Want to have some fun? Focus on northern Wisconsin smallmouths and leave the walleyes for another day

The walleye has always dominated the fishing discussion in northern Wisconsin. Unfortunately, recent headlines seem more negative than positive for that popular specie.

Meanwhile, another fishery, one that seems to be getting better and better, is sort of flying under the radar. Smallmouth bass fishing in northern Wisconsin is outstanding, and there has never been a better time to catch a giant fish than right now. I was fortunate to spend time the last two weekends chasing these big bronzebacks in the Northwoods.

Wisconsin’s 2017 inland game fish season opened on May 5. For weeks in advance, I had hoped to spend opening day targeting pre-spawn smallies. The upside of our cold, wet spring is that it promised the low water temperatures I’d need.

On the cloudy morning of the opener, I was relieved to find the water temperature right where I wanted it — 54 degrees. However, that Saturday also brought air temperatures in the low 40s and wind gusts over 30 mph — far from the ideal conditions held in my mind’s eye.

Still, we managed to find fish. We released 13 thick bass before high winds took a toll on batteries and anglers alike. That day’s largest was a 20-inch smallie that just missed 6 pounds. Mind you, this is a popular northern Wisconsin lake, not the celebrated trophy smallmouth waters of Green Bay or Lake Superior’s Chequamegan Bay.

By the following weekend, air temperatures had moderated and water temps ideal for the pre-spawn smallies would only be found in the far north. Fortunately, I was joined by an ambitious partner who was up for a challenge. We settled in the Boulder Junction area and caught nice smallmouths on each of the lakes we visited. We boated about 30 before the weekend was over. Not a lot of fish, but the quality was impressive. Jake boated the biggest overall —a 19-inch bronze-back that weighed just under 5 pounds. The title of “the fattest” belonged to a 16-incher that weighed 3 pound, 4 ounces — an absolute “football.”

In the next few weeks, anglers will have to move further north or focus on deeper waters if the target is pre-spawn bass. Elsewhere, as water temperatures approach 60 degrees, smallmouths will move into their bedding areas and begin the spawning process. Rocky areas will hold some of these fish all season, while others will move off-shore to spend the summer haunting schools of emerald shiners or ciscoes.

In northern Wisconsin, the walleye report might be a mixed, but for smallmouth bass, the good old days are now. There has never been a better time to catch and release your personal best smallie.

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