Celebrating Diversity in Door County
All Fish Are Worthy of Our Respect
I know of some anglers who feel only a single species of fish worth their time and effort to pursue. Muskie anglers are famously focused on chasing muskellunge and eschew any of the “lesser” species. I have met guys at the marina who will look down their noses at a lake trout or even a steelhead. If they don’t put a big King salmon in the boat, they consider the charter trip a failure. Anglers in those colorfully logoed, metal-flake fiberglass water rockets show up each year hunting the largest, fattest female smallmouth they can hook into. Don’t waste their time with a mere 17”er. Walleye!!!! That’s the best fish! No wait, northern pike, yellow perch, whitefish, the bigger the better. The great thing about Door County is that we welcome and accommodate anglers of all stripes. We have a wonderful diversity of fishing opportunities here and I want to make the case that all the various fish species swimming the county waters, offshore and inland, have value and contribute to the overall fishery of the county. Take the lowly and much maligned round goby. Yes, it is an invasive species. One that was unwelcomed and the target of intense efforts to keep it from inhabiting Lake Michigan waters. Well, it came anyway, and it is now part of the larger ecosystem. The presence of the goby has no doubt dramatically changed the fishery; most would argue for the worse. However, the round goby is now the main forage for smallmouth bass in Green Bay and Lake Michigan and a major food source for walleye, northerns, whitefish, brown trout and I am sure many other predators. Remove the round goby now and the fishery might collapse. Many maintain that the growth rate of the bass and walleyes has been enhanced by the availability of such a nutritious forage fish. Gobies also eat mussels, such as quagga and zebra mussels, thus helping to control another unwelcome invasive. Unfortunately, gobies ingest the toxins the mussels have filtered out of the sediments and move them up the food chain. As a game fish or pan fish, gobies are pretty much useless. They are a bane to the perch anglers. However, even targeting gobies with a hook and line can have value. A good friend of mine has related instances when he would take his young granddaughter to Gills Rock for glorious afternoons catching fish after fish. Kids don’t care that they are gobies. They just want to catch fish and not many fish are as easy to catch as gobies. And since you are not supposed to throw round gobies back into the water, you can feed them to the seagulls and pelicans adding to the fun of the experience. Now I am not saying Door County should market itself as the “Goby Fishing Capital of the World”. What I am saying is that all fish have value. One of my best memories of fishing in my youth was spending an afternoon with my brother -in-law, Den on the Rock River near Janesville catching big carp on ultralight tackle. Every fish was a monumental battle. I must admit that I have targeted redhorse suckers during the spring runs in Reiboldt and Heins Creeks. I love to catch big fish, who doesn’t? However, some of my most enjoyable smallmouth bass outings have been when I never caught a fish over fourteen inches. Battling hard-hitting footer smallies, one right after another, on light tackle for an afternoon is as much fun as you can have with a rod in your hand.
So, don’t be a “fish bigot”. There is no room for “fishism” in Baileys Harbor. All fish, big and little, brown or silver, scaly or slimy have value and dignity. I love to be able to spend days in the county targeting the widest variety of fish I can. The more species, the better.
This past week was an excellent example of capturing the diversity offered in Door County. As I mentioned in this space previously, I have been having some success catching smallmouth bass as the water warms and the fish become more active. As the pandemic restrictions have relaxed a bit, I have had the opportunity to take a few of my friends out to pursue bronzebacks. First of all, I want to say that I am extremely glad that I do not have to make a living as a fishing guide. Each of my “clients” averaged about two bass per outing and I did not fare much better. I have the greatest respect for professional anglers who can consistently find and catch fish. However, I know for a fact, even they come up empty on occasion. They just better not do it as often as I do, or they will be out of a job.
Anyway, my fishing buddies and I practiced proper social distancing, wore masks when we drove in a vehicle together and generally tried to respect each other’s space. Despite not catching a lot of fish, we did manage a few nice smallies and I think each of them enjoyed the time on the water. So, Tuesday of last week, I ventured to the north end of the county by myself to see if I could recover some of my confidence and mojo. I did manage to boat about a half a dozen smallmouth. All were caught using a goby-colored jig moved slowly along the bottom. I even had a goby inhale the jig. Upon removing the little bugger from the hook, I tossed it into the transom of the boat for later disposal. It was a fun day fishing in crystal clear water surrounded by towering limestone cliffs adorned with the new green spring growth.
