Jul 10, 2014

Fishing on the Turtle Flambeau Flowage

By: Jeff Robl

The focus of this article is to tell of the tremendous smallmouth fishing on the Turtle Flambeau Flowage (TTF). It's hard not to briefly mention some of the other fishing opportunities along with the camping and lodging available.

A brief description and history.

The TFF is a 13,000 acre flowage in Iron County created in 1926 by the damming of the Flambeau River. The two rivers that formed the TFF are the Flambeau coming from the east and the Turtle flowing in at the north end. The confluence of these original rivers is located near the present day dam. The area that flooded also engulfed 10 large lakes and a number of small ones.

The 22,000 acres of land, 195 islands and 114 miles of shoreline were purchased in 1990 under the Tommy Thompson administration. There are 66 campsites on the islands that offer scenic overlooks of the flowage. All have toilets and fire pits with a grate for cooking. Some have picnic tables. There are a handful are reservable group sites, with the majority being first come first serve. Finding a nice campsite is usually not a problem; the exception being holiday weekends. There are many different places for lodging available on the TFF and they can be found at Turtle Flambeau Flowage.com.

 Understanding this history and what lies beneath the surface unlocks the mystery of consistently catching fish throughout the year.

I spend a large part of my time guiding walleye fisherman. Walleye are the dominant fish in the fishery and occupy all parts of the flowage. They are found in different structure at different times of the year; shallow stump flats, rocky shorelines, original river channels and lake basins, deep wood structure, deep boulders, shallow weeds and cribs all hold walleye at varying times of the year. This same cover and structure also holds the other species that occupy the TFF's rich and diverse fishery. Among them pike, perch, bluegills, rock bass, crappies, trophy musky, smallmouth and Lake sturgeon( those are some of the huge muskies people are seeing jumping in Aug/Sept).

A few twitches of the green and black popper and another big smallmouth crushed the offering by fly fisherman Jeff Buetal, a big swirl and the fly disappeared, Jeff set the hook, the 7 weight fly rod bent into the shape of a U. After a brief battle, another smallmouth came to the net. It was my second day of guiding Jeff and his father, Dick, two experienced fly fisherman. Though Dick proudly admitted Jeff's skills were more finely honed (he was impressive to watch). After catching smallmouth all of the prior day, my customers wanted to see what walleye fishing was about.

We started the morning working shallow water with slip bobbers, the overcast skies and warming water temperatures provided some prime time conditions for walleye. It didn't take long to catch a limit of nice fish. Jeff had a hard time laying off his fly rod. As Dick and I walleye fished, he started working the popper and caught a couple big crappies and pike along with smallmouth all out of the same cover the walleyes occupied 

A few days prior (in anticipation of my fly fisherman), I dropped off some walleye fisherman at the end of the day and went on the hunt for shallow smallmouth. They were found while drifting shallow flats casting crank baits. Three flats in particular seemed to hold good numbers of fish; one being mostly boulders with a few stumps and some open areas of sand, another mostly sand with some stumps, and the third being mainly gravel and sand. The spots varied in size from 50-200 yds. The common denominator was the water depth of 2 to 5 feet. The date of my smallmouth guide trips were the 13th and 14th of June, 2013 and the water temps were in the mid-sixties.

I spend a lot of time on the water with a 7 foot lite power fast action St. Croix rod in my hand. I love that thump when a walleye inhales a 1/16 oz. jig. A walleye fisherman at heart, even I have to admit that June and early July when the smallmouth are shallow is some of the most exciting fishing of the year. When they hit a crank bait, you often think you snagged a stump- then the rod starts pumping and you have one of the more powerful fresh water fish on the end of your line.

We catch a lot of smallmouth during the summer while we are fishing live bait for walleye. Often, these fish are caught on mid lake humps in the 6 to 10 foot range. I anchor on the humps; usually putting out five slip bobber poles. Myself and one or two customers cast a jig and we put out two dead sticks. The dead sticks are put at the front and rear of the boat close at hand. They are leaned on the gunnel at about a 30 degree angle and rigged with an 1/8 oz. jig tipped with a leech. A leech is used over a crawler because panfish don't pick it off as easily without you noticing the bite. I go into detail on the dead stick because often you will catch more smallmouth on those two rods then all the other lines combined. Apparently, there is something about the slow rocking action the boat provides with the leech located just off bottom that triggers the smallmouth. 

