Wisconsin’s Superior Smallmouth Bass: Ashland’s Chequamegon Bay Dream Come True for Bass Anglers

Smallmouth populations are expanding across the Great Lakes. As a result, their fisheries are growing to world-class proportions, and are capable of challenging world-record sizes. In the North Country of Wisconsin, the heart of fishing for giant smallmouths centers on the southwest shores of Lake Superior, in the fertile waters of Chequamegon Bay.

A 40,000-acre basin with an average depth of 18 feet, Chequamegon Bay is separated from the cold waters of Lake Superior by Long Island. This narrow strip of land extends five miles northwest into Lake Superior and forms the makeup of the bay, creating a natural shield from the more frigid waters. The shallow, warmwater ecosystem created by Long Island is what helps generate self-sustaining gamefish populations and the successful fishing opportunities.

Rated as one of the best smallmouth fisheries in North America, Chequamegon Bay draws hundreds of bass fishermen annually.

Nate Baron, of Up North Guide Service and River Rock Inn Bait and Tackle of Ashland, Wis., has been helping bass anglers turn their big-bass dreams into reality since 2011, when he received his USCG captain’s license.

Baron fishes the bay 100 days per year for multi-species, averaging 60 smallmouth trips per season. He grew up fishing the bay in the 1970s.

“Twenty-two- to 25-inch smallmouth bass were once common to catch,” Baron says.

But that lasted for only so long, until populations crashed to dangerous levels in the 1980s, and later over-regulations and mass exploitation of the fishery occurred.

With today’s management plan in place (enacted in 1994) with virtually zero smallmouth harvests thanks to a 22-inch size limit, the “good-old days” are back again.

“A state-record smallmouth bass definitely exists somewhere in here now,” says Baron. “That’s what makes it so exciting to fish this water.”

The bay’s smallmouth bass fishery
Catch and release fishing regulations, coupled with the bay’s ideal habitat and high fertility, is what makes this smallmouth fishery thrive. Avid smallmouth anglers seek quality fish, and the opportunity to be on world-class waters. My first visit to the Bay was with Baron aboard his Tuffy Osprey 1990—this validated the experience for me.

Regardless of high expectations, Ashland receives many tourists who want nothing more than the opportunity to catch fish of any size. A lot of Baron’s bass clients prefer to catch numbers, but on Chequamegon Bay, most are already trophy-caliber with an astonishing 19-inch average size. Therefore, it’s not hard to find trophies and numbers.

“Chequamegon Bay is an amazing smallmouth factory, starting from two days after ice-out in spring lasting until the day it freezes over again,” Baron said.

During pre-spawn through post-spawn, 60 to 80 fish days are not uncommon for him and other guides who fish the bay. Otherwise, in the summer and fall months when fish move deep, 30 to 40 fish days, like the day we experienced together, is the norm.

Baron suggests that specific seasonal periods, such as early spring and late fall, are best.

“The best shot at the largest smallmouth comes in late fall, when 6- and 7-pounders are more abundant. Mid-October until first ice is prime time.”

Anglers fishing here must be willing to move around and cover lots of water.

“You may locate 20 fish on a drop-off or weed patch one day, only to find zero the next day,” he says.

I was with Baron during the calmest of days in mid-June, and it’s rare to catch a smallmouth under 18 inches. One can also catch over a dozen fish surpassing 20 inches in a single day.

Ideal smallmouth habitat
The smallmouth’s usage of specific habitat depends on the time of season Baron says. Much of the bay’s excellent habitat is focused on the sunken, discarded wood left behind from the historic logging days of the late 1800s and early 1900s.

In the old logging days, cargo rafts transported timber to the old mills located in the Ashland area. Many of these rafts were damaged and capsized by violent autumn storms, thus the waterlogged timber sank to the bottom of the bay. Today, smallmouths primarily use this cover for nesting sites, with most remnants still located at the bay’s eastern sloughs and along shipping channels in Ashland.

From May through June, most of the bay’s smallmouths will be on the east-side sloughs and shallows of Sand Cut and Kakagon, using the shallow sand, wood and emerging vegetation for spawning habitat. Fish will also slide out to Brush and Oak points and to Long Island, using their shallow sand flats.

Spring is easy fishing, but from midsummer through fall, Baron is challenged to break down this large body of water. We agree there is no shortage of spots out here. As Baron points out, their habitat and locations drastically change by midsummer.

Following spring, smallmouths will disperse and gradually move away from the shallows, using weed beds in 10 to 15 feet before moving out to the bay’s deepest contours and its colder waters.

“Deeper weeds, drop-offs, sudden depth changes and ledges, the rock pile and areas where there is a good current, are all key elements,” Baron adds. “Fishing the tops of weeds in the early morning and their edges down to 18 to 24 feet is the best.”

The bay’s weeds are small, isolated cabbage and grass beds scattered along the deeper edges of sand flats. Baron indicates these spots are about the size of a small house, and fishing them is his most consistent midsummer method.

“To locate these spots, I mark a ton of waypoints with my Lowrance unit with Navionics Plus chart. I do it to establish the breakline and to save a lot of time fishing unproductive water. A lot of my focus here is on bottom transitions such as clay/sand and sand/rock.”

