Fall Fishing on the Door 
Unwrapping the Gift

Harbor Angler Report, November 11, 2021 Photo

Every hour of open water fishing in Wisconsin in November is a gift. Each day is like stealing time from the winter witch whose wrath will surely come, better later than sooner. After enjoying the balmy days of summer plying the waters around Door County, one is disinclined to give up the opportunity for one more outing, to take one more cast, to catch just one more fish. The time of dragging sleds and drilling holes will soon be on us. Although, I must admit that with the relatively mild autumn we have experienced and the still warm offshore waters, I wonder when and if that ice will come. No need to dwell on that now, however, as the open water calls.

I love fishing in the fall. Most of the “casual” anglers have long since left the water, put away their tackle and stored the boat. The launches and marinas are all but abandoned. Once out on the lake, often there is not a single other boat on the horizon, save for the occasional duck skiff or commercial boat. I typically find I have the entire expanse of world-class fishing grounds to myself. With the change from Daylight Savings Time, the loss of the hour in the afternoon allows me to fish right through sunset and still be home in plenty of time for supper. And the bite can be very good. For several species, notably northern pike, perch, walleyes and smallmouth bass, this can be the most productive time of the year as these fish put on the feedbag in preparation for a long winter hiatus or spawning activity.

Obviously, late fall fishing does present some challenges. For one, the weather can get brutal. I generally eschew the awful days on the water and go hunting instead. Gale force winds and driving snow will keep me at home. I’m not an idiot. Cold temperatures are not a problem though. Just dress like you are going ice fishing. In addition, you often must be creative when launching your boat. Since many of the marinas have pulled docks and removed navigation buoys, extra care needs to be taken. A pair of high boots are useful for launching and retrieving your boat. On the plus side, screw paying the launch fee. Safety concerns are heightened as well.  Having engine problems in cold, blustery fall conditions or tumbling into frigid water wearing heavy clothing brings a greater urgency than on a warm summer day. One should err on the side of caution in all cases.

The rewards of fishing in the fall are well worth the hardship. The bite can be erratic, and you may have to settle for enjoying a nice boat ride with beautiful scenery on a glorious, crisp autumn afternoon. A nice consolation prize to be sure. But if you hit them, the action can be furious. My favorite target species in the fall are pike and smallies. I will chase walleyes as well by taking a road trip south to Bayshore County Park or the DePere Dam on the Fox River. Once the water cools down in late November and early December, the brown trout become active in the shallower bays. This November, with the water still being relatively warm, the northern pike are active and feeding. Paul and I picked up some nice fish on the lakeside trolling Husky Jerks and Thundersticks over dying weeds beds and along rocks edges. We boated several fish over 30-inches. The smallmouth bass are also feeding heavily and there are plenty of opportunities to boat the heaviest bass of the year. This week, Paul and I did just that.

We did not get out on the water until after noon. This did not leave much time to fish before the 4:25PM sunset. The temperature was in the fifties and the sky was overcast. A light east wind left the bayside smooth and calm.  We met an angler at the launch, one of only two other anglers we saw all afternoon, and he indicated he did pretty well trolling for bass. This sounded encouraging. However, I had decided to try casting for bass initially. I had had some success earlier in the week with a minnow on a drop-shot rig.  We worked our rigs in 20 to 30 feet of water for an hour and boated three chunky smallmouth. The largest was 15 inches. We were hoping for some larger fish, so we decide to turn to trolling. Over the years, we have adapted our trolling tackle to target smallmouth bass. We used to encounter many smallies while trolling for larger pike or brown trout. Since we were using heavier rods and larger planer boards, even big smallmouth did not offer much of a battle. All too often we would sadly drag a fat but bedraggled smallie up to the side of the boat with little or no fight. We now use lighter tackle and switched to mini-planer boards. This has made the targeting of smallmouth much more fun and productive.

We set six lines out with a variety of Flicker Shads, Thundersticks and Rapalas that ran from three to twelve feet down. We trolled over 30 to 50 FOW. To the uninitiated, this may seem like an odd zone to target smallmouth, but late in the season, fish are feeding on the large schools of suspended baitfish at these depths. Predators will go where the prey is, and these bass do. We kept our trolling speed below 2MPH. It did not take long for one of the planer boards to start flailing wildly indicating “fish on”! Paul pulled the light casting rod out of the holder and engaged the fish. I removed the board and following a spirited fight, I slipped the net under a gorgeous smallie that weighed in at nearly three pounds. Little did we know that this was going to end up being one of the smallest fish we would catch the rest of the afternoon. No sooner had we reset the lines than one of the rods bent over sharply and started to throb. As soon as I picked up the rod, I could sense the power of this fish. About halfway into the battle, the fish came up from the depths and performed an aerial cartwheel. It was a big fish. Paul eventually lifted the fish into the boat. We stood in amazement over the exhausted fish lying in the net, purple Flicker Shad hanging from its jaw. The fish measured twenty inches and weighed just under five pounds. This was my largest smallmouth of the year. After a quick picture, the fish was lowered back into the Green Bay waters and swam quicky away.  

Over the next couple of hours, we were kept busy. Seldom did we go more than ten minutes without a fish on. We had a tough time keep all six lines in the water. Three times we had “doubles” and one of those turned into a “triple”. Paul and I were each battling fish, trying to decide which one to net first, when a board shot back indicating a third fish on.  Well, that one would just have to wait. I netted my fish, another beauty.  Frantically, I removed the fish from the net and disentangled the lure from the mesh, just in time to lift Paul’s fish into the boat. As Paul dealt with his fish, I turned my attention to the third bass on the line. I retrieved the planer board and slowly brought the fish alongside the boat where Paul was waiting with the net. We boated and released all three bass.  

By 4 o’clock we were down to using just two rods. We had boated a total of twenty-three bass. The majority were over 17-inches and five of them weighed over 4-pounds. I have seen winning tournament bags come in considerably less than that. It was one of the best days either one of us have ever had for big smallmouth and between Paul and I, we have been fishing for over 120 years. It was a good day.

There was one sobering aspect to our experience, however. Some of you may have read the about the DNR report that fourteen smallmouth bass taken from Green Bay waters off Door County have been confirmed to have a disease, Largemouth Bass Virus. The virus causes the bass to display skin lesions. Several of the bass we caught seemed to have such lesions. We will have to watch the development of this disease closely and take action to limit its effect on our fishery. Let’s us all hope we can continue to enjoy this terrific smallmouth action and not take it for granted.

As Paul and I headed back home, we sure were not going to take this precious gift fall fishing for granted. We were grateful for the fishing, the surroundings, and the good fellowship. The winter witch will be here soon enough.


Stay safe and sane.

 So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish, Bruce


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