Wednesday, I thought, “And now for something completely different.” (Yes, that was a Monty Python reference.) Talking with Mark, the Baileys Harbor marina Harbormaster, I learned that the salmon and steelhead action was picking up on the lake and although Paul and I had one unsuccessful scouting trip, I decided to give it a try. I headed out under an early morning sun. The winds were forecast to be light from the north switching to the south later in the day. Once I got out to about eighty feet of water, the winds were a bit more than I anticipated. It was, as the Coasties say, sporty. Since I was fishing by myself and the water temperatures were in the mid-forties, I was extra careful as I moved about the boat setting the downriggers and the planer board. I trolled in the general direction of Jacksonport Reef as that was where the winds were pushing me. After an hour of dragging lures, I had a release on one of the downriggers. I missed the fish, but it was a good sign. As I was resetting that rod, the other downrigger released, and I caught sight of the silver-sided flash of a rainbow trout leaping at the surface. With the landing net in one hand and the rod in the other, bracing myself in the heaving boat I coaxed the steelie into the net. Not a trophy, 22-inches, but it made a great supper that night. A little later, the planer board went flying backwards, but by the time I grabbed the rod the fish was off. Another miss. The wind had calmed down considerably and I was enjoying a comfortable ride. So much so, I could steer the boat in whichever direction I wished. As I sat behind the steering wheel contemplating the absurdities of life, I noticed one of the bowed trolling rods jiggling ever so slightly. I watched the rod for a while wondering if I had a shaker. For the uninitiated, “shaker” is the term applied to any salmon so small that it cannot apply sufficient force to release the line from the downrigger, leaving them dangling helplessly at the end of the line. Sure enough, I grabbed the rod, pulling up sharply to release the line, and retrieved a small Chinook salmon. It was in pretty good shape, no worse for the experience, so I allowed it to swim away and grow up. I’ll hope to tangle with that fish in a couple of years. Heading back to the marina, I considered this a pretty good shakedown cruise for the Maggie Leigh on the open water.
Thursday brought yet another completely different experience. Instead of delving the cold clear waters of the big lake for salmonids, I would be probing the relatively warm, stained waters of Lower Green Bay. I was meeting good buddy Ed at Bay Shore County Park for a morning of searching for walleyes or whatever. Ok, true Bay Shore is in Brown County, but still only an hour’s drive from Baileys Harbor. In fact, this was going to be the first time I had set foot out of Door County for over two months.
Ed and I have had spotty success with walleyes in the past on the Bay, but the great conditions and the full parking lot at the boat launch gave us renewed hope. We set out an array of crank baits, Flicker Shads, Wally Divers, along with a couple of night crawler harnesses. We settled in for a morning of watching the planer boards bob on the sun-sparkled waters. The first fish was an 11-inch walleye. Not an auspicious start. Then a chunky sheepshead devoured one of our baits, causing the planer board to jump wildly. After a couple of white perch were retrieved and released, the rod with the bottom bouncer and a crawler bent over sharply. I handed the rod to Ed and he steadily brought the fish to boat side. It was a big walleye. We did not want to screw this one up. Ed kept the pressure on, and I slipped the net under a twenty-seven and a half inch, eight-pound marble eye. After hearty congratulations, a furtive high-five and a nice photo op, we released the big female back into the waters of Green Bay. A bit later, it was my turn at the rod, and we boated another nice walleye, twenty-six inches, six and a half pounds, which we also sent back to make more future walleyes. The rest of the day produced more white perch, another sheepshead and even a yellow perch.
In three successive fishing outings we had caught eight different species of fish in the waters in and around Door County, each contributing to the tapestry of our fishing experience. It is in diversity that the whole is made richer and stronger. Let us all embrace the wonderful diversity the world has to offer.
Stay safe and sane.
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