Fly Fishing Lake Superior Smallmouth Bass
October 15, 2014
Except in a few waters across the country, smallmouth bass have had little protection from overharvest. Even in the fish's original range—the Ohio River and Great Lakes drainages—anglers have been able to keep several smallmouth per day with low minimum length limits.
In the late 1980s, these liberal regulations nearly destroyed a native, world-class fishery on Lake Superior's Chequamegon (Sha-wa-ma-gun) Bay in Wisconsin. As local fly-shop owner and bay guide Roger LaPenter describes it, "Once out-of-town anglers got word of the bay's big smallmouth, we lost the fishery almost overnight. All of our big fish were taken and several of the year-classes disappeared." Anglers, he says, came from all over to get a wall trophy.
In 1989 LaPenter headed a group of local anglers and businessmen and petitioned the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR), asking the state to rework the regulations and save the fishery. The group received support from the Smallmouth Alliance, Trout Unlimited (national), and the state's Badger Fly Fisherman club, but its grassroots support made the difference. People in the Ashland, Bayfield, and Washburn communities knew how important a healthy fishery was to the region.
By 1993, the WDNR agreed to new regulations—catch-and-release until late June and then one 22-inch fish for the rest of the season—that protect spawning-size fish (15 to 20 inches) for the entire year, as well as the big-fish population. Today the bay's big-fish and year-class populations are healthy again, and few fly rodders know that you can catch as many as 50 fish a day, with an average of six fish over 18 inches. Locals rarely raise their eyebrows at 18-inch smallmouth—they're used to tangling with fish up to 20 inches and larger.
A New Way of Thinking
Do the protective regulations on Chequamegon Bay indicate that more bass anglers are looking for a quality fishing experience rather than one focusing on quantity? Possibly, says Mike Hoff, a U.S. research fisheries biologist. He believes anglers' needs have changed over the last 50 years.
"In the middle of the 20th century many fisheries were managed with liberal regulations to provide the greatest number of pounds of fish for the angler," says Hoff. "Quantity was more important back then. Today, not as many anglers need fish for food and more want a quality experience."
The strict regulations on Chequamegon Bay, says Hoff, are important because the bay has potential to be one of the best smallmouth stillwaters in North America. Waters with such potential need protection to create more quality experiences for the growing number of anglers who want them, he says. LaPenter agrees.
"This could be one of the best in the world," says LaPenter. "The bay has ideal habitat and food for big smallmouth, which means there is a future for the fishery. Our kids' kids will be able to experience it."
A few other Wisconsin smallmouth waters have specialized regulations, but the bay's are the most restrictive to date. Stephen Schram, a WDNR Lake Superior fisheries biologist, says regulations are determined on a case-by-case basis. In the bay's case, where there was an over-exploitation of the smallmouth population and a vulnerable spawning area, restrictive regulations were the only way to rejuvenate the fishery quickly. Otherwise, he says, the fishery would have continued to decline.
"We wanted to provide a balance of opportunities for anglers," says Schram. "Quality in this case over quantity. And the whole community benefits from this fishery."
"Since the regulations went into effect," says Schram, "we've been studying the fish populations on an annual basis. In the early 1990s we had poor recruitment, but by 1999 we saw several more year-classes enter the population."
Schram and the WDNR are watching the fishery closely to make sure the fish and forage balance remains equal. One advantage of the bay, says Schram, is that it receives forage from the main lake. These regulations, he says, may not work on many of the state's inland lakes, where adult fish populations could quickly outweigh forage.
Wisconsin is not the first state to implement special regulations on its bass waters. Streams and lakes in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia, Maryland, and Michigan, to name a few, have similar regulations. Pennsylvania's Susquehanna River, for example, has certain stretches designated as Big Bass water with restrictive regulations that protect spawning-size fish. There, it was Middletown fly-shop owner and guide Bob Clouser who organized local anglers to ask for a quality fishing opportunity. Because of the program's success, other selected Pennsylvania waters now have big-bass regulations.
Ideal Smallmouth Habitat
"Chequamegon" is a Chippewa Indian word meaning "narrow strip of land running into a body of water." The strip, called Long Island, runs northwest five miles into Lake Superior. It creates a protected bay, shielded from the lake's frigid waters (55 degrees F. in summer), that is usually fishable by May when the water warms to 65 or 70 degrees F. This warmwater ecosystem is important for the survival of smallmouth and many other sportfish and forage.
The bay is a 40,000-acre basin with an average depth of 18 feet. The water warms early in late spring, and the bay's best fishing areas are the shallows (flats), where you can sight cast to big fish and structure.
