Big Bass Bayside
In Defense of the Sheepshead
The "Gales of November" have come early, again. Earlier in the week we had Storm Warnings on the lake (this is the step beyond Small Craft Warnings and Gale Warnings) due to 12 -15 footers on the north end. Now we have a classic "Nor'easter" bearing down on the Upper Midwest which will bring more wind, waves and even brought mention of the "S" word into the forecast over the weekend. (The word for the white stuff of which we don't speak this early in the season.)
In between these bouts of blustery winds, I did find a couple days of relative calm to foray onto the waters of Green Bay. Fall fishing in the bayside waters off Door County is a real "box of chocolates" experience; you never know what you are going to get. Over the years I have boated brown trout, northerns, muskies, walleyes, channel catfish, and sheepshead. However, by far the most common catch is smallmouth bass. This bite often produces some of the biggest fish of the year. The smallies are in a real eating frenzy trying to store up calories for their semi-dormant state in the winter (sounds vaguely familiar). As the temperatures cool in the winter and the surface water becomes solid (aka ice), smallmouth seek the warmest water in the lake, which in the winter is usually near the bottom at 39°F. Being cold-blooded, their activity level decreases and they feed much less. They sit (or swim) in large schools waiting for the water to warm up. In-Fisherman has a good article on smallmouth bass habits.
To take advantage of the Fall bite, you have to find the schools of fish and use relatively large baits. The forage has been growing all season and the schools of suspended baitfish are ripe for the taking. My best success has been trolling with planer boards and cranks baits. This allows me to cover a lot of area until I locate fish. There is a big downside to using boards for targeting smallies. You lose a lot of the fun of the battle when the fish is fighting against the board and the larger trolling rod. Sometimes you might not even detect that a smaller fish is even on. It seems the solution would be using lighter tackle. That's all well and good until you get a 6-pound smallie on and lose it or latch into a 15-pound northern and struggle to save your tackle from the beast. So for now, I am content to deal with the smaller fish for a chance at a trophy.
Monday I went out solo and found a nice group of fish. In fact, they kind of caught me by surprise. I had three lines out and all of a sudden I had a fish on all of them. During the ensuing pandemonium I did manage to boat a fat 18"er and save the rest of my tackle. I lost the other two fish. After regrouping, I went down to just two rods and immediately was struck with a "double" only one of which I maneuvered into the net. Once I got the rods set again, all hell broke loose! One rod started to pound wildly and as I yanked it out of the rod holder I fleetingly had a fantasy about The World's Record Smallmouth Bass (11 pounds 15 ounces FYI). I quickly was brought back to Earth by the realization of what I really had hooked into which was a sheepshead and a big one. Sheepshead, or freshwater drum (Aplodinotus grunniens), in the bay can get huge and they are one of the most dogged battlers on the end of a line. When I fished Lake Winnebago, we always knew when we had a sheep on instead of a walleye, because of how hard they fought. Despite the positive angling attributes of large size, hard-fighting and aggressive bite, sheepshead are much maligned among most anglers. Why? Well, because they are useless on the plate. Although they are closely related to the saltwater Red Drum, a delicious eating fish, freshwater drum in my experience cannot be made in the least palatable. Believe me I've tried. I've pan-fried, broiled, and grilled them. The result was a smelly mess of stinking slimy fish-flesh, not to mention creating a foul stench in the house that my wife could detect days later. So, you don't target sheepshead on a days fishing. That said, I will admit that many times my fishing trips have been saved by a tough battle with a "sheep". This sheepshead measured out at almost 30 inches and was well over 10 pounds. They are fun; just don't take them home for dinner. Good advice in many situations.
After the chaos of that outing, I went back later in the week with reinforcements. I brought my accomplice Ed to drive the boat and allow for three more lines. He's a nice guy too, I guess. We proceeded to boat seventeen smallies over a three-hour period. The largest was 19", but we got several others 17" or larger. It was a fun outing. Most of the fish were suspended in 40-50FOW. I used diving baits, drop weights, and lead-core line to get down to them. Most of the fish seemed to be 20-25' down. Dark colored Flicker Shads have been my go-to lures in recent years. The surface water temperature was about 54°F. This bite should continue until the water gets into the 40's. Last Fall I caught my last smallmouth on the bayside on November 27th with water temperatures at 47°F! So we have a good month of open-water fishing left. Get out there.
Tight Lines, Bruce
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