May 10, 2014


     To the east and below us we see the lake. It looks silvery through the trees, sparkling as sunlight dances across the waters, ruffled by a light wind. Scott Clark and I have been driving for almost two hours to get here and now as we see the lake we can feel the excitement bubble up inside of us like a spring spitting water through the sandy bottom of a creek.

     The lake is Shell Lake in Washburn County, and we wish the lake was closer to our homes in Hudson, Wisconsin, but perhaps because it is so far away there is an illusion to this lake that makes it so special for us. Plus, it has great smallmouth bass fishing. If it was closer to home, more people would be fishing it and it might not be as good because of the increased fishing pressure.

     As it is, we are always so pleasantly surprised to find such great fishing here. There are other fish in the lake besides smallmouth bass. There are walleye, crappies, northern pike and even musky. It seems most of the people who fish here are after those other fish and seem to show little interest in the smallmouth bass. In the years we have fished it, we have seldom seen anyone else fishing for smallies. That is perfectly fine with Scott and me.

     The lake is incredibly clear. It is spring fed, with a fine light, sandy bottom. I have been in ten feet of water and can still see an old wooden, sunken boat or pile of rocks. Those places will always hold smallmouth bass. The other reason this lake is so clear is the town of Shell Lake and the lake’s association are vigilant in ensuring all boats launched at the only public landing are clean of any weeds that could spread invasive species into these clear waters.

     A young man comes out from a small shack at the landing to inspect my trailer and boat. Once he is satisfied everything is clean, Scott backs the trailer down the ramp until it is in the water. I push the boat off and jump up on the floating dock as the boat slides off the trailer.

     It is early summer and we have bright blue skies with a few fluffy white clouds floating overhead. Winds are light; a welcomed anomaly. The lake is big and round enough that all too often strong winds sends rolling white caps across it. There have been a couple times I have been blown off this lake by the wind and waves. But that is not the case today. Scott and I both mention how calm it seems today as we motor across.

     We start fishing a rocky point, the boat sitting in about ten feet of water. We are using tube jigs and we cast toward the bank. Our jigs land in what is probably less than three feet of water. Although most of the lake is sandy, this particular point has a rocky bottom and we crawl our jigs slowly across the bottom.

     I can feel the jig bouncing over the rocks and then I feel weight. I feel it come along as I lift the rod tip. Dropping the tip, I reel up the slack and still feel weight when I pull back to set the hook. Immediately, the fish races to the top of the water, flings itself out of the water and throws the hook. It happened so fast I didn’t get a chance to do anything to prevent losing the fish. Scott makes some comment about it being a bummer losing the first fish of the day. I hate losing the first fish. It all too often is a bad omen. We fishermen are very superstitious.

     A couple of minutes later I feel weight again. This time I set the hook twice, and when the fish takes off for the surface, I pull it back to keep it from clearing the water. The fish has my spinning rod doubled over. Even next to the boat, it just doesn’t give up, it keeps pulling away or diving under the boat each time I try to get it close enough to bring into the boat. Finally, I get the fish in. It is a fifteen inch smallmouth. Scott congratulates me on my recovery. It is always good to get the first fish in the boat. It is all part of the superstitious thing.

     Scott and I pick up several more fish off the rocky point and then start to work down the bank. The bottom turns to sand. We keep steadily catching fish. With the water so clear and the sun so bright, I figure we will find most of our fish under the docks. We do find them there but also in the clear sandy areas between the docks. It looks like the fish have just finished spawning and they seem to be hungry and aggressive. Smallies are always aggressive, but it seems they are considerably more so today.

     When you are fishing plastics for bass, they will strike in a number of ways. Sometimes you will feel only weight on the line. Other times there will be just a small    bump or there are times you won’t feel anything. You will just see your line begin to move off. Usually, you have lots of time to set the hook but, unfortunately, if you wait too long they might ingest the bait too deep to get the hook out without damaging the fish. This happens especially on smallmouth bass because they are so aggressive.

     However, it you strike too soon then you will not get a good hook set. As Scott and I fish we see it both ways. Sometimes we set the hook to have the fish on for just an instant before it comes loose. Would it have been better if we had waited a few seconds? Then of course we get a fish in to see the jig sucked deeply into the fish. Should we have set the hook sooner? For years, I have been removing the barbs from my hooks but sometimes that doesn’t even help to get the hook out without hurting the fish. In those cases we cut the line, leaving the hook in the fish in hope it will eventually dissolve in the fish with its own acids. I make up a bunch of tube jigs so I can quickly cut the line, release the fish, and tie on another jig.

     It is a perfect summer day. It is warm without being hot. Although there are few clouds to obscure the sun, the sun has been beating down us all day but we don’t feel hot. There is a light wind and it keeps us cool. Both Scott and I have light skin so we know enough to keep applying sunscreen. The weather is perfect and so is the fishing. It doesn’t seem to go long before one, or sometimes both of us have a fish on.

