July 4, 2008

Smallmouth Bass Plentiful in Flambeau’s North Fork

By The Leader-Telegram, Eau Claire, Wis.

Jul. 4--PARK FALLS -- It's the mosquitoes you notice right away if you step outside now in northern Wisconsin. Our wet spring has resulted in a heavy hatch.

They found us in the middle of an asphalt parking lot of a motel north of Park Falls where John Higley of Menomonie was cooking us a late dinner on a small grill.

The fact that we were the only people there may be an indication of a poor economy and gas topping $4 per gallon. It was almost like camping out, if you ignored the occasional logging truck or car passing by on Highway 13.

I left Eau Claire the afternoon of Thursday, June 26, with Tim Meyer of Eau Claire, but our drive north was interrupted by a stop where a highway detour took us over the Jump River near Sheldon. It was a beautiful June evening, the river looked inviting, and we had felt-soled wading shoes and fly rods in the car. We waded and fished and caught smallmouth bass. But after a little more than an hour of fishing, we started feeling guilty about being late for dinner.

There had been some discussion about starting the coals at 8 p.m., in which case we would have been almost two hours late for dinner. But our companions, Higley and Jack Kins of Eau Claire, also traveled at a leisurely rate; we arrived at the same time.

Our poor planning turned out to be good planning, because by the time we got the charcoal going after 10 p.m., the evening was starting to cool and the mosquitoes left our picnic.

North Fork

After shuttling a car Friday morning, we launched at Robinson's Landing below the Turtle-Flambeau Flowage. The river guide Ed Robinson lived long enough to see the state dedicate the landing in his honor in 1997. He died in the fall of 1998 at age 84, after close to 60 years of guiding on the North Fork of the Flambeau. Before that, he guided on the Chippewa.

He was known for his red felt hat, the flat-bottom wooden row boats he preferred, and his shore lunches fried over a wood fire.

My one and only time on this part of the North Fork had been in the company of the venerable Robinson. That was in late August, and I don't remember the rapids being too intimidating at the time.

This was a different story. The river was high. The rapids were roaring. We all had our life vests firmly fastened.

Higley and Kins had rolled their canoe on Lake Menomin while they were bluegill fishing the last time in a canoe, so they were a little tentative, but they came through the first rapids in fine shape, although they chose a peculiar route.

At the bottom of the rapids we pulled into an eddy and Meyer began casting a popper tight against the bank. He had three strikes from three different smallmouth bass.

That was another change from 12-plus years ago when I had floated the North Fork with Robinson. There are more smallmouth in these northern Wisconsin rivers than there used to be. A combination of the 14-inch size limit, catch-and-release fishing and favorable flows during spawning time have resulted in lots of smallmouth. Their green-water loving cousins, the largemouth, are doing well, too.

The day stayed cloudy and calm, with light rain now and then. The fish liked it. The birds did too -- the white-throated sparrows and thrushes and robins serenaded us on and off all day.

The deer were also out. The canoes didn't bother them much. We came upon a couple of porcupines. One waddled away at top speed when he saw us; the other continued to prowl along the riverbank. He was either getting a drink or collecting some kind of aquatic weed.

The banks were a mix of pines, white cedars and hardwoods. We would pass only two cabins and they were next to each other.

We took turns being the designated caster in the bow and the "guide" in the back who positioned the canoe. At times we parked the canoes and waded, which gave us a chance to stretch our legs and fish an area more thoroughly. At one stop, I saw splash near shore behind where Meyer was wading. I thought it might be a fish chasing minnows, and told Meyer to cast behind him, and pointed to the shallow water where we had parked the canoe a few minutes earlier. He humored me and threw his popper into 8 inches of water, then turned to talk to Kins and Higley as they passed in a canoe.

As he turned, his popper disappeared in a big swirl. He didn't see it, and I tried to tell him to set the hook, but it came out something like: "Fish...fish...hook, hook, set hook."

He made a delayed hook set and -- remarkably -- the fish was hooked and tore off through the shallow water. After a vigorous fight, Meyer unhooked an 18-inch smallmouth.

The bass on the Jump had been rather lean and streamlined. The Flambeau bass were bigger in length and girth. They were eating well.

After noon, the canoeing became more tranquil as the river slowed and widened. The fishing slowed, too. The smallmouth liked the faster water.

At about 2 p.m. we pulled over for lunch in a light drizzle, but we didn't linger long. The mosquitoes chased us back to the river after a quick sandwich. The bugs couldn't find us on the water.

Lunch reminded me of why I stopped making June canoe trips to Ontario.

We came to a big rock in the middle of the river and I cast in front of it where a fish might be hiding. Then I worked the popper behind it. I let the lure hang dead in the water while I considered whether to change flies, and a bass grabbed it with a splash. He must have been eyeing it for a while.

He was a fat bass in the 18-inch range, my best of the day. He towed us down the river a little, but we were headed that direction anyway.

That fish marked the end of the siesta for the bass. They started to bite again. The river narrowed, and we dropped through a couple more rapids. We shipped some water on the last one, but didn't do any serious damage.

By the time we reached the landing -- after 6 p.m. -- we had been on the water more than eight hours. That was more than enough paddling and casting.

The river had been generous.

I think Ed Robinson would approve of how his river has been protected.

Knight can be reached at 830-5835 or [email protected]


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