Fishing at a Distance
The Smallies Are Warming Up!
It was a rather unusual Memorial Day weekend in Baileys Harbor. I guess we have come to expect the unusual during this unprecedented global pandemic. Some aspects of the holiday weekend were familiar, the American flags lining downtown along Highway 57, sunny skies, warm temperatures with the bracing cool breeze off Lake Michigan. There was a bustle in town as tourists started to occupy the local restaurants and shops. But it had a different feel than past Memorial Days. There were less people. Most of the restaurants had outdoor seating and carry-out menus as each tried to find the comfortable balance between serving their customers and keeping safe. Shops were limiting the number of people inside and asking everyone to wear masks and maintain a proper distance from the other customers. This was the start of a critical social experiment in Door County. For the first time since the CoVid-19 pandemic forced major changes in our behavior, the county was receiving larger numbers of people from outside the area. Out of state license plates were again a common sight in Baileys Harbor. We all are going to have to find a way to live with a contagious respiratory virus in our midst while trying to enjoy our lives. We will not know the result of this experiment for several weeks. We are all hoping for the best possible result but steeling ourselves for something else.
To be honest, my weekend was not much different than other holiday weekends. I typically don’t fish during these busy periods. Too many anglers on the water. That was not actually the case this Memorial Day weekend but I stayed close to home anyway, opting to avoid the congested landings and marinas. Although most of my fishing has been solo this spring, I have made some exploratory attempts at relearning how I can fish safely with other anglers again. Several weeks ago I had a fishing outing with two good fishing pals from Appleton, Terry and Ray. We each were in our own boat. I launched at the quarry boat ramp in Sturgeon Bay. They put in at Carmody Park launch on Little Sturgeon Bay. It was a beautiful, sunny windless day on the bay. We each set out in generally the same area off Sand Bay attempting to coax walleye into the boat. I first tried plastics and Rippn’ Raps. Terry worked hair jigs on the bottom. Ray felt out the trolling bite. We communicated via cell phone, exchanging information and good-natured barbs. We were fishing separately together. The bite was slow. No, let me restate that. The bite was non-existent. Despite our lack of angling success, the highlight of the outing was our lunch break. We met at a prearranged waypoint on Larson’s Reef where the light winds and our electric trolling motors allowed us to drift close enough for casual conversation yet maintain plenty of social distance. It was wonderful, just like the many dozens of previous fishing outings I have had with these guys. Only different.
So, that is what we will need to discover, how to do all the things we used to do, only differently. Fishing buddy and good friend Paul and I decided recently that we were comfortable enough with each other to venture out for a day on the big lake in his boat. This was going to be one of our early season scouting attempts to find feeding steelhead or perhaps a wayward lake trout. We had decided to try to keep our distance as best we could in the boat, cover our face if we needed to interact closely and generally use common sense. This may seem like a bit of overkill given the small chance of either Paul or I having contracted the virus, but personally feel that it is important to establish good habits in all situations and to set a good example for other anglers as well. Recent reports have explained that any possible airborne particles are diluted in a fresh air environment like an open boat, adding to the safety margin. Further, recent research has indicated that the virus is not as readily transmissible from solid surfaces, like boat gunwales or seats, as once thought. It is possible to fish together safely.
In fact, there are some important lessons anglers can learn from hunters as far as participating in their sport safely. Think of it, when hunting with a group of people, each person is in possession of a weapon capable of killing or maiming any member in the group. Yet they can hunt together safely, if they respect each other, the weapons and follow safe procedures.
All safe hunters know the rules. 1) Always assume a gun is loaded 2) Always point the gun in a safe direction 3) Be aware of your surroundings and what’s beyond the direction you are shooting, and 4) Leave the safety on and your finger outside the trigger guard until you are ready to shoot. For a safe hunt all members of the group have to follow these procedures. Exceptions will not be tolerated by anybody in the party. This is to ensure the safety of everybody. If you find a hunter who refuses to follow these rules, well, you just don’t hunt with that person anymore unless he or she conforms. Your health and safety are more important than bagging a deer, turkey or duck.
This is the attitude we anglers need to adopt as well for the foreseeable future, at least through the summer. We need to respect each other and the virus. We need to follow safe practices and expect the people we fish with to do so as well. There will be no high fives and handshakes when somebody lands that lunker, but the catch will be just as rewarding for the angler and appreciated by those around them. We need to maintain proper distance from each other, in particularly when we are talking. No “close talking” allowed. If you are going to curse because you just lost yet another fish, wear a mask, make sure you swear in a safe direction or shout that epithet into your sleeve. You need to be aware of your surroundings and we need to all assume everyone is “loaded”. We can fish and fish together safely if we all use common sense and follow the rules. If venators can do it, surely piscators can as well.
And there is plenty of reason for fishing safely right now. The walleye bite, I hear, is improving and I know for sure the smallmouth are becoming active. The Tuesday after the Memorial Day weekend, I anxiously headed out onto the waters of the bay off the north end of the Door peninsula. I have had a few successful outings for smallies this spring but had not really “hit ‘em” yet. I started working a variety of baits, XRaps, Z-Man jigs, Ned Rigs, in various of water depths from fifteen to a couple of feet. After almost an hour of moving baits very slowly through the water I finally got bit. It was not the typical jolt one gets from an active smallmouth when the water warms up. It was more like a heaviness in the line. However, once I set the hook the allure of smallmouth fishing became obvious. Pound for pound no fish will battle harder than an impaled smallie. They will battle right up to boat-side and beyond, conceding nothing without a fight. It is always satisfying to slip the net under a fat, spent smallmouth. This one was a 17-inch female packed with the future of the fishery in her body. I quickly returned the fish to the water and she swam away strong. As soon as I had gotten that first hit, I hit the “anchor” button on my trolling motor. This feature uses the GPS function of the trolling motor to maintain the position of the boat. Sort of like a dynamic anchoring system. I have found that once you locate a feeding smallmouth bass, there are often more in the area. My second cast yielded another fat fish. My third resulted in a strike that I missed. You get the idea. Over the next two hours almost every cast elicited a strike which often ended up with a fish in the net. By the time the afternoon of fishing was over, I had boated twenty-six fish with the largest about 18-inches and four pounds. No real trophies in the bunch, but a wonderfully fun fishing experience. One that I hope to experience again real soon. Perhaps this time in the company of one of my fishing buddies so we can enjoy each other’s company and reveal our fishing fortunes. Just like we always have. Only different.
Stay safe and sane.
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