     We stop for lunch and the wind gently drifts us. I made sandwiches consisting of ham, salami, Swiss and co-jack cheese with a thick sliced tomato on top. As we are eating my spinning rod lays against the side of the boat with about ten feet of line out. The wind is trolling us along and I look down to see the rod tip bouncing. Putting my sandwich down, I grabbed the rod and feel a fish pulling back. It is a foot long smallmouth bass.

     After lunch I feel a tap, tap on my line and set the hook. I feel a fish on the line but there isn’t much of a fight. When I get it to the boat we find it is a rock bass. Scott and I comment on how once we used to catch a lot of rock bass in this lake and now we do not catch as many. We don’t know if that means anything or not.

     Scott pulls back on his spinning rod. It is bent in half as a fish races off and somewhere in front of us I hear a fish splashing on the surface. I am watching as Scott is fighting the fish and am not paying attention to my line. I feel a bump and out of reflex lift the rod tip up to set the hook. I solidly feel a fish on and it races off, rod tip plunging. I hear Scott’s drag giving out line and then I hear my drag clicking as line comes off the reel.

     Scott gets his fish in before I get mine in. He is removing the hook as I hoist my fish in the boat. His fish is a bit bigger than mine, but both fish are over fourteen inches. He holds his up and as he is looking at it asks me, “How many doubles that this makes for us.” He slips his fish back in the water as I twist the hook out of my fish. “I don’t know,” I tell him, “I kind of lost track but that should be at least four, maybe more.”

     We are fishing a flat sandy area and still catching fish, but I propose we move to another point on the other side of this large bay we are in. There is deeper water off that point and have always caught fish there. Besides it is by now getting on to early afternoon and we want to fish more of the lake.

     I pull up the trolling motor, and Scott runs the boat across the rest of bay to the point. When he pulls back on the throttle to stop the boat, I drop the trolling motor. Although we are in deeper water, I can still see the bottom. As we work along, parallel to the point, I notice a school of half a dozen smallmouth bass cruising the bottom. I flip my tube jig in their direction and watch the jig settle to the bottom. One of the fish breaks off from the pack and heads toward where my jig should be. I wait and then see the line moving, cutting through the water. Reeling up the slack, I set the hook and feel the fish racing off. It heads straight for the surface and I am frantically reeling line in to keep it tight enough I can pull the fish back so it doesn’t flip out of the water. But there is too much slack in the line as the fish erupts out of the water. Luckily, it doesn’t throw the jig and I am still onto the fish solidly.

     I am starting to get more line back on the reel when the fish heads for the top again, and this time clears the water by a foot. Again, the hook holds and a few moments later I have it alongside the boat. When I get the fish in, I understand why I didn’t lose the fish. It had engulfed my bait. I quickly cut the line and put the fish back in the water, watching it move away in a burst of speed. The fish will recover.

     We move around the point and continue into another bay. We are still catching fish and it doesn’t seem to matter where we cast. The docks hold fish but just as often we find them in the open. It is strange to see them not oriented to structure, but perhaps because they just came off the spawning beds they haven’t settled into normal patterns yet.

     A couple of hours later, I suggest to Scott we might need to hang it up since we still have almost a two hour drive home once we get back to landing. Scott suggests we fish one more small spot he has fished before which should hold some largemouth bass. Switch to a plastic worm he tells me. I think both Scott and I just don’t want to give up on such a pleasant day with such great fishing.

     Scott motors us across the lake to a small rocky island that has thick green weeds growing out into the lake. “There should be some largemouth here,” he says as he flips a plastic worm toward the weeds. The worm barely settles when Scott pulls back and a fish swirls on the surface. He gets the fish way from the rocks and weeds, stopping a couple of short runs by the time he brings the fish to the boat. It is a fifteen inch largemouth. For the next forty five minutes, we circle the island twice and pick up about a dozen largemouth bass. The fishing has been fast and furious.

     Suddenly we are slapped by a breath of cold wind. We look around and to the north we see black clouds building up on the horizon. The wind is out of that direction so it looks like the storm is coming our way. Scott and I have both been on this lake when it gets rough, and we knew it wasn’t going to be pretty in a short time.

     We decide to quit. The weather had been great until now and we caught a lot fish.     We tally up the numbers and we had caught and released over eighty fish. Most of the fish were smallmouth bass plus a handful of largemouth bass and one rock bass. What more could two old fishing buddies want?

     The wind picks up, rolling the lake with white frothed waves slamming into the boat as we motor slowly back to the landing. We try to go faster as we do not want to get caught out on the lake when the storm gets here. However, when we try to go faster the spray from the bow is caught by the wind and washes over us. Although we have to go slower and it seems to take a long time, we get to the launch before the storm.

     As we leave, we look back from the road toward the lake we fished. The black skies now spread over at least half of the lake. The water that had earlier sparkled in the sunlight when we first arrived is gray and rolling with white caps. Although the storm blew in and hurried us off the lake, we were about ready to leave anyway so nothing is really lost. We had great weather and great fishing. It is a perfect summer day.