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Open-Door Policy for Catching Behemoth Smallmouth Bass

Wisconsin's Door Peninsula on Lake Michigan is the bucket-list gateway to smallmouth bass that sometimes push the scales past 7 pounds.

Open-Door Policy for Catching Behemoth Smallmouth Bass

Wisconsin's Door County on Lake Michigan offers bass anglers exceptional smallmouth fishing with chances at trophy bronzebacks. (Photo by Drew Warden)

I was halfway through a slow, steady retrieve when my line suddenly pulled tight, a noticeable bend forming in my rod. Something in the shallow, clear waters surrounding the Sister Islands had inhaled my black marabou jig. I set the hook and felt a weighty fish dart off in another direction. A short but dogged fight later, I had a chunky smallmouth bass in hand—my first of the day. After a few quick photos, I slid the feisty fish back into the cool water, and my boatmates congratulated me on my first Door County smallmouth.

It was mid-June, and our group of anglers was on Lake Michigan’s Green Bay for two reasons: to catch lots of smallmouth bass and to test Humminbird’s new MEGA Live Imaging TargetLock system before its official launch. The new accessory lets anglers lock their MEGA Live Imaging on structure while being free to use their trolling motor for navigation. We’d see it in action over two days of excellent fishing.

I spent most of the morning with fellow anglers Ryan Chuckel and Bryan Brasher, catching several nice smallmouths on swimbaits and hair jigs. After lunch, I hopped onto Capt. Adam Rasmussen’s boat. A Door County charter captain for the past eight years and owner of Rasmussen Outdoors Guide Service and Salmon Depot Charters, the guy has the fishery around Sister Bay dialed in. We caught more bass around the islands before fishing the docks along Sister Bay’s shoreline. We eventually stumbled onto a big school of smallmouths, ranging from dinks to decent fish around 3 pounds. I don’t know how many we caught that afternoon, but the almost-every-cast action was a fun way to close out my first day fishing on Green Bay.

Door County smallmouth bass
In spring and early summer, the Door Peninsula’s shallow bays attract loads of smallmouths as they prepare for their annual spawn. (Photo by Drew Warden)

Most serious bass anglers know of Door County. The area has received lots of attention for its abundant, spirited smallmouths, especially those exceeding 6 pounds. In 2014, Bassmaster crowned Door County’s Sturgeon Bay the nation’s best bass fishing “lake.” The ranking was justified. From 2012 to 2014, winning total weights for the two-day, 10-fish bag in the annual spring Sturgeon Bay Open Bass tournament were each more than 60 pounds. The average per-fish weight for winning teams across those three years was nearly 6 1/2 pounds, and the largest smallmouth caught weighed 8.45 pounds.

The fishery has declined a bit from those peak levels, but fishing remains very good. A 50-plus-pound total bag still typically wins the pre-spawn tournaments in May. And behemoth bass, like the 8.78-pound monster caught in 2018, still show up on occasion. This level of fishing begs the question: What is it about Door County waters that make them so good for smallmouths?

“We just have all the pieces of the puzzle here, I would say,” notes Scott Hansen, a Wisconsin DNR fisheries biologist in Door County for more than 15 years. “All of the components for the different life-history stages. Good spawning habitat. Some protected areas where they’re allowed to spawn and where the young—the nursery areas, so to speak—can occur.”

Green Bay’s forage base is also astounding. Its fertile waters offer ample zooplankton for young fish. Adults, meanwhile, gorge themselves on a buffet that Hansen says includes crayfish, smelt, perch, minnows, invasive alewives and the ubiquitous—and similarly invasive—round gobies, which smallmouths love.

Since gobies were first discovered in the Great Lakes, Door County’s smallmouth bass have grown considerably longer on average. Fish that once took seven years to reach the 14-inch legal size limit are now doing so in as little as five years, sometimes less. While Hansen hesitates to credit gobies exclusively for this growth, he says it’s hard to ignore their potential influence. With its big fish and scenic views, it’s clear why Door County is a bucket-list spot for many bass anglers.

THE BITE WINDOW

Although Sturgeon Bay gets much of the press, it barely scratches the surface of what’s available. Door County boasts 300 miles of shoreline along the Door Peninsula. Prime fishing extends from Little Sturgeon Bay on the Green Bay side north to Washington Island and then back south along the Lake Michigan side to roughly Jacksonport.

