Early morning launches aren't so disagreeable when spawning smallmouth are the target, and the mating cycle was supposed to be full bore. So, with land barely visible through the thin, morning mist, Chris Beeksma eased back the throttle on his 18-foot Fisher and we settled into idle speed. Since our goal was huge, bedding smallies, and we weren't anywhere near anything, I assumed he was having motor problems.
"Be looking for chunks of wood," he said. "There should be a smallmouth beside each one."
He probably didn't hear my "Huh?" as I pivoted to peer over the gunwale into the depths of Lake Superior. To my surprise, I could easily see the bottom. How could this be? This was the continent's largest lake, where huge freighters roam, sink and have songs written about them. Yet here we were, in 5 feet of water, still four football fields from shore. (As I learned later, we were on top of a long, shallow flat.)
I was still trying to grasp the impossibility of this when, sure enough, we idled past a small log with a big smallmouth. "There's one!" I announced, reaching for my rod. When we didn't stop, I glanced over at Beeksma. Maybe he didn't hear me.
"Yep, there's another one," he said matter-of-factly a second later, glancing over his side of the boat. "And there's another."
"Aren't we going to fish for them?" I queried.
"Well, we could," replied the 43-year-old fishing guide from Iron River, Wis. "But farther up here, we'll find a lot more of them. The amount of submerged wood increases as we go farther up into this slough."
Ten minutes later, he finally killed the ignition switch, stepped up to the bow and dropped the trolling motor. I was still hanging over the gunwale like a dog in a pickup, watching log after log, bass after bass go by.
"There're a lot of logs and stumps between us and the shore," he announced, waving his rod from side-to-side in a 45 degree arc. "There should be a number of spawners all along here."
Being an overcast morning with a good breeze, we started with ½-ounce Nichols spinnerbaits with white/chartreuse skirts and double willow blades in the same color combination. Beeksma, who is also a tournament pro, warned me to always expect a hit as soon as the lure hit the water, just in case. Otherwise, we should let the lure sink about halfway down, then start a medium retrieve just fast enough to keep it from snagging in the wood. Being one who has to feel his bait bumping something, I disobeyed the captain's orders and promptly snagged. Doing the same on the next cast was embarrassing enough for me to start doing as I was told.
The smallies didn't seem to share our enthusiasm at first, as it took some 45 minutes before Beeksma got our first strike. But it was a beautiful, rod-bending, 19-inch smallie, weighing in at 3 ½ pounds. Thirty minutes later, he brought its twin onboard, and yet another, before I finally got the hang of what exactly they wanted. I had been reeling just a tad too fast for spawners.
By noon, the overcast skies gave way to rain, followed by winds strong enough to make holding in any given spot difficult. The advent of lightning on the other side of Chequamegon Bay's 30,000 acres was the deciding factor for calling it a day around 3 p.m. All in all, we had taken a dozen smallies, all football-shaped, and all between 18 and 20 inches.
The next day, the sky and things in general became much clearer. Now we could see the spawning beds some 30 feet ahead of our approach, and get casts into them before the boat unnerved the bass. We worked various areas around the bay, finding the best spots to be wood with weeds in 3 to 5 feet of water. The wood usually consisted of rootlike systems with or without stumps. It could also be a concoction of small logs or big sticks in a nest-shape pattern. From a distance, these spawning beds would appear as isolated dark patches on the otherwise light brown bottom. In a few places we found the nests more grouped, some only a few feet apart. And this one spot had nests butting right up against each other, looking like oversized bluegill beds. Regardless, there seemed to be a big smallmouth on every one.
As usual, the spawning areas closest to deep water (at least 10 feet) with a good breakline or cut running to and fro were the best. My guide explained that the deeper beds are usually the last ones made during the spawn, and hence hold the largest bass. They're also more difficult to find, if you are not familiar with the area. Generally, these will be on the edges of the sand flats, with some type of rubble and near a dropoff. He said most fishermen just motor over these areas, heading for the wood. The good fishing here usually lasts only two or three days, but it is worth waiting for. Beeksma uses a larger tube when targeting these fish, preferring a 5-inch Exude Salatube in gourd green. He can make longer casts with this lure, which is important, because these loners are often spookier than the smallies in the "main" spawning group.
Our best producers the second day were white or rainbow-shad 5-inch Mister Twister RT Slugs, rigged weightless with a 4/0 VMC wide gap worm hook. Exude tubes in white or smoke, rigged with a 3/32- or 1/8-ounce black Legacy Loc jig came in second. Beeksma says the darker green tubes are often good, as well. During low light, or when the surface is semicalm, he often opts for topwaters, like Rapala Skitter Walks, Skitter Pops, Storm Chug Bugs, Heddon Tiny Torpedoes and Rebel Pop-R's.
"I usually do not downsize on the topwater baits," says Beeksma. "The medium size Skitter Pops, Pop-R's and Chug Bugs, and the big saltwater-size Skitter Walks are what I prefer. Big smallmouth eat big baits."
Under prespawn conditions, when bass are sluggish in the colder water, suspending jerkbaits, such as Storm Thundersticks, Rapala Husky Jerks and Smithwick suspending Rogues, can get things going. Other prespawn baits that have worked very well are the lipless crankbaits, such as Rat-L-Traps, Cotton Cordell Spots and Rapala Rattlin Raps. These types seem to work best in hot colors, like firetiger and hot perch.
