Catching Lots of Small Fish Is Fun!
Quantity Versus Quality

Harbor Angler Report, July 18th Photo

I like to go fishing and catch fish. I really like to catch lots of fish. I also like catching big fish. Of course, I would love to catch lots of big fish but, you know, that just does not happen very often, so typically one has to choose what they want out of their fishing experience: quantity or quality. Fortunately, Door County waters offer plenty of opportunities for either and even both.  Take, for example, the recent Major League Fishing professional bass tournament that was recently held in the county. Some of you might have noticed a large number of water rockets decorated like NASCAR flying around the boat launches this past week. These were eighty professional anglers competing for a $65,000 top prize, so they were highly motived to catch lots of big fish. And a few did just that. One angler, Justin Lucas, hauled in fifty smallmouth bass on the opening day of competition weighing a total of over 141 pounds. That’s nearly three pounds per fish! This was an all-time record catch for MLF. So, Justin had a day. He caught a lot of big fish. To put that in perspective, another professional angler, Greg Hackney,  fishing the same day registered just two fish. Think of that next time you get skunked. This guy who fishes for a living, fished all day with the very best equipment and knowledge and caught two legal fish. Now one of those fish came in at over four pounds, so Greg could claim some quality at least. The point is, fishing is not always easy.

There are plenty of big fish around Door County. Seven-pound smallmouth, thirty-inch walleyes, fifty-inch muskies, forty-pound salmon and thirty-pound Brown trout have all been boated from the waters of Green Bay and Lake Michigan in recent years.  In fact, I am convinced that the next state and possibly world records for each of these species will eventually come from these state waters. So, if you are seeking fame and fortune through fishing, there is your opportunity. Of course, if you are targeting really big fish, you might have to eschew catching very many fish. Ichthyology dictates that there just are not as many big fish as smaller ones so if you want to target trophy fish, expect a lot of empty outings. At one time in my fishing past, I was focused on catching a big muskie even to the point that I often exclaimed, “If I’m not going to catch fish, I just as soon not catch muskies.” There is a mystique attached to the trophy hunter even if they are not successful. If a perch angler walks into a bar and proudly admits that, “No, I did not catch any today, but I did see a big one.”, they would be the target of hearty guffaws and verbal abuse. Whereas a muskie angler making the same claim would be treated with understanding and admiration. I did eventually boat some big muskies, but not without a lot of very frustrating fishing trips of hours on the water with nary a fish seen.  That got old. I respect people who can stay focused on catching “the big one”, and I guess that is why I will never be a really good fisherman. My Achilles heel is that I like to catch fish. Any fish, any species, any size.

A few weeks ago, I was fishing on the Bay off the northern Door. I was searching for bass using a Ned Rig with a green pumpkin goby Z-Man Finesse TRD bait. (I apologize for the technical jargon.) I was probing waters from ten to twenty-five feet slowly moving the bait across the rocky bottom pausing often. After about an hour of this I had garnered a few hits and no fish. I moved off to some shoreline structure casting into about fifteen feet of water. My line stiffened and I felt the tell-tale “bump” of a smallmouth picking up the bait thinking it was a juicy goby just the right eating size. I set the hook and felt a solid presence at the other end of the line. After a spirited battle I lifted a plump “footer” bass into the boat. The next cast produced another hit and a fish about the same size. And the next. And the next. For the next hour or so, I barely took a cast without a hit and/or a fish on. I even switched baits using a variety of jigs and crank baits, each producing the same result. When I reluctantly determined it was time to go home, I had boated fifty-two smallies. I caught one on my last cast and I could have caught many more. Almost all of the fish were between ten and fourteen inches. Only one or two of the fish came up to the legal size limit of fifteen inches. Now I knew as soon as I caught several of these fish that there were probably only small fish in this particular spot. A “good” angler or one that was focused on catching decent sized fish would have moved on. I did not. This was way too much fun. What’s better than catching lots of fish?

I have often succumbed to the siren call of catching a lot of small fish when the opportunity presented itself. One of my early experiences was catching over fifty bluegills on my home waters of Anderson Lake in Oconto County in 1969. I was still in high school, but I recall the experience vividly. Bluegills, as a species, lend themselves to prolific catches. I once caught fifty-seven bluegills through the ice in the back of Little Sturgeon Bay in 1996. I have had some monumental 50+ ‘gill outings on Lake Noqueby in Marinette County as well as several times on Lake Winnebago. One of the most amazing fishing feats I have ever witnessed in my life was when my longtime fishing buddy Ed caught 140 bluegills through the ice on Pigeon Lake near Clintonville from the same hole. Yes, you read that right, he never moved all day. I caught a respectable forty-one but had to move around a bit. Now, granted most of the ‘gills were pretty small, but judging from the smile on Ed’s face, I don’t think it really mattered to him. He was having fun. I saw the same smile when, two weeks ago, Ed and I caught over seventy-five smallies on the Bay. (Ed caught a few more than I did.) Catching fish is fun.