Despite its northern latitude, the open-water season is relatively lengthy. Weather, naturally, is the determining factor early and late.

“Depending on the year, you can start catching them middle to end of April, but for the most part, it starts the beginning of May—like the traditional Wisconsin opener—and then all the way until it gets too cold that they quit biting, or it freezes,” Rasmussen says. “I’ve caught them as late as December.”

Spring and fall are traditional big-fish time periods, with Rasmussen favoring spring. His biggest-ever smallmouth weighed 7 pounds, 10 ounces and came in the second week of May. He also caught a 7-pound, 4-ounce giant one fall. Summer months, meanwhile, offer numbers and quality. I caught my personal-best bronzeback, a 5-pound, 13-ounce fish, in the middle of June. Rasmussen says 3- to 4 1/2-pounders are common, and there are good numbers of 5- to 6-pound bass.

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“Sixes have just turned into good ones,” he says. “Like you don’t get too excited until they’re in that high 6- or 7-pound range. Legit 7-pounders … I fish here 80 to 100 days a year, and if I see like two of those a season, that’s probably about right.”

Action begins in early May on southern Door County’s Green Bay side, where waters warm sooner. Pre-spawn—and eventually spawning—smallmouths invade rocky and sandy shorelines and flats in the shallow bays lining the peninsula. Little Sturgeon Bay, Rileys Bay and Sand Bay are among the first to warm, as are Sturgeon Bay and Sawyer Harbor. From the middle to the end of May, Rasmussen reports, northern areas like Fish Creek, Egg Harbor, Ephraim and Sister Bay heat up. Lake Michigan bays, such as Rowleys, North and Moonlight, typically have a later spawn than those in Green Bay, as do those around Washington Island.

June is a big spawning month, but by mid-July, Rasmussen says most fish head to summertime haunts in deeper water, where they look for structure—reefs, boulders, drop-offs and more. He says fall bass move deeper still, schooling near steep transitions. They’ll be on 20-, 30- or 40-foot breaklines, sometimes even deeper.

While most of Door County is open to year-round catch-and-release smallmouth fishing before the Lake Michigan harvest opener in early May, Washington Island and the Mink River are not. The Mink River is a fish refuge downstream to the mouth in Rowleys Bay from the first Sunday in March until June 15, with no fishing for any species allowed. Meanwhile, angling for bass specifically is prohibited within a quarter mile of all islands in the Town of Washington Island from early March to July 1.

Drew Warden with Smallmouth Bass
FIve-pound bass are not uncommon in Door County, as the author discovered. (Photo courtesy of Humminbird)

What’s nice about the Door County fishery, though, is that the area’s smallies don’t all spawn simultaneously. The spawn’s timing varies from bay to bay along the Door Peninsula and even from one part of an individual bay to another. In fact, Wisconsin DNR research suggests Green Bay smallmouth populations are isolated from one another and genetically different. Anglers can usually target pre-spawn fish somewhere, even if other bass are on beds. Most bays have boat ramps in individual townships, so lengthy runs across open water to target pre-spawners are rarely required. Just hitch up your trailer and launch where you want to fish.

Door County, Wis., smallmouth bass
Small swimbaits on light jigs and Ned rigs are good baits for smallmouths in shallow bays. When fish move deeper, try drop-shotting. (Photo by Drew Warden)

A FINESSE GAME

In Green Bay and the main lake’s clear waters, spinning rods and finesse tactics reign supreme. Light tackle, light line and long rods shine all season but especially early when long casts and low-impact presentations are required. Marabou jigs, Ned rigs and 2- to 3-inch tubes and swimbaits weighing 1/16, 1/8 or 3/16 ounce are good springtime bait options, as are jerkbaits.

Rasmussen likes a 7-foot-3-inch medium-light rod for hair jigs, swimbaits and Ned rigs, and a 7-foot medium-action rod for tubes. He prefers the 13 Fishing Aerios, but any 2000- or 3000-size reel with a quality drag works. He spools up with 8-pound Sufix NanoBraid or 10-pound Sufix 131 braid with a 6- to 10-pound Sufix Advance fluorocarbon leader, depending on water clarity.

