Determining where to fish in Door County can be a puzzle. Anglers have a lot of choices of venues and multiple factors to consider. First, which species to target? The choice of tackle and location will differ greatly if you want a meal of perch as opposed to venturing to boat a King salmon. Weather is a factor, particularly the wind. If the wind is howling from the northwest, essentially half the county waters are eliminated. Sometimes the weather will dictate that you won’t be fishing at all. I have a good rainsuit so a passing shower will not deter me. However, rolling thunderstorms or gale force winds will leave me few options other than to go to my computer and write about fishing. Thus you, respected readers, are subjected to these musings.
For many casual anglers, the decision where to fish is mindlessly simple. On a nice day, they just want to find a comfortable, convenient place to wet a line. They wish to experience the act of fishing and are less concerned as to what they catch or even whether they catch fish at all. These are the people who end up at the Kangaroo Lake Causeway. Now, don’t get me wrong, many good anglers do fish the causeway and some nice catches are made there, occasionally. However, on a typical sunny summer day the causeway is populated by parents, grandparents and small children floating red and white plastic bobbers, untangling lines, and playing with the bait. Great fun and a wonderful experience for all, but not the angling experience most avid piscators are looking for.
For some serious anglers, the choice of where to fish is taken out of their hands. If you hire a professional guide or book a charter, it is best to allow them dictate where to go and what to fish for. Afterall, I would not ever dare to tell a Door County chef how they should prepare whitefish or plate a serving of fresh garden vegetables. That’s what I am paying them for. You hired a guide. Let them do their job. Shut up and fish. Sometimes the fishing location is prearranged as part of a traditional fishing outing with friends or family. For many years, I would spend the muskie openers on a northern Wisconsin lake with good friends Steve and John. I don’t recall boating many muskies, but I will never forget those weekends. They transcended the fishing. It did not matter where we were fishing.
More often though, the thorniest decisions on where to fish must be made on those days when all options are open to you. The world is your oyster, you just need to discover the pearl. I was presented with this pleasing prospect just last week. It was a delightful weekday morning. The major bass tournaments were over and the throngs of Memorial Day weekend anglers had, for the most part, departed county waters. The incessant winds had subsided leaving just light and variable breezes. As I gazed out my window at the bright blue sky I pondered; “Where am I going to fish today?” Heading to the deep Lake Michigan waters off Baileys Harbor was an option. This is the time of year when we expect to find steelhead (aka rainbow trout) offshore and feeding near the surface. However, the water is unusually cold, four to five degrees colder than we would normally expect. The mid-lake data buoy was recording a surface temperature of only 38°F. Perhaps I would wait a week before targeting steelies. The walleyes bite was decent in the southern bay. In fact, we had just put a couple of marble-eyes in the boat a few days prior. The panfish on the inland lakes should be active with pre-spawn activity, so that was surely an option as well. But this time of year, my favorite target species is smallmouth bass. They are typically active in the shallow waters and even with the chilly water there are plenty of fish around.
So, smallies it is. But where? Fish were being caught all over the county from Little Sturgeon to Rowleys Bay. The results of the two recent bass tournaments (Sturgeon Bay Open & Sturgeon Bass Tournament) demonstrated that a lot of big fish were out there with many 5-fish bags coming in at over twenty five pounds. Five and six pound fish were common entries. Both tournaments are catch & release, albeit different formats, so these fish were still out there along with plenty more. I hooked up the Maggie Leigh to the back of my F-150 and headed for a bayside marina.
I was pleasantly surprised to find the parking lot void of trailer rigs. This time of year, the bay can get crowded, but it looked like this morning I was going to have much of the water to myself. I eased my 17-foot Lund into the water next to a sleek, water rocket with a shiny metal-flake hull and mammoth black power unit towering over the transom. It belonged to a pair of anglers, a husband and wife team from Illinois. We exchanged pleasantries and small talk, each attempting to glean any valuable bits of fishing intel without revealing too much of our own hard-earned knowledge. It is a ritual familiar to any angler who has spent time on an active boat launch. They had been up in Door County fishing for several days with only moderate success as they described it. “Spotty” was how I portrayed my recent outings. Not a lie, but not the whole story. I assumed my fellow anglers were not showing their hand either. I wished them good luck as they slipped away from the dock. The craft quickly disappeared with the roar of much horsepower, planing up in a heartbeat. I noted they headed north. I would not.
I quickly powered up the 110 horses I had available to me and crept out of the marina. I just as quickly powered down. I lowered my electric trolling motor into the gin-clear water and began fishing. This was as good of place as any to start my hunt. This time of year you need to find the warmest water around. My temperature gauge read 54°F. Not as warm as I would like or expect, but within the range to find bass. I also noticed a few very large shadows moving around the boat. Carp! Lots of them “enjoying each other’s company”. It has been my experience that water temperatures acceptable for spawning carp are also conducive for smallmouth bass. This was an encouraging sign. I picked up one of my spinning rods and sent a high arching cast towards a good looking piece of shallow water. It had a mottled bottom with a mixture of rock and gravel. I was using a perch colored Rapala X-Rap. This is one of my favorite “search lures” in the early summer. Making long casts is critical in the clear shallow waters to avoid scattering the spooky bass and the X-Rap has the weight to fire a long way. However, the most vital characteristic of the X-Rap is that it is perfectly neutrally buoyant. The lure will dive down about a foot or two when retrieved. When you halt the retrieve, the lure will stay suspended, almost motionless, at that depth. This can have a magical effect on bass. With the cold water temperatures, slow lure presentations are imperative to match the metabolism of these cold-blooded creatures. They are not going to chase after some fast-moving crank bait like they might later in the summer. However, if you place a suspended minnow bait or tube jig right in front of their nose and just let it sit there, eventually they just can’t help themselves. Instinct kicks in and they grab the lure. This may take a while. Sometimes it is a test of wills between you and the fish. Who will flinch first? I first learned how patient you need to be with this technique by accident. I was fishing with a tube jig one spring, moving it along the bottom repeatedly, getting no hits. Frustrated, I set my rod down, lure still lying on the bottom, and went to fill my coffee cup from a well-worn Thermos. After a few sips, I reached over to continue fishing and was surprised that I had a fish on. The lure was just sitting there for almost a minute before the bass sucked it in. Lesson learned.
I applied that lesson to the current situation, moving the lure excruciatingly slow, stopping repeatedly, allowing the X-Rap to motionlessly taunt the bass. It worked. After only a cast or two, a fat 17-inch smallmouth had almost imperceptibly picked up the lure. I set the hooks and it was “fish on!” Once that fish found its way into my net and back into the water, the process was repeated. I could not move the lure too slow. Twice, I was distracted while adjusting the trolling motor or applying much needed sunscreen, only to discover a fish had grabbed my lure. My pattern was to move into a shallow area and fire a cast as far as I could. If I got a hit, I would engage the “Spot-Lock” feature on my MinnKota trolling motor. This dynamic anchoring system is a great tool for this type of fishing. It will hold you in a specific location, allowing for winds and current, and let you work an area slowly and meticulously. That is exactly what was needed today.
Over the next hour or so I boated thirteen bass, most over 16-inches including a 20-incher weighing in over 4-pounds. I lost numerous other bass and boated two mid twenty-inch northerns. All in an area about the size of a baseball diamond and within sight of my truck and trailer sitting in the marina parking lot. I even had an audience watching the action from the marina break wall. It was an exhilarating experience.
I never saw the couple in the water rocket all morning. In fact, I never saw any other anglers at all. I was happy with my decision of where to fish on this day. I had solved the puzzle.
Stay safe and sane.