Another species that, at least in earlier times, lends itself to legendary prolific catches is the yellow perch. Back in the heyday on the Bay in the late 80’s and early 90’s, catching large numbers of perch was common. I had several outings of fifty plus perch and one day my son Matthew and I caught over 100 between us. I seldom ever kept more than twenty nice ones for the table. I enjoy catching a lot of small fish, but I am not a fan of cleaning them.  Northern pike are notoriously aggressive feeders and when you discover a gathering of hungry “hammer handle” pike, the action can be exhausting.  Fishing the lakes on Isle Royale, an archipelago situated in Lake Superior, with my nephew Tim I caught and released fifty northerns one day fishing from our Grumman canoe. We had fun. Ed and I have fished a lake in Ontario we appropriately dubbed “Snake Lake” where we have time after time caught dozens of pike, on occasion more than fifty. One afternoon Ed and I boated over a hundred (Yes, Ed caught a few more than me, again.) The largest one was 35 inches, but the vast majority of the pike were under twenty inches. We didn’t care. Catching fish after fish after fish is just plain fun. The smile I again saw on Eds face confirmed it.

The white bass runs on the Wolf River near Fremont have produced catch numbers that stagger the imagination. I occasionally fished the run when I lived in the Fox Valley braving the hoards of anglers who show up each Spring. However, my biggest days for white bass did not occur in the Wolf River, but the Fox River below the DePere Dam. This location is deservedly famous for the trophy walleye run each Spring. However, my most fun days below the dam were during the white bass runs. Catching thirty, forty, even fifty white bass was not uncommon. One day in 2010 I caught forty-six white bass from the waters below the dam, casting a #7 fire tiger Countdown Rapala.  45 of those fish were at least 14 inches long. After several hours of wrenching fish after fish through the fast-moving spring flood waters, I was exhausted, but very happy.

Even the lowly and much maligned Round Goby can provide a day of fishing fun. Yes, I stand before all of you and openly confess; “My name is Bruce Smith and I have targeted gobies.” In fact, gobies provided one of the most gratifying fishing experiences I have had in recent years. Pam and I, along with Matthew and wife Kelly  took our grand-daughters up to Gills Rock , armed with a newly purchased Shakespeare Frozen II closed faced spinning outfit (Again, sorry for the technical speak.) The old ferry dock at Gills Rock is an ideal spot for taking kids fishing. It is a large open area with a metal bulkhead barrier to keep little ones from toppling into the water. The water is deep off the wharf and the bottom is teaming with hungry gobies. Just bait a small jig or hook with, well, just about anything. Worms, Berkley Gulp, donut crumbs, summer sausage, cheese curds, lint, whatever. Drop the line to the bottom and you won’t have to wait long to get a bite. Hooking the nimble miniature fish was tricky for the girls, but soon they got the hang of it and were pulling in fish after fish. Kids don’t care how big the fish are, they just want action. I get it. It was a wonderful morning watching the two girls, particularly the younger one, laugh and squeal as they reeled the fish in and deposited the flapping creatures on to the concrete surface of the wharf. Even grandma joined in the action. To add even more to the experience, we tossed the wriggling gobies to the end of the dock and waited for nearby seagulls to swoop down for an easy meal. It turned out it was more difficult to entice seagulls than the gobies, but a few were bold enough to take our offerings. The highlight of the outing was when our youngest grand-daughter hooked into a rod bending 11-inch smallmouth bass. I have never seen so much joy in a child upon landing that fish and so much angst when she saw us throw her trophy back in the water. It was fun for everyone involved, including the laughing bystanders on the dock observing the action. That is what fishing should be. Fun. Sure, we exult in the challenge of the hunt. We revel in the preparation and tackle selection. We bask in the glory of catching the big fish and sharing the experience with others. But mostly fishing should be fun.  And nothing makes fishing more fun than actually catching fish. Any fish. Any species. Any size. Remember, all fish have dignity.

Stay safe and sane.

So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish, Bruce

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