Retrieve swimbaits and hair jigs slowly but steadily; Rasmussen says proper retrieve speed is highly specific and varies daily. When he guides, he usually fishes along with clients, in part so they can see how he’s reeling. He says fish are often that specific in their preferences. Meanwhile, work Ned rigs and tubes just off the bottom, occasionally making contact.

These setups work in mid- to late summer, too. All that changes are the places smallmouths are found and the weight of the baits needed to reach them. Excluding a small window after spawning, where bass stick around the shallows and can be caught on 1/2-ounce spinnerbaits, Rasmussen says most fish push out to structure in 12 to 25 feet of water. For these depths, he bumps up to 1/4-, 3/8- and 1/2-ounce jig heads on swimbaits.

In July, drop-shot rigs become key for Rasmussen as marabou jigs fade away. For plastics, he suggests 2- to 3-inch floating baits mimicking gobies, like Berkley’s PowerBait MaxScent Flat Worm or Z-Man’s Trick ShotZ. He likes a VMC Redline Finesse Neko hook, which allows for nose-hooking or threading baits on the hook. On calm days, he rigs a 1/4-ounce drop-shot weight; in heavy wind, he prefers a 3/8-ounce weight.

Door County, Wis., fishing
Medium and medium-light spinning rods of at least 7 feet are needed for the long casts and finesse baits used to catch spring smallmouths. (Photo by Drew Warden)

Rasmussen turns to a temperature gauge, his FishWeather app and LakeMaster maps to find the warmest water and highlight desired depths in the spring. But he mostly uses his eyes (and quality polarized sunglasses) to find fish and ideal habitat. In summer and fall, electronics play a larger role. When fish move deeper, he uses Side Imaging to find the big boulders smallmouths love and utilizes MEGA Live Imaging to see if fish are present. If not, he moves until he finds them. When he does, he uses TargetLock to watch fish while using Spot-Lock to anchor in place and fight the wind.

In fall, larger 4-inch swimbaits and Alabama rigs shine. For A-rigs, Rasmussen relies on a 13 Fishing Envy 7-foot-11-inch crankbait rod and a 20-pound fluorocarbon leader. Smallmouths are typically even deeper, so he’ll drive around in 30 to 40 feet of water with 2D sonar or Side Imaging until he finds them. He advises anglers doing similarly not to place deep-caught fall fish in livewells or keep them out of the water too long, though, as it can kill them.

During the spawn, Rasmussen avoids targeting smallmouths on beds. First, he doesn’t wish to hinder their reproductive success. Second, it’s still possible— and often more productive—to catch pre-spawn bass in June.

Nest fishing is a complex, controversial topic. Most studies suggest that pulling a male smallmouth off a nest he’s guarding reduces the probability of that individual nest’s success. Brood predators, like other sunfish or gobies, consume some or all the eggs or larvae, with more typically consumed the longer the bass is off the bed. If all eggs or larvae are eaten, that nest fails, and if enough are lost in the male’s absence, he may abandon the nest.

Still, research offers conflicting opinions on population-level effects of nest fishing, and no regulations (yet) prohibit it. If you decide to target smallmouths on beds, minimize potential negative impacts. Use artificial instead of live baits to avoid deeply hooking fish. Immediately release bass where caught. Move to a new area after catching a couple; that leaves at least some nearby nests undisturbed.

Many anglers still feel that Wisconsin’s current 9-pound, 1-ounce smallmouth record, taken from Oneida County’s Indian Lake in 1950, could fall in Door County waters. Green Bay certainly has the forage base to support such growth. Five years ago, one fish came within ounces of it, and bass approaching 8 pounds are still occasionally caught in spring tournaments. If anglers keep practicing ethical catch-and-release fishing, and key habitat is maintained, the possibility is there. Until then, anglers can wear themselves out on quality bass with a chance at a true giant, all in a setting that offers picture-perfect views.

SMALLMOUTH SECRET WEAPONS

  • Gear to make bronzeback fishing more productive.
fishing gear
Shown: Humminbird MEGA Live Imaging TargetLock, Fin-Nor Cleat sunglasses and PowerBait MaxScent Flat Worm.

