Bucket List Destination: Sturgeon Bay, WI

By Darl Black

Every self-respecting bronzeback angler has a Bucket List of smallmouth bass waters they want to visit. I surely do. Many of them I have been able to check off the list, including today’s destination – Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin. Actually, it’s more than just Surgeon Bay. It’s all the bays and harbor inlets on Wisconsin’s Door County Peninsula just northeast of football city of Green Bay.

Green Bay (the water) is a large, deep bay off Lake Michigan. Door County Peninsula is a finger of land that separates Green Bay from Lake Michigan. Sturgeon Bay (at the town of Surgeon Bay) is the largest bay-on-the-bay. But when it comes to smallmouth fishing, you do not want to count out any of the smaller inlets on Door County Peninsula, including Little Sturgeon Bay, Egg Harbor, Fish Creek and Sister Bay on the west side of the peninsula, and Moonlight, North and Rowley Bay on the east side (Lake Michigan side). Together with the shoals around Washington Island on the north tip, this stretch of water comprises one of the best smallmouth fisheries in North America.

Bassmaster Magazine named Sturgeon Bay #1 on their Top 100 List of Best Bass Fishing Destinations for 2014. While I’m not going to rank what I consider the top smallmouth fisheries because each is so unique, I will disclose what puts the Door County Peninsula bays on my list.

First, it’s the high percentage of BIG smallmouths. For years I thought the Eastern Basin of Lake Erie gave up an incredibly high proportion of five-pound-plus smallmouth. That was before I visited Door County. Oh my! If you want the best crack at a six or seven pound smallmouth today, head to Wisconsin’s Door County.

Second, there is a progression of warming in the bays as you travel up the Green Bay side and then flip over to the Lake Michigan side of the peninsula. Due to gradual warming of one bay after another, the sequence of pre-spawn, spawn and post spawn periods extends from the first week of May(bass opener on Door County) to late June. And the locals tell me that smallies don’t hit the beds around Washington Island area until July – which is when Washington Island bass season opens. Focusing on pre-spawn bass moving into the bays is the best time frame for a truly BIG bass. And due to the high number of bass, smallmouths move in to different spawning areas in waves.

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Insight into Prespawn River Smallmouth

By Darl Black

If you are a northern smallmouth bass fisherman, right now is an exciting time on a river. Fish are leaving those minimal-current wintering holes with the intent to feed. Eventually they will end up holding near river spawning flats as water temperature warms to around 60 degrees. But their journey is anything except a straight line.

Smallmouth bass springtime movements in lakes are predictable. The step by step progression of lake-grown smallmouths moving to spawning areas is as regular as the April 15th tax deadline.

However, river smallmouth never read the rules. Once river water temperatures reach the mid- to upper 40s, bronzebacks may: (1) move shallow, then drop back, only to move shallow again; (2) leave the slow water to move into stronger current, only to fall back to eddies; (3) feed extensively on crayfish only to switch to minnows the next day, and then to an insect hatch the next. Between the time river smallmouths leave wintering areas until they begin making nests, their journey is predictably unpredictable.    

If someone thinks they have river smallmouth movements completely down pat between the upper 40s degrees to around 60 degrees, I would suggest they simply have not been fishing bronzebacks long enough. More so than their lake-bound cousins, river smallmouths are subject greater environmental changes on a daily basis. Any change in flow will have a major impact on smallmouth location. Spring rains or upstream dam releases yield an immediate response in current flow, water clarity, water depth, and water temperature.

More times than I care to recall over the years during April or early May a fishing buddy and I would stumble into a wad of smallmouth in a particular eddy, along a particular current seam or a defined current break. We would catch and release 20, 30 or more smallies one after another. Because of changing conditions, we didn’t expect the fish to hang there for every long. But we did expect to repeat that sort of catch on the spot in a future year. However too often a site never again produced as it had on that initial magical day.

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My First Smallmouth after Ice-Out

By Darl Black

It’s the latter part of February, and thick ice covers all the lakes in northwestern Pennsylvania. Although shallower and faster flowing sections of middle Allegheny River and regional creeks are open, edge ice on the banks is everywhere and slower stretches remain completely encased in winter’s deep freeze. But Marilyn and I are counting the days to the Spring Equinox. In our corner of the state, ice cover on lakes usually weakens by the Equinox (March 20th) – some years a little later.

However, flowing water will open up before impounded water – perhaps as much as two weeks ahead of lakes depending on weather. So my first smallmouth of the new open-water season typically comes from the Allegheny River. I will be on the river as soon as ice cover on slow-moving pools breaks up and the floating ice sheets melt.

I’ll point my jet boat in the direction of a bass wintering area. Wintering holes are best described as sites with minimal water flow, such as long pools, large bank eddies, deep holes on wide bends, deep eddies downstream of bridge piers or islands, and the list goes on. Water depth is relative to the particular stretch of river. As long as the flow is slow, wintertime smallmouth may be as shallow as 6 or 8 feet to as deep as 15 to 18 feet on the middle section of the Allegheny.

At ice-out, smallmouths are hugging the bottom amid some type of cover which helps deflect the already slow flow. These bass are feeding on crayfish and other benthic critters. Bottom “cover” can be small ledges, rock piles, boulders, sunken branches/logs or just about any type of waterlogged submerged debris. If you are not getting your lure hung regularly, chances are you are fishing a bottom that is too clean.

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Six Tips for Cold Water Hair

By Darl Black

It's winter. Smallies in shallow-to-moderate-depth rivers have moved to the slower, relatively deeper water of eddies, reduced current pool, and outside-bend holes. Water temperatures will likely vary between 32 degrees and 42 degrees. With water this cold, the best lure to have tied on may be a hair jig. However to enjoy success, you must know hair jig protocols.

1. DO select a jig tied with natural hair, crafted tied here in the USA. Less expensive synthetic hair simply does not have the allure of real hair. Natural hair has smooth flow when wet and enticing undulation in the current. Deer hair may be the most popular for jigs, but good tiers may use several types of natural hair and fur, often in combination with natural feathers. Okay, a bit of artificial tinsel, Crystal Hair or strands of silicone may be included as an accent on a hair jig, but the main ingredient for the body of the jig is natural hair. (The exception to natural hair in cold water would be craft hair jigs for float-n-fly fishing – but that's a story for another time.)

2. DO choose jig weight based on depth and current flow, using the lightest weight jighead you can get away with for the conditions. You do not want a hair jig to bog down. Be sure to carry jigs in the five most practical weights: 1/16, 3/32, 1/8, 5/32, 3/16, and ¼ ounce. It is critical to have heads in each size handy in order to achieve the most effective retrieve.

3. DO NOT fish a hair jig as bottom bumping or bottom dragging bait. Hair should be fished with a slow swimming retrieve. Of course it is necessary to allow the jig to collide with the bottom on the initial drop, but the retrieve should be a slow-roll, attempting to contour the bottom. Lightly brushing the bottom occasionally lets you know you the jig is in the zone.

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