These deeper habitats are located along Long Island, where its deep edges fish very well in late summer, and the Washburn shoreline out to the Houghton Point area. Much of the bay’s fishing in the colder northwest side is centered on deep rocks located three to four miles away from shore, and open water.

By early to mid-fall, most smallmouths move into the bay west of the Ashland Breakwall and begin using the deep shipping channels in front of town for their overwintering habitat.

Baron suggests the rock pile off Houghton Point, as well as the deep humps off Ashland and its deep submerged wood. These areas close to town and will hold autumn fish.

“Fall fishing on the bay is the most special time of the year,” Baron said. “What’s enjoyable is that you may catch a 6-pound smallmouth on one cast, followed by a 10-pound walleye on the next, or a big coho, brown trout or northern pike.”

Seasonal strategies
Due to the bay’s acreage, it’s essential for anglers like Baron to mark waypoints everywhere fish have been caught.

“Most smallmouths here are often found in wolf packs and small schools, often on the move.”

When fish are found, Baron parks his Tuffy in the anchor position using his Motor Guide XI-5’s GPS control to catch a few more before moving onto the next spot.

Quiet and responsive to the boat’s desired control, speed, and direction, this setup allows Baron and his clients to stay on top of moving smallmouths.

Per historical accounts and ancient shipwrecks, the bay’s weather can get downright nasty, thus making it too dangerous and unfishable. Wind is the driving factor in determining what allows the bay to be fishable or not. This part of the Great Lakes region can be unpredictable.

Mobile phone apps such as Windsurf and Sailflow, and other weather apps, including ones from NOAA can help determine when to fish.

“Knowing what direction, speed, and when it will switch directions midday, which occurs often, determines the game plan,” Baron said.

Baron likes a light to moderate wind—enough to reduce light penetration, as smallmouths respond better and are more active in these conditions. Ideal wind speeds for Chequamegon Bay are 5 to 10 mph. Winds over 10 to 12 mph will be rough, and fishing during these conditions is not advisable, regardless of watercraft size.

“I’ve seen fishermen with big bass boats come here for a week and they can only get out fishing for a day or two because of the bay’s unpredictable wind.”

Baron’s tackle box
Baron’s largest smallmouth to date is a 22 1/4-incher caught on a Watermelon, Senko-rigged lures wacky-style from 3 feet of water in early spring. It’s his only “legal” keeper-sized fish over 22 inches in over four years of guiding the bay.

“I am a fan of Senkos and similar 5-inch stickbaits. They cast nicely because of weight and fall rate, and I fish them almost exclusively wacky-style.”

Besides these, Baron also fishes with fluke-style minnows, Trigger-X paddle-tails, tubes and Berkley Gulp soft baits rigged on a jig head or with a drop-shot rig, depending on conditions.

Baron’s bass tactics call for diversity. His tackle box includes hard baits such as Storm Arashi square-billed crankbaits, Mann’s Baby 1-Minus, Rapala Scatter Raps and Bandit 100 crankbaits. It also features jerkbaits such as Rapala X-Raps, Husky Jerks and the new Shadow Rap. His arsenal also includes spinnerbaits, Mepps number 4 inline spinners and topwaters, such as Heddon Torpedoes, Zara Spooks, Storm Chug Bugs and Rapala X-Raps.

Baron won’t discount live bait, as it’s a personal favorite of his.

“There isn’t a single guide up here that doesn’t have a couple dozen walleye suckers in their livewell for tougher days.”

Again, Baron and I fished in midst of the spawning period, equipped with his weightless wacky- rigged Senko. We caught a dozen smallmouths up to 20 inches. Meanwhile, heavy surface activity of schooling smallmouths blowing up on minnows led to me fishing with a single Rapala X-Rap Pop for the entire day. I was hammering fish at a rapid rate at midday, catching numerous impressive specimens between 19 and 20 inches.

“I love fishing the early season during May and June because of the variety of lures and techniques that can be used,” Baron said.

Free the fighter
Chequamegon Bay has one of the best populations of smallmouths in the world. Much of it has been attributed to the work done by the Wisconsin DNR and the conservation work of Roger Lapenter, who led the movement for the existing 22-inch minimum rule that has helped revitalize the bay to half the fishery it once was.

Chequamegon Bay is a great bass fishery, so it needs to be maintained. Waters with a high potential need for continued protection is in order to create more quality fishing experiences for the growing number of bass anglers.

Today, the Wisconsin DNR in Washburn and Ashland closely monitor the fishery to make sure the smallmouth bass populations and forage balance remains equal.

I witnessed this stewardship by catching and releasing a 20-inch smallmouth with multiple tags inserted near its top dorsal fin, reaffirming this close watch on the fishery. As long as the bay continues to receive an influx of forage species from the deep-water basin of Lake Superior, the bass fishery will continue to flourish and grow bigger specimens.


For more information…
To schedule a trip with Nate Baron, please visit him at River Rock Bait and Tackle. Anglers will experience an incredible smallmouth bass fishery with outstanding service and accommodations and be able to fish with an awesome individual who will be captaining you. Contact Nate Baron, guide, by visiting upnorthguideservice.net or ifigr8m2@gmail.com, or by calling 608-963-2758. For Rock River Inn Bait and Tackle, visit riverrockinn.net.