In the old logging days (late 1800s to early 1900s), cargo rafts transported timber to over 20 mills in the Ashland area. Many of the cargo rafts broke up in violent storms and their waterlogged timber sank to the bottom. The smallmouth use these logs for nesting cover. Now the habitat is good, with plenty of sunken timber, but in the east end of the bay, landowners are pulling logs—structure—out of the water to use to protect their shorelines. To create new quality habitat, the North Wisconsin Rod and Gun Club installed underwater fish cribs—logs stacked in 4-foot-high 8'x 8' squares to provide cover and spawning habitat for fish.
In spring, fish move up on the flats to spawn and fishing is excellent. Area guides don't fish to nesting females but target males off the beds. Good flats fishing continues through summer and fall when fish patrol the flats for forage: emerald shiners, sculpin, smelt, spot-tail shiners, leeches, sucker minnows, bullheads, fathead minnows, and crayfish.
During a recent visit, we (Bob Clouser, Joe Bruce, Bill May, and I) poled the shallows in flats skiffs with guides LaPenter, Tom Andersen, and Pat Ehlers. We didn't have a 50-fish day and we didn't catch any large fish, but we each averaged from 15 or 20 smallmouth for the day, with several in the 18-inch range. Unfortunately, a miserable cold front forced us to spend the first few days on some of the area's inland lakes. Bad weather on the bay can be extremely dangerous, and locals highly recommend you don't chance it. Things can get nasty quickly, and 6- to 7-foot waves have stranded boats.
The best fishing is in Sand Cut
(roughly 300 acres) in the east end of the bay, behind Long Island. The flats lie near deep water where the fish hide during the day and stage during the spawning season. We caught mostly medium-size fish (14 inches) during midday and bigger fish in the evening. We took fish on a variety of Clouser Minnows (#2-#6), #2 Clouser Floating Minnows, and LaPenter's #10 Bay Bugs. Bay anglers prefer surface fishing, with the most popular patterns being hard-bodied poppers. The guides say the ideal water temperature for popper fishing is in the 80s F.
Underwater flies were the ticket on our visit, and we fished them across the cut's "seiche" tide, an invisible movement of water pushed by the wind. The bay's fish behave as if they are in a river. Local anglers fish the seiches by casting perpendicular to the bank and the east- or west-moving current.
Matching the Hatches
According to LaPenter, the bay provides excellent match-the-hatch fishing when the weather warms in May and the Brown Drakes emerge. Bass become selective when the hatch peaks, and fishing during the nonhatch periods can be slow. In May and June, anglers fish the bay's exceptional dragonfly hatches.
Good hatches continue into late June and through mid-July with the nighttime Hexagenia emergence. These #4 mayflies provide a great chance to catch large smallmouth on drys. Daytime fishing slows during the Hex hatch, but fish will take nymphs fished near bottom. During July, crayfish patterns work well fished dead-drift in the current or stripped slow across the structure.
LaPenter says anglers should bring their smaller trout dry flies to use during the bay's other hatches. And don't forget terrestrials. "There's a yearly flying-ant hatch in mid-August that the bass take full advantage of," he says.
In August, when the water reaches 75-85 degrees F., the bass take hard-bodied poppers, including Andersen's Minnow, the Red/White, the Chartreuse, and frog imitations.
Good fishing continues through fall as the bass gorge themselves for the long winter. Fall is also your best chance to get a trophy, and fish will take #2 baitfish patterns. The action lasts through October, even later if the water temperature stays above 60 degrees F., before the fish move to the deeper northwest end of the bay.
While smallmouth are the best target for fly rodders, the bay also has golden carp, northern pike, walleyes, lake trout, rainbows, browns, brook trout, splake, perch, rock bass, crappie, Chinook, and coho.
If You Go
If the bay's weather goes sour, there are several other waters to explore, including hundreds of inland lakes full of smallmouth, muskie, pike, walleye, and panfish. There's also excellent trout, steelhead, and salmon fishing in Fish Creek and the Sioux, Onion, Cranberry, Bois Brule, and Flag rivers; all have wild fish. For more information, visit the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources website, www.dnr.state.wi.us.
Ashland is the bay's biggest town and offers accommodations. For more information, visit Ashland's Chamber of Commerce website, www.ashlandchamber.org. The nearest major airport is in Duluth. From there, it's a 11/2-hour drive to Ashland.
There is only one full-service fly shop in the area, Anglers All Shop and Guide Service, (715) 682-5754, in Ashland, owned by LaPenter (center) and his wife, Carolyn Swartz. They, along with Tom Andersen (right) and Pat Ehlers (left), provide guided trips ($300 per day) on flats boats: Hewe's Bonefish (16-foot, 90-HP Yamaha), and two Maverick Master Anglers (17-foot, 130-HP Yamaha). Anglers All hosts two smallmouth schools—one in May and one in August—with Dave Whitlock.