For its control and lack of stretch, Beeksma likes Power Pro braided line — 30-pound test on his baitcasting reels, and 20-pound test on his spinning reels. He finds this particularly advantageous with jerkbaits, lipless crankbaits and deep water jigging.
The smallies were more willing to hit under these bright conditions, but they still required a certain technique. First, the bite would usually feel very light to nonexistent. We found it helpful to actually see the bass take the lure, then wait a couple of seconds before setting the hook, while it was carried away from the nest. Much of the time we'd miss, because the bass never would have the lure completely in its mouth.
Occasionally, the spawners would bust the lure right at splash-down, so we had to be ready at all times. In this case, we'd set the hook immediately, because the bass was probably feeding as much as defending, and therefore had the lure well in its mouth. If a strike didn't come right away, we would let the bait sink into the nest before slowly hopping it a little.
If they are hitting topwater, Beeksma says the stop-and-go method may work, but spawning smallmouth seem to favor a fast, erratically moving bait.
The three spawning stages
Unlike most places, in Chequamegon Bay, Wis., the prespawn begins at about the 50 degree mark. The bass will start moving up from their staging areas, which are usually the first deep water spots (8 to 10 feet) off the spawning flats. If they aren't all the way up yet, you may find them along a sharp-breaking edge, foraging for minnows. Hit it right, and you can experience a prespawn feeding binge. Beeksma suggests suspending a jerkbait at the appropriate depth without working it too much. Just twitch it up every 10 to 15 seconds — no less than every five seconds. His favorite lure for prespawn fish is a suspending jerkbait or lipless crankbait, followed by a tube in green or brown hues.
Water between 60 and 70 degrees means the spawn should be in full bloom, and you should be on the flats, as described earlier.
The postspawn ushers in at around 70 degrees, as the bass move off the nests. Some may stay on the flats and feed, while others start moving off to school up in deeper water. Beeksma says the key is to find the cabbage (both thin-leaved and broad-leaved) and sandgrass, regardless of how deep, because this is where the minnows and crawfish congregate. He likes to swim plastic worms and lizards right through the middle of these weeds, because unlike largemouth, which usually prefer the edges of weeds, smallies are found right in the heart of the cover. Crankbaits, retrieved at a fairly slow pace, can be very good during the initial postspawn period.
On Chequamegon Bay, between Ashland and Washburn, Wis., the best months are May and June for the shallow smallies, and then again in October, when they load up on minnows for the upcoming winter. During the fall, Beeksma likes French fries or 4-inch suckers or chubs, and when working deeper, he includes CC spoons and 1-ounce deep running spinnerbaits using a slow rolling presentation. Two p.m. to dusk is his favorite time during the warmer months, while midday works best when it's colder. Fall fishing action continues until the water cools to around 34 degrees. The smallmouth winter in the deep shipping channels and are virtually dormant.
The seiche quirk
While inland lakes are not normally known for having tides, Lake Superior is large enough to indeed see some tidal influence from the moon's position.
But according to Capt. Beeksma, the real nemesis on Chequamegon Bay is the thing called a "seiche," which is basically a tide within a tide. This ebb and flow can change in 30 seconds to 15 minutes, reacting to all manner of influences, from the wind and barometric pressure to the new or full moon.
"It just goes crazy sometimes," opined Beeksma. "Hard to predict. It causes the fish to really hunker down, plus your boat can quickly get hung up on a sandbar. Your best tactic is to just wait until it runs its course."
While fishing around the full moon period is known to bring good results in most areas, on Chequamegon Bay, the opposite is true. The seiche really runs strong during the full moon and may move water as much as 4 feet at times.
Checklist for spawning smallmouth
1. In Chequamegon Bay, Wis., the prespawn begins when the water is in the low 50s. Sixty to 70 degrees means the spawn should be in full swing on the flats. The postspawn starts at 70 degrees, with some bass staying on the flats, others moving to deeper water. Look for cabbage and sandgrass, regardless of water depth.
2. The best spawning areas are close to deep water with a good breakline. The deeper beds usually hold the largest bass. Look for wood, weeds or a combination thereof.
3. Be ready as soon as the lure hits the water, as bass may be in a feeding mood. Otherwise, let the bait sink into the nest before slowly hopping it a little.
4. Try white or rainbow shad 5-inch Mister Twister RT Slugs, rigged weightless, or Exude tubes in white or smoke, rigged with a 3/32- or 1/8-ounce black Legacy Loc jighead. During low light days or semicalm surfaces, try topwaters, like Rapala Skitter Walks, Skitter Pops, Storm Chug Bugs, Heddon Tiny Torpedoes and Rebel Pop-R's. Yellow-and-white spinnerbaits can also be good. For topwater, half the strikes come while the lure is just lying there; others come during a fast, erratic retrieve.
5. Best months are May, June and October. Best times of day are 2 p.m. to dusk in warm water; heat-of-day in cold water. A "seiche," (a tide within a tide, which can move the water as much as 4 feet during a full moon) can momentarily ruin the fishing. Just wait until it's over, which can last from 30 seconds to 15 minutes.
Capt. Chris Beeksma owns the Get Bit Guide Service at 10595 Cedar Crest Road, Iron River, WI 54847, 715-372-8622, www.getbitguideservice.com.