Door County SmallmouthsBy Bill Schultz - May 1, 2002
A number of years ago I began hearing about the great smallmouth bass fishing in Door County. However, it wasn't until May of 1995, when my brother-in-law and I hired a guide that I had the opportunity to fish this tremendously productive and beautiful fishery. That outing gave me the confidence to fish it on my own. Since that day I've fished the waters in Door County many times, catching hundreds of smallies.
Hiring an area guide is one way to gain the confidence to give this smallie supermarket a shot, but for various reasons, this isn't for everyone. This article is for those of you who may not be interested in the guide route and those of you who just want to add more to your knowledge base about the Door County smallmouth bass fishing. I'm going to tell you about some great fishing locations, what's helped me catch large numbers of fish, where to launch, where you might consider staying, and who to talk to for the most up-to-date conditions and what's biting.
Also, this isn't an article just for the guy with the big bass boat or deep-V. Wind and waves can be a challenge on Green Bay, but there are plenty of great locations for enthusiasts with smaller fishing boats, canoes, kayaks and even those who like to wade.
How to Get There and Where to Stay
Sturgeon Bay, the gateway to Door County, is easy to reach from anywhere in Northern Illinois or Wisconsin. It's 43 miles northeast of Green Bay on Hwy. 57. It's 141 miles from Milwaukee, 175 miles from Madison and 233 miles from Chicago. From my house in the Milwaukee area I can be on the water and fishing in three hours. I've made it a day trip, but usually try to go for at least two or three days.
This area is a top tourist location and has many places to stay. My criteria for a motel are simple: clean, quiet, comfortable, a place to plug in my battery charger and if there's a free continental breakfast, that's a bonus. The past few years I've enjoyed staying at the Super 8 (920-743-9211) just off of Hwy. 57 as you come into Sturgeon Bay. I've also stayed at the Comfort Inn (920-743-7846) on Hwy. 57. Always ask for any special rates, especially from Sunday through Thursday. You'll find better rates prior to July. If you like to camp, Potawatomi or Peninsula State Parks are the place for you. For more information on Door County and a complete guide to all accommodations and much more, go the Door County Chamber of Commerce web site at www.doorcountyvacations.com.
One of the first things I always do before making the drive is to call the Door County Fishing Hot Line (920-743-7046). Starting last year Tim Dawidiuk, one of the top area guides, began providing the information. Another item I rely on whenever possible are my Fishing Hot Spots maps. They have some excellent ones for Door County. Another resource I've used over the years with success are Rick Taylor's Astro Tables in Bassmasters. I now have his Prime Times calendar. I've had enough success on his higher rated days that if I can plan in advance I try to go on days that have the higher ratings. Although we all know, anytime is a good time to go fishing.
Where to Launch
I'm careful with my boat, so a good launch is important to me. In the Sturgeon Bay area there are a variety of launches that I have used or know to be good. On that first trip in 1995 we launched at Al's on Stevenson's Pier Rd., about a quarter mile off County C, west of Sturgeon Bay. Al's is on the south end of Little Sturgeon Bay, has one concrete lane with adjacent parking.
This launch is one of my favorites. A jetty serves as a wind break and a network of piers is helpful when rigging equipment, tying up for lunch or to use the facilities, which consists of an out-house. Three years ago this launch was dredged deeper due to the lower water levels. Just out of the launch area you need to be careful, as the water is less than two feet, although the bottom is sand.
Another nice launch on the west side of Little Sturgeon is at Goetz's Resort. This too has been dredged recently. The Stevenson's Pier Citgo Mart (920-824-5222) on the Corner of County C and Stevenson's Pier Rd. is a great place for gas, snacks, tackle, live bait and fishing licenses. Roger Cherney is the owner, and is a good source for advice on where to fish and what's biting.
About two miles away, on the peninsula between Little Sturgeon Bay and Riley's Bay, is the launch at the Sunset Bar and Grill. This launch has also been dredged. It's sheltered, has one lane with a pier and enters on Riley's Bay. I've never used it, but it seems to be popular. The Sunset Bar and Grill (920-824-5130) is also known for its excellent food and owner Ron Hedsand is an avid fisherman and a good source for advice.
I have a yearly State Park sticker, so when the weather cooperates or I want to fish Sawyer Harbor, the Flats or Little Harbor my launch choice is Potawatomi State Park. At normal water levels there are three piers with six concrete lanes and abundant parking. The past two-years as the water level lowered, the park was down to one pier and two lanes.
One of the best launches you'll find anywhere is in town at Sawyer Park. There are six lanes, plenty of parking, a cleaning station, perimeter piers and rest rooms. On the east side of the shipping channel and at the north end of town is a very nice launch at Sunset Park. This launch has a good pier with a concrete lane on either side.
Going north on the peninsula you'll find one of the best public launches in Egg Harbor. It's not overly busy and has a wide ramp with piers. When I'm fishing Eagle Harbor near Ephraim, which I'm doing more often, I launch at Peninsula State Park's Nicolet Bay. This launch has one pier with a concrete drive on either side. It's ok for bigger boats, but could get tough if the water level keeps dropping.
