Chequamegon Bay lives up to its reputation for trophy smallmouth bass
ON CHEQUAMEGON BAY, NEAR ASHLAND, Wis. -- Chris Beeksma checked the water temperature on his fish finder, and he didn't like what he saw.
"Forty-three degrees," said Beeksma, a fishing guide from Delta. "We had 50 last weekend."
Beeksma and I were out to sample the pre-spawn smallmouth bass action Tuesday on Chequamegon Bay of Lake Superior near Ashland. The bay is renowned as a trophy smallmouth fishery, but no bass in its right mind was likely to smack a minnow imitation in water that frigid.
We were fishing Sand Cut Slough, a shallow basin off the main body of Chequamegon Bay. It's 4 to 6 feet deep, sand-bottomed with woody debris where bass like to spawn. We had already tried nearby Kakagon Slough, another shallow bay just across Oak Point. Beeksma had caught one chunky smallmouth there, but when a southwest wind turned the bay turbid, Beeksma made his move to Sand Cut.
"Bass don't like dirt," he said.
In Sand Cut, the water was a clearer gray-green, but it was cold. Beeksma, 48, has learned a few things in his 23 years of guiding bass and muskie anglers. So, he eased his 20-foot Yar-Craft farther into the bay. Bingo.
"Forty-nine point nine," Beeksma said.
That temperature wasn't going to trigger a feeding frenzy, but it would surely put a few bass in a more active mode. Beeksma began tossing an All-Terrain Swim Jig across the shallows and retrieving it deliberately.
A bass mashed the jig, and Beeksma set the hook hard. The bass dived and darted around the stern of the boat. Beeksma danced around the stern decks, reaching over his 225-horsepower outboard to play the fish. The water was too cold for acrobasstics, but the fish made several deep runs. When it came boatside, Beeksma hoisted it aboard.
It was a 17-incher, plump as a football. It would be a photo fish for nearly any smallmouth angler. But it's merely average on Chequamegon Bay, said Steve Schram, Lake Superior fisheries supervisor for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources in Bayfield.
"It's an awesome fishery," Schram said.
Beeksma agreed. Few other smallmouth fisheries, especially one as accessible as this one, can boast that kind of average size.
But that's because regulations here were changed in 1994 to make this a trophy bass fishery. An angler suggested to the DNR that too many larger bass were being killed, and subsequent research indicated that was true, Schram said. That year, the state went to a limit of just one bass on the bay, and it must be at least 22 inches long to keep.
So far, the DNR has never found a 22-incher in its nets, although it has caught plenty of 20 inchers, Schram said.
"In 23 years of guiding, I or my clients have never put a 22-incher in the boat," Beeksma said. "We've gotten them 21½, 21¾, but not 22."
And, typically, lots of them.
"A good day is 40," he said, retrieving the Swim Jig again. "Average is maybe 20 to 25 for two guys. And they'll all be 3 to 5 pounds."
He thinks the average size bass on Chequamegon Bay is increasing.
"Last fall, my boat caught more bass over 6 pounds than we ever have before," he said.
Bass and bears
We caught half a dozen fish in all. Some we caught on the Swim Jigs, some on jerkbaits.
"I think it's just the coolest bite," Beeksma said. "It's like a mooshy feeling. You go to do the next jerk, and it's there. You really don't feel the bite."
That's exactly how it felt when I was reeling in my Swim Jig. I simply felt a lot more resistance on the line. The bass bulldozed, stripping line from my reel. I worked him around the bow for perhaps 30 seconds. Beeksma lifted 4½ pounds of Sand Cut bass in his ample net.
"Probably 19½ [inches]," Beeksma said.
I slipped her back into the water so she could make baby bass in a week or so.
While we fished, we watched two adult bears climb in the top of a birch or aspen across the bay. One appeared to be standing up part of the time. We couldn't figure out what they might be doing up there.
Beeksma rounded out our day's catch with another 4-pounder, a light golden-green fish with a linebacker's shoulders.
We saw only three other boats all day, all of them on Sand Cut Slough. But Beeksma knows that will change soon.
"There'll be 40 boats in here in another month," he said.
For good reason.