpfields provide a good blend of habitat offerings for the bass.
Early in the season, many of the bass relate to visible cover, and as good an approach as any on this lake is to cast a jig, crankbait or spinnerbait to shoreline cover. As spring blends into summer, more fish will move to stumps that are hidden beneath the surface and to offshore breaks, so good electronics are valuable for finding the best fish-holding structures.
Four boat landings provide very good access to Otter Lake. The bass limit is five fish, with a 14-inch minimum size.
FLORENCE COUNTY SMALL LAKES
If you seek a totally different experience than you'd find on the big rivers and lakes, several small lakes in rural Florence County offer excellent bass fishing. Because the lakes are relatively small and in a single county, it's practical to switch during the day if the fish aren't biting, you want to explore new territory, or if you wwant to vary things a little.
The fishing report compiled annually by the Wisconsin DNR highlights four different lakes and one lake system that range from 91 to 548 acres as hotspots for largemouth bass.
Cosgrove lake (the smallest), Spread Eagle Chain of Lakes (the largest), and Keyes Lake all are noted as supporting high-density populations and being good places to go for fast largemouth action. Patten Lake has the best trophy potential. Bass density is low, but growth rates are excellent. In the most recent sample, 22 percent of the fish collected were more than 18 inches long. Sea Lion Lake, which covers 123 acres, offers the best combination, with fairly high numbers of fish, good quality overall and some trophy potential.
If good bass fishing is your goal, any of these waters should fill the bill for you. Get out there and have fun!