The daily fee for all the launches I've mentioned is between $5 and $10. A yearly pass, good for Potawatomi, Peninsula or any State Park, is a bargain at $18.
The weather usually dictates where I launch. If it's windy, and I don't want to make the long run from Potawatomi or Sawyer Park, I'll usually launch at Al's on Little Sturgeon. If the weather's good I usually launch at Potawatomi. Going north I use the launches at Egg Harbor and Peninsula State Park.
Where to Fish
The reason we're in Door County in the first place is to catch smallmouth bass. I've enjoyed concentrating on several spots. To the west of Sturgeon Bay on Green Bay you'll find Little Sturgeon Bay, Riley's Bay and Sand Bay. The Flats are north of town on the east side of the shipping channel between Sunset Park and the Stone Quarry. Sawyer Harbor is north of town on the west side of the channel. Last summer I had some great success at Little Harbor, just around the point from the Stone Quarry, various spots between Egg Harbor and Fish Creek, and a variety of spots in Eagle Harbor between Peninsula State Park and Ephraim. These are only some of the great spots to fish in Door County. Try exploring, you may be very surprised with what you find and what you catch.
In all these locations I'm usually fishing in two to eight feet of water with the fish relating to the abundant bottom structure of rocks and boulders, as well as some vegetation. The fish will also relate to the variety of piers, jetties and other man-made rock structures.
One thing to be constantly aware of is the water level, which has been dropping the past few years. As soon as I'm in shallower water I slow down, my engine is tilted up, I have one eye on the depth feature of my locator and the other eye on the bottom. Polarized sunglasses are an essential piece of equipment and I won't go on the water without my H30 polarized sunglasses. They're comfortable, look great and have interchangeable lenses for varying light conditions. In the crystal clear water and the shallower depths I fish most often, watching the bottom is the best way to spot the structure the fish are relating to.
It's important to pay attention to the wind at all times, especially in shallower water. I always make sure my trolling motor battery is charged. I wouldn't want to get pushed onto a rocky shore. Last summer I began using a Trojan Marine battery and for the first time felt comfortable that I'd have the power I need in all situations. There will be many times on Green Bay when the wind is blowing you perfectly along a shoreline you want to fish, but you're being pushed too fast. Instead of using your trolling motor to slow the drift, you may want to consider using a drift sock to slow you down. I use the Drift Control Sea Anchor.
Over the years I've done most of my Door County fishing during the very productive time period from late May through early July, but the heart of the summer still offers some great fishing. Later in the year, mid-September through early November, not only offers good numbers, but also your best chance at that trophy smallie.
What to Use
Like most fishermen and women, I have an arsenal of everything that should work for smallies. This includes spinnerbaits, crankbaits, jerkbaits, plastics, topwaters and on occasion, when the fish are very inactive, live bait. Rebel's Teeny Wee and Deep Teeny Wee Crawfish are two of my "go to" presentations for Door County smallmouth bass. For these lures I use 6'6" light action St. Croix rods with Shimano 1000 series reels spooled with 4 lb., and sometimes 6 lb., Silver Thread Excalibur line. I have these on at least two of my rods at all times. I've had success with all colors, but I mostly use the brown, green, chartreuse and chartreuse/brown. I think the small size of the Teeny Wee and Deep Teeny Wee is an advantage in the super clear water, with skittish fish. The two-inch Wee Crawfish can also be a winner.
With these fish catching magnets I use a steady, medium to fast retrieve. Also productive is the stop and go retrieve, and the jerk and stop retrieve. In colder water conditions I will slow the retrieve down.
On my first trip to this area we used tube jigs exclusively, and this continues to be a great pattern today. Tube jigs should be fished slowly off the bottom. The traditional method with the jig inside the tube works fine, but I've also had great luck Texas-rigging the tube with a light bullet weight and number two or three VMC worm hook. I like the three-inch Berkley Power Tubes and Sqwormer Tubes in pumpkinseed, camo, motor oil, pumpkinseed/green flek and watermelon red glitter. I fish tubes with a 6'6" or 7' medium light or medium St. Croix rods with Shimano 2000 series reels spooled with 8lb. Excalibur.
This year I'm excited about give the new Riverside 3.5" Finesse Tube a shot. With crawfish as a prime food source for these hungry smallies, I can't wait to use Riversides new Craw Bug. It comes in three sizes between 2.5 inches and 3.5 inches and looks unbelievably realistic. I plan to fish this with a jig or Texas-rigged.
Along with the Rebel Crawfish, my other "go to" presentation has been a 1/16 or 1/8-ounce jig with a three-inch Berkley Power Grub or Tournament Strength Power Grub. I use a variety of colors including chartreuse, green/chartreuse, white, yellow/orange, green/orange and pumpkin/orange. During the summer of 2000 the last two days of June and July 1 were Prime Times highest rated days of the year. It was windy and almost kept me off the water, but I persisted, and using the Teeny Wee, Deep Teeny Wee and swimming the Berkley grubs, I caught over 250 smallmouths.