Late summer (mid July to early September) when the water heats up, the smallmouth are found on deeper wood in the 12 to 16 foot range and are caught as previously described. 

In the fall, I am mostly targeting walleyes. Late September until I put my boat away, it's pretty hard to pass up 50 plus walleye days. I had one diehard want a half day trip November 5th. We figured we caught over 50 walleyes in the 5-1/2 hours we fished. Hey! I'm supposed to be talking about bass! In the fall, we have caught the most smallmouth while fishing wood on the edge of original river channels and the slope and base of the channels in the 12-19 feet depth range. These fish can be taken with extra-large fatheads. Or, if you are inclined to have a larger expense account for bait, red tail chubs. One rod is slowly vertical jigged over the structure with a dead stick at your side. The bite comes with a hard steady pull straight down. I follow the rod tip into the water, then give a hard hookset straight up. I'm sure this will be the kiss of death, but I haven't lost a dead stick over the side to a fish yet. I have, on many occasions, grabbed them out of the air. I use 5'6 or 6' St. Croix triumph series, nothing fancy. 

There are a lot of lures the smallmouth will hit when they are shallow in June, often a reaction bite. I find myself throwing multi species baits like Flicker Shads, Shad Raps, Rebel wee R's, one of my favorites a Rapala J-9 in perch color. Perch or orange/brown crayfish colors are hard to beat for walleye and smallmouth. Tube jigs, top waters like spooks and buzz baits are a lot of fun. I do have to admit, I am mostly fishing with customers who want walleye and catch more smallmouth with live bait (sacrilege to die hard bass guys) early and late season, fathead minnows, summer crawlers and leeches.

I can't honestly say how many smallmouth come into my boat during the course of the season, maybe a thousand, conservatively, I can tell you that the fish are known for their big girth. There are a lot of 17 to 18 inch fish. Last year, we caught quite a few 19 inchers and two that touched the line at 20 inches. A fish over 20 inches is rare, but I have heard of them being caught. Fifty plus days are common during late May-thru early July if you happen across a concentration of them. 

Here are some TFF smallmouth facts provided by Mercer fish technician, Jason Folstad.

The population surveys are conducted by boom shocking. The effective range of the electrodes is around 4 feet. The boat is thus maneuvered along shorelines at 2 to 2.5 mph. Fish are measured in terms of both fish per mile and fish per hour.

The result of the 2008 and 2009 population census revealed smallmouth numbers of 13/mile and 40/hour. The population was again surveyed in 2011 and 2012 and was estimated at 20/mile and a little over 50/hour. The later census also determined a change in the size structure with more smaller fish in the 7 to 9 inch range. I once had the opportunity to go out on the shocking boat. The shock only temporarily stuns the fish. 

The TFF management plan calls for managing for larger fish (smallmouth) thus a rule change has been submitted by the Mercer office to change the current two fish, 15 inches and over limit to a five fish limit consisting of either five fish under 14 inches or four fish under 14 inches and one fish over 18 inches, the protected fish would be in the 14 to 18 inches. 

The rule change hasn't yet been approved to be on the 2015 spring hearings. If approved to be on the ballot and passed, the new limits could be in effect for the 2016 season. The rule change is a long time in the making. The" hands on" local biologists and technicians have to work within the bureaucracy of the DNR. I personally know the local DNR people. They are educated, knowledgeable, passionate, hard working people, who should have faster response time to wildlife management issues, but things turn slowly in the DNR. My opinion not theirs, this article isn't a political commentary, so as Forest Gump said, "That's all I have to say about that."

As a guide who does a lot of shore lunches, I try to educate people to the fine table fare smallmouth provide. I have yet to have a customer who found smallmouth less palatable than the many other species of fish on the TFF including perch and walleye. If everyone keeps the walleye they catch and release all the smallmouth how can the population not get skewed? 

In summary, Wisconsin has some of the finest smallmouth fishing in the country and the Turtle Flambeau Flowage is at the top of the list, when comparing the scenery and wilderness qualities of the TFF, combining the quality lodging and camping opportunities, it is a destination pretty hard to beat.