Quality spinning rods, reels, lines and finesse baits are a good place to start for a Door County smallmouth adventure. But a few key items can make your trip even better.

HUMMINBIRD MEGA LIVE IMAGING TARGETLOCK: New MEGA Live Imaging TargetLock ($1,500 for adapter kit/$3,000 with transducer; humminbird.johnsonoutdoors.com) lets you lock live-imaging sonar on a particular structure in the water. You can freely drift or use your trolling motor to move or anchor in place via Spot-Lock, and TargetLock automatically keeps your transducer pointed at the target. On windy days while targeting offshore boulders, Capt. Adam Rasmussen uses this feature so he can focus on smallmouth fishing without worrying about boat control or manually adjusting Live Imaging. We also used it in shallower water in June to stay on a school of fish hanging near a dock wall in Sister Bay. Additionally, TargetLock’s MEGA Live Sweep function provides a constantly updating 120-degree view ahead of you, while MinnKota Steer lets you control trolling motor and MEGA Live Imaging direction simultaneously. It’s a potent tool on Green Bay or anywhere you choose to fish.

FIN-NOR CLEAT SUNGLASSES: Polarized sunglasses are essential tools for Door County smallmouths. I wish I’d had Fin-Nor’s new Cleat sunglasses ($189; fin-nor.com) last year. They’ve become my go-to due to their exceptional comfort and ability to help me see into the water. The Cleat glasses have an innovative venting system, an adjustable nose pad and integrated spring hinges for a snug fit on different face shapes and sizes. I love the built-in peripheral shields, which block extra light from the sides, making the view beneath the surface even clearer. They’re available in several frame and lens colors.

BERKLEY POWERBAIT MAXSCENT: Berkley states that its MaxScent products catch 45 percent more fish than its original PowerBait. It’s especially effective on finicky fish and when using finesse presentations, like a drop-shot or Ned rig. MaxScent features a unique water-absorbent PVC construction that releases a super-charged scent field in the water to convert bass looks into bites. And, unlike other scent products, it doesn’t dry out. The PowerBait MaxScent Flat Worm ($9/10-pack; berkley-fishing.com) is a great drop-shot plastic, while the MaxScent Lil’ General ($9/8-pack) is perfect for Ned rigs. The MaxScent Tube ($9/8-pack) is another good option for Door County smallies

DOOR COUNTY TRIP PLANNER

  • Multi-species fishing and more on the peninsula.
Door County Wisconsin lighthouse
Door County offers stunning views of its many lighthouses on Lake Michigan. Visitors can hike, bike or paddle to take in the sights. (Shutterstock image)

Capt. Adam Rasmussen runs his charter business out of Sturgeon Bay. A testament to Door County’s multi-species diversity, Rasmussen offers smallmouth and walleye trips through his Rasmussen Outdoors Guide Service (rasmussenoutdoors.com) and trout and salmon trips through his Salmon Depot Charter Fishing (salmondepot.com). Book him for a no-hassles adventure and to shorten your learning curve on the water.

DIY anglers should visit Howie’s Tackle (howiestackle.com) for local info and to stock up on necessary supplies. There are ample boat ramps on both the Green Bay and Lake Michigan sides of the Door Peninsula, along with a few fishing piers and shore access points for shore-bound anglers. The Wisconsin DNR (dnr.wisconsin.gov) has an interactive map showing launches, shore fishing access and more. Also, bone up on regulations, which can vary.

If taking a break from fishing, there’s plenty in Door County to keep you busy. State parks offer hiking and biking trails, and there are several golf courses, with some offering incredible views. You’ll find kayak and paddleboard rentals for sightseeing, or there are museums and historical landmarks if that’s more your speed.

For fine dining, I heartily recommend Boathouse on the Bay, which offers excellent food and a killer view of scenic Sister Bay. Area supper clubs, a distinctly Wisconsin experience, are another option. Or consider taking in a traditional fish boil, a Scandinavian tradition that’s been part of Door County culture for decades. There are breweries and wineries to explore, and area lodging options are almost endless, ranging from quaint bed-and-breakfast accommodations to expansive resorts. Get information on all the above at Destination Door County (doorcounty.com).




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