Chequamegon Bay walleyes force smallmouths to share spotlight

Chequamegon Bay isn’t just for smallmouth bass any more. Well,
actually, it never has been, but the creation of a world class
smallmouth fishery has just about overshadowed anything else going
on out on the sprawling bay.

That’s why most anglers don’t notice the boat or two that slip
out of the Ashland harbor just before dark each night. What could
those guys be up to? Mostly they’re up to their freeboard in big
walleyes.

Don’t believe it? Just ask Rick Mihalek, owner of Chequamegon
Outfitters and a walleye guide out on the bay.

Although Mihalek fishes all species on Chequamegon Bay,
including smallies, northern pike, trout and salmon, he’s
especially fond of the big bay’s walleye fishery. Over the years,
he’s found that the best walleye fishing comes after dark.

“The walleyes have been a little bit of a secret out here
because everyone is looking for smallmouths,” said Mihalek. “Most
anglers don’t realize what our walleye fishery consists of.”

And, most don’t know the best walleye fishing comes after dark.
In that respect, the Chequamegon Bay walleye fishing is similar to
the better know walleye fishing along Door County near Sturgeon
Bay. However, in Chequamegon Bay, the walleyes remain shallower
longer, but they’re more difficult to pattern because Chequamegon
Bay doesn’t have Door County’s popular walleye reefs.

Still, Mihalek doesn’t have any trouble catching Chequamegon Bay
walleyes.

Mihalek invited fellow outdoor writer Dick Ellis and myself to
join him for a night of fishing. We headed out of the Kreher Park
boat landing in downtown Ashland just before sunset early last
month. The last bit daylight gave Mihalek a chance to set up six
lines with Bomber Long A crankbaits for a few trolling passes just
off downtown Ashland.

“The walleyes out here are a tough species to pattern. The key
is to get out there and work at it. Granted, Chequamegon Bay can be
a tough one to crack, there’s an awful lot of water and not a lot
of structure, so it makes it a little tougher for anglers who are
used to working weed edges or rock bars on lakes. The vastness can
be intimidating. Some guys can study a lake chart and figure out a
few areas, but for the most part, the average guy spends a lot of
time looking in the wrong spots,” he said.

Anglers can depend on their depth finders, to an extent, to
locate fish, but Mihalek said the fish that show up on the screen
don’t always bite.

“Don’t stay on those fish if they’re not hitting. Don’t spend a
lot of time in that area. Go to another spot there are always fish
feeding somewhere. You might have to try five or six spots in order
to find fish that are feeding.”

Mihalek didn’t have to try any “spots” on this trip. He just
trolled the 6- to 13-foot depths just off the shallow flats off
Hwy. 2 in Ashland. There were more than 25 boats fishing the same
area, but by the time the sun set, most of the boats had already
left. That’s when the fish started hitting. In less that 45
minutes, we landed three walleyes measuring 221/2, 24 and 241/2
inches. The bay has a five-walleye daily bag limit with a 15-inch
minimum size limit, but of those five, only one may be over 20
inches. So, with three walleyes longer than 20 inches, we were done
for the night.

“That’s the hard part, because a lot of the walleyes are longer
than 20 inches,” he said. The trip before, Mihalek’s clients caught
three walleyes that were all 261/2 inches.

“Usually, in May and early June, we catch numbers of walleyes.
In the summer, we often catch more for size. Also, they seem a
little bit friskier in July. You might have a 5-pounder that feels
like a 7-pounder. When you get a big one, it’s going to hang down
in the water a little bit.”

As of last week, Mihalek said the walleyes are are still near
the shallow flats. The water temps are still down a little bit from
where it should be at; the water is just in the mid 60s right now
and locals are still catching walleyes in the 5 to 6 feet, with the
best action coming in the 8-to 12-foot range.

“Pretty soon they’ll switch to a little deeper water, where they
will start hanging out around the weeds.”

Towards summer, Mihalek said fishermen have to cover more water
and fish specific spots.

“Mark areas where you get a fish on, or get a hit, then make a
few loops around that spot. It might be a small area, so mark it on
a GPS and keep swimming around. You don’t have the luxury of
camping over a rock bar or weed patch. If you find aggressive fish,
mark them. A GPS is a great tool to have on a large body of water.
Also, you’re not throwing out markers for everyone else to look
at,” he said.

These walleyes can be caught a number of ways drifting, casting,
anchoring with slip bobbers, trolling. Mihalek likes trolling
because he can cover more water and catch bigger fish. He uses one
board on either side of the boat, and attaches the boards to the
boat using weed wacker string. He then uses homemade plastic rings
(shower rings from Wal-Mart) and alligator clips to run three
fishing lines off the weed wacker string on either side. He uses
7-foot rods and level wind reels loaded with 10-pound line.
Everything is set up to make fishing easy after dark snap swivels
for changing baits, spotlights, reflectorized clips,
everything.

He trolls at 1.4 to 1.8 mph in his 21-foot Lund. Sometimes
walleyes grab a crankbait, but don’t trip the line.

“Make a few turns. Sometimes it just takes a little change in
direction or speed for them to grab it hard. Sometimes fish hang on
and unless your watching, you don’t notice it. I have caught
9-pounders that have never released the clip.”

Mihalek, 51, has been guiding for walleyes for six years. He
makes his living as a carpenter, and he’s also active in the
community. He is serving his second term as vice-chairman of the
Ashland County Conservation Congress delegation, and he’s
vice-chairman of North Wisconsin Rod and Gun Club in Ashland. He
also helps coach youth baseball teams.

He credits a friend with getting him started on bay walleyes
after dark.

“Bill Buehler he was quite a guy. About 10 years ago he drowned
while crossing the bay from Washburn to Ashland. He was in his mid
40s at the time. Bill was probably the original night walleye
fisherman guy out here,” said Mihalek, blinking a bit either from
thinking about the loss of his friend, or from the bright orange
sun setting on the horizon. “He was seen leaving Washburn, but he
never showed up in Ashland. That was a real tragedy.

“Bill never left the boat landing before 10 p.m. at night. He
always went out by himself and he always caught fish. He used
crankbaits, too. He was pulling Shad Raps. Loved them. He did
everything at a fast pace and it just caught up with him. He had
two speeds, full bore and stop. It just caught up with him.”

A couple of years after his friend died, Mihalek started guiding
to share the bay’s resources with others. He also guides for deer
and bear.

“I just love seeing other people catch fish and have fun. We
have a great resource here. We’re lucky that the bay supports a
good walleye fishery, and that it seems to be holding very stable.
Is it what it was 10 or 15 years ago? Probably not, but it is still
very good.”

For information on fishing the bay, contact Rick Mihalek of
Chequamegon Outfitters in Ashland at (715) 682-9005, or e-mail him
at cheqoutfitters@centurytel.net

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