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Signs of Change in Baileys Harbor
The Fall Fishing Paradox

Harbor Angler Report, October 12th Photo

If you were born and raised in the Upper Midwest or have just become one with it, you have your own way of marking the changing seasons, particularly the spectacular change from the sultry days of summer to the crisp days of autumn.  Nature provides the most obvious clues with the sun falling below the horizon earlier each evening until it seems as though sunrise and sunset occur almost simultaneously. The exploding palette of colors from the dying leaves of deciduous trees such as maples, oaks, aspen and beech are the familiar harbingers of the approaching winter. Some use cultural clues to note the passing of the season. Picking apples, sorting through piles of winter squash at the markets or imbibing in the many seasonal beverages such a bock beer, apple cider or the ubiquitous pumpkin spice whatever. The playing of Packer games, high school & college football and volleyball and the World Series all are symptoms of the autumn. Those activities are still happening this year, but in a much-modified way. And of course, every four years we share the fall season with the Presidential election, but let’s not go there. Fall in Door County is too wonderful and fleeting to dwell on that. By the way, be sure to vote.

In Baileys Harbor local anglers have their own unique markers that alert them that the soft water fishing season is coming to an end. The slips in the marina start to become vacant leaving only familiar craft waiting until the last moment to be hauled out for the season. The local charter boats, so reliably present all summer, go missing from the marina. When you see the First Choice sitting up on blocks in the Lakeshore Adventures parking lot, it is a sure sign that the summer season is over.  Lone anglers start appearing along the marina edges hoping to get a hook into a 4-year old Chinook salmon, the “Zombies” making their last doomed attempt at spawning. It is a time of the year when even the humble shore angler can have the opportunity to hook up with a huge King or even a fall run Brown trout.  All too soon the town crews will be lifting the finger piers out of the marina waters and stacking them along the breakwater. The cleaning station will close. The docks at the boat ramps are the last to go. Once they are gone, you can still put your boat in, but you stand a good chance of getting wet feet and a scuffed-up hull.

Out on the lake, the bright colored floats and pennant festooned buoys mark the location of the Hickey Brothers whitefish nets. This is the time when commercial netters move their sets off the lakeside bays to intercept the numerous whitefish staging out in the lake in preparation for the fall spawning activity. If you are fishing offshore this time of year, you need to be alert for the net locations as they move from time to time. Just this week I spotted the USGS Cutter Mobile Bay, work barge securely lashed to its bow, moving into position to remove the Baileys Harbor entrance buoy, the “bell buoy”. This lighted buoy is located three miles south-southeast of the marina and marks the harbor entrance. It is removed each season by the Coast Guard for repairs and refurbishing. It will take up its station again in early spring.  The removal of this buoy signals the end of the pleasure boating season for many.

The fall fishing season produces a dichotomy of feelings for local anglers. In one sense, going fishing at this time of year is a more laid-back enterprise. The boat landings are pretty much clear of other anglers and it is easier to find a place to park your rig.  Not only have most, if not all, of the summer anglers left but many local sportists now spend more of their time hunting as the seasons for deer, geese, ducks, turkeys and other small game swing into high gear. So once on the water, I often find mine is the only boat in sight.  Quite a contrast to the hectic summer days with tournament anglers and weekend warriors blanketing the water.  One can take one’s time own good time, ease into the day and enjoy the fishing experience with the added bonus of some spectacular fall shoreline backdrops.

There is also a sense of urgency as well. The hours of daylight are decreasing rapidly. Fishing on a sunny fall afternoon can be very pleasant but it can get bitter cold quickly after sunset.  Also, our days of being able to fish without drilling a hole are numbered. Every fishable day must be cherished and not squandered. I am always looking to get my boat out “one more time” even into late November or early December. Each time I go out I know this might be my last trip of the season before the Maggie Leigh will spend a long winter high and dry in the garage. I don’t want to miss a single opportunity.

There is no lack of active species to target in the fall. The aforementioned fall-run Chinook salmon are eagerly awaited by local and visiting anglers.  I have witnessed a few Zombies being caught at the marina. Local angler Tyler sent me a picture of a nice 4-year old he landed on the bayside.  Also, it is common for a few “jack” salmon (younger 2-3 year old fish) to be hanging around as well. Fishing buddy Paul and I have targeted these fish out on the lake, but our latest outings have only resulted in an eater steelhead and little else. Soon we will be changing our tactics to find Brown trout as they move into shallower waters on the lake and bayside.

The pervasive and gusty south winds have wreaked havoc on my smallmouth fishing. Many of the spots I tend to fish this time of year have been inaccessible many days. I did have some action a couple of weeks ago on the bayside fishing with dropshot rigs and crawler pieces. Nothing big, but I did set a personal best for absolutely the smallest bass I have ever caught on hook and line. The nightcrawler weighed more.

I have heard reports of the walleye and perch action picking up on the bayside, but to be honest, I do not have any evidence of that based on my few attempts at putting a marble eye in the live well. I plan to get out to Larson’s Reef, the Strawberry Islands or Monument Shoal as soon as the weather gods allow. The walleyes should be moving toward the Fox River and the DePere Dam, which always brings some good late season action.

The northern pike bite has been picking up on the lakeside bays. Paul and I have had some successful outings while other times it has been spotty. I did get a chance to fish with nephew Tim recently. Tim and I spent quite a bit of time fishing together on canoe and backpacking trips to Isle Royale, the Canadian Boundary Waters and Sylvania Wilderness Area in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.  That was when we were both much younger and we have not had an opportunity to renew our piscatorial partnership for quite a while. Tim proved he had not lost his touch by boating a fat, feisty 32-inch pike. We boated a few others and lost several casting #11 Countdown Rapalas. The pike action should continue throughout the fall.

 If you have been following the recent articles about muskie fishing in lower Green Bay, you are aware that some huge fish are being caught and, for the most part, released. It is an impressive fishery and I have already expressed my belief that the world record muskie, perhaps several of them, is swimming in the waters of the Bay. I hope to make at least one trip this fall to attempt you put my name in the annals of the Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame.

I did have a much different opportunity to fish for muskies on an area lake holding a population of much smaller fish. It was a two-boat outing with former teaching colleagues and fishing cohorts, Terry and Ed. In about three hours of fishing we moved several fish in the thirty-inch range including a few strikes.  Terry boated a beautiful 38-inch muskie that rose to a noisy surface bait. The outing renewed my long dormant desire to target muskies. If you can’t catch fish, you might as well not catch muskies.

So, the opportunities are out there, but the time is getting short. All too soon I will have to man haul my sled over shoreline ice ridges just for the opportunity to drill a hole and freeze my butt. For many reasons, this looks to be a particularly long winter.

Stay safe and sane.

So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish, Bruce

Questions or comments to bsmith733@gmail.com