Fishing a grub on a jig is as easy as it gets. You just cast and reel it back in with the grub's tail flapping away. Because the hook is very exposed you won't miss many fish. For the first time last summer I used and was very impressed with the Bait Rigs Grubmaster jigs. These are "insert jigs" that fit snuggly inside a wide variety of plastic bodies. The weight centered Grubmaster falls slowly and horizontally, keeping the bait in the strike zone longer. When fishing a grub and jig I use the 6'6" and 7' St. Croix rods in light, medium light and medium actions with Shimano 1000 and 2000 series reels. I sometimes use 4 lb. Excalibur, but usually use 6 lb. and occasionally 8 lb.
Last summer I fished two lures for the first time, and based on some unbelievable success, they too are at the top of my "go to" list of presentations. One is the Zoom Super Fluke and the other is the Gary Yamamoto Senko. I fished both with the 6'6" and 7' St. Croix medium light and medium action rods with both six and eight pound Excalibur. With the Super Fluke I prefer a light color like rainbow shad or silver rainbow, and instead of rigging it traditionally, I nose hooked it with a #1/0 Eagle Claw wide-gap Featherlite hook, but any wide gap hook in this size range should work fine. I simply cast it, let it sink for a few seconds and retrieved it slowly, twitching it during the retrieve.
Senko's come in a variety of sizes, but I used the 4" version in both the normal and slim profiles. I Texas-rig them without weight and work them as I noted with the Super Fluke. Another great presentation is to cast it and simply let it settle to the bottom and with slow twitches, retrieve it. Senkos can also be nose hooked with success or wacky-rigged in the middle. Recently I read that threading the Senko on a jig and working it along the bottom is a great smallmouth presentation. This summer I also plan to give the new 3" version a try. I fish the Senkos in both natural and bright colors.
The two other lures I enjoy using, are spinnerbaits and the Smithwick Suspending Super Roques. I use 1/4 and 3/8 ounce spinnerbaits with chartreuse, white and chartreuse/white skirts. I fish these with a 6'6" and 7' medium action St. Croix rods with Shimano 2000 series reel spooled with 8 lb. Excalibur. I fish the Suspending Super Rogue with the same rod, reel and line with a stop and go or jerk and stop retrieve. Sometimes you'll have to let the Super Rogue suspend for up to 30 seconds to wait for the hit. Both of these lures can be deadly, especially during spring and fall. With the Super Rogue the colors I prefer are silver/black and clown.
I fish spinning gear more than baitcasters, but I do enjoy getting out my St. Croix 6'6" and 7' medium action casting rods with Abu Garcia C4 and Eon Reels for spinnerbait, jerkbait and topwater presentations. With both baitcasters and spinning reels I prefer a faster retrieve ratio. Once I've worked a lure to my satisfaction I like getting it back fast
One other pattern that can be a fun is using topwaters on calmer mornings or evenings. Fishing in two to four feet of water, I cast lures like the Excalibur Pop'n Image, Pop-R, Super Spook Jr., Zara Spook, Smithwick's Devil Horse or a Heddon Torpedo. This can be an exciting experience.
The Door County smallmouth fishery is strong, but with more and more anglers making the trip, practicing catch and release is more important than ever. Handling the smallies you catch properly is critical and I've found the unique design of my Frabill Pro-Tech Catch and Release net maximizes my efforts to protect that big smallie before I release it. Many nets do more harm than good.
What if I Don't Have a Big Boat or Any Boat?
The Sturgeon Bay area isn't just for those who have bigger boats that can handle the wind and waves. There are many opportunities for those of you with smaller boats, canoes, kayaks and even those who like wading, something I enjoy doing.
Even when it's windy, which is often, you can usually find a sheltered shore that will give you plenty of opportunity to catch fish. For example, if the wind is coming out of the west you could launch at the Sunset Bar and Grill and fish the entire west shore of Riley's Bay or launch at Al's or Goetz's and fish the west shore of Little Sturgeon. With almost any wind direction, launching at Potawatomi gives you the very sheltered Sawyer Harbor.
For kayakers, canoers and waders, there are a number of paved drives to safely park and enter the water on Little Sturgeon, Riley's and Sand Bay. Potawatomi and Peninsula State Parks are also great places to launch non-motorized watercraft to fish Sawyer and Eagle Harbors.
I love to wade and walk rivers for smallies. All of my favorite spots in this article also offer great wading possibilities. The water is clear and most of the shoreline has a gradual slope. Along with the areas I've already talked about, try Rowley's Bay where the Mink River enters Lake Michigan. In spring and early summer this spot not only holds numbers of fish, but also some big fish.
If you've never fished smallies in Door County, I hope this information will give you the confidence to give it a shot. For those of you who have fished this area I hope you've picked up a few new tips. If you would feel more comfortable hiring a guide, I would suggest calling Scott Corbisiser, 920-743-0230; Tim Dawidiuk, 920-746-9916; Gary Nault, 920-743-1100; Doug Schreiber, 920-469-3543 or Dale Stroshein, 920-743-5731.
The waters of Door County offer tremendous smallmouth bass fishing. Have a great time if you decide to go, and practice CPR. Catch, Photograph and Release!