Perhaps Dale Stroschein is best known from his days as a walleye professional on the national tournament circuits. But ‘eyes aren’t Stroschein’s No. 1 fish. Smallmouth bass have been his first love since his days as a boy growing up at his parents resort near Sturgeon Bay on Lake Michigan in Door County, Wis.
“I cut my teeth catching smallmouth,” said Stroschein, 44. “They think they’re muskies. Everybody knows it takes a 4 pound largemouth bass to equal the fight of a 2 pound smallmouth … they’re like the little dog that has to attack the big one.”
The Bay of Green Bay on Lake Michigan is an expansive piece of water. But, Stroschein has learned to dissect it and cut it down to size. The task is not so hard in May when the season first opens. Fish are vulnerable when they concentrate in very shallow water to spawn.
“It’s as if you took the Mississippi River and poured out all the water except for a couple of puddles. It makes it much easier for anglers. Even newcomers to the area can enjoy themselves,” he said.
Even spring storms can’t keep people off the water. There are several spots anglers can try. If one isn’t accessible due to weather, another will be, and it will equally good, he said.
Find Shallow Gravel, Sand
The best locations have features in common with each other. The smallies huddle on shallow gravel or sand and hold farther out on breaks. They want some kind of transition in depth, however slight. Even subtle changes of a foot or two in depth can make all the difference, according to Stroschein.
Years ago, property owners were allowed to dredge areas just offshore to better access their land by boat. Though forbidden today, some of those older spots have withstood the test of time. Nearby water may be just 2 feet deep, the slots may be 4 feet — that’s where the smallmouth will stack, he said.
You also might find a huge sandy area a half-mile square that’s 3 feet deep with the exception of some scattered rocks that are shallower. Those rocks are where the fish will be.
Stroschein said the May-June time frame is a time for big fish and lots of them. Thirty- to 50 fish days are possible. They’ll feel like the legendary 100-fish days by the time you’re done casting and reeling them in.
That intense action continues as water warms and fish start to migrate to their summer haunts. Stroschein said some resident fish will stay close to the shoreline in smaller bays and near the spawning areas all year as long as they can find food. But, the bulk of the smallies move out to open-water shorelines. They look for points and cups that feature sharp breaks to offer both shallow water and deep. They like areas that taper gradually down to 4- to 6 feet where they can feed before sliding quickly to 12 feet and more.
“They love that transition. They want to move up to feed and then move back,” Stroschein said.
Key On Reefs In Summer
The bay also features offshore reefs where smallmouth will gather in summer. Remember names such as Larson’s Reef, Monument Shoal, and Two-Mile Reef. But, that’s not a complete list, and you shouldn’t limit yourself to only the best known reefs. Just remember, rocks offshore will hold smallmouth.
Try fishing the tops of the reefs on windy or cloudy days. Water on the bay is kept clear by filter feeders such as zebra mussels. Any disturbance from wave action or clouds is enough to cut the light. Smallmouth can be right on top in 2- to 3 feet of water or less at times like those. On blue-bird days, they’ll move back over water 10- to 15 feet deep. Sometimes they may even suspend over water as deep as 30 feet.
Stroschein likes to deploy a drift sock on windy days and let the boat do the work as he drifts the breaks. He also uses the bow-mount trolling motor to move along the breaks. Keep moving until you connect.
Don’t get the idea smallmouth ignore weeds. No, like their largemouth cousins, they’ll use weeds at times. But, largemouth bass like a heavy canopy of vegetation. On the other hand, smallmouth will tend to like the scraggly stuff, Stroschein said. They can be more aggressive when their attacks aren’t hampered by thick weeds. Check even small weed patches to see if smallies are lurking.
Finding smallmouth is just half the battle — understanding the world they live in will help win the war.
These smallmouth, Stroschein said, inhabit a paradise of water that is mostly clear and teeming with food. The bass find easy pickin’s from the small fish swimming by begging to be eaten and crawdads hiding under rocks. They don’t use just any rocks, mind you. The crawdads need to be in water too turbulent for zebra mussels to attach to their homes. That means — seek the shallows where wave action keeps things stirred up. Active smallmouths are often found in the “skinny” water.
But, that creates a problem. You can’t get too close to them or they’re gone. Answer — make long casts to the kinds of spots that crawdads find relief from zebra mussels. At the same time, realize these are often content smallmouth with full tummies. You have two choices. Move a lure fast enough to grab a smallie’s attention, or drag a bait slow enough to stir up sand on the bottom.
Spinnerbaits are the best choice for a fast presentation. Reeled fast enough to stay in the top 6 inches of water they become a challenge for even a well-fed smallmouth to chase down.
“They aren’t going to turn one down,” Stroschein said. “They are good search tools like Google. They cover water efficiently. If fish are active or neutral, they will work.”
Stroschein sticks with simple color choices such as white or chartreuse.
Once fish are located, stick with the spinnerbaits for fast action or switch to something slower to pick-off fish that aren’t so willing to play. He’ll switch to a tube bait on a weight 1/8- or 1/16-ounce and drag it through the sand.
“It’s like you or me running across the beach naked. You will draw attention,” Stroschein said.
If they are in really shallow water of a foot or so, forget the weight all-together. Simply slide the tube onto an Aberdeen hook.
Tube length can range from 3 inches for less interested fish to 5 inches when they want what you have. Best colors are something with brown and orange, smoking grays, off purples and motor oil, but don’t be afraid to experiment.
If the fish are not shallow, use spinnerbaits to target the breaks. The spinners will work like magnets to draw smallmouth in clear water up from the depths.
Stroschien guides for smallmouth and for walleyes, which he said are doing very good offshore of Door County. Anglers are catching both numbers and big ‘eyes again. Visit www.sandbaybeach.com or phone 920-743-5731. You also can e-mail him at email@example.com
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