An old fishing hole revisited

By Ken Poor

The temperature in northern Illinois was hot and humid as I loaded the essential fishing gear into my boat, packed my duffle bag with sufficient cloths to last for a few days, and headed north to Door County, Wisconsin. After Labor Day, the summer traffic is light enough that the drive to Door County from Northern Illinois is just about enjoyable and the trip has become an annual affair for me. As I pulled off I-43 and headed towards Manitowoc the cool Lake Michigan air reminded me that the trip north was almost over.

After retiring from the Navy, I moved my family to Sturgeon Bay, in Door County, Wisconsin and worked in the shipyards there. We bought an old farm, restored the main house, fixed up the out buildings and planted a large vegetable garden. Over the years, we salvaged a few of the old apple trees, raised a few chickens, ducks, turkeys, geese and a beef steer.

Although the animals were supposed to be for meat, it never seemed to work out quite that way. My kids would befriend them and eventually I would be faced with sending a “family pet” to the butcher shop. Keeping a pet chicken, duck or goose is one thing, but I can assure you that a full-grown beef steer makes a lousy family pet.

In those days hunting was just outside my back door and often not far from my garden or orchard. Living and working in the community also provided an invaluable insight and learning experience for the great fishing opportunities around Door County. Combine these types of great family memories with the anticipation of visiting with old friends and neighbors, plus fishing for feisty smallmouth bass and it is understandable why the drive north this year seemed a little shorter than usual.

The weather on the Door Peninsula was a little cooler than I had expected. Daytime temperatures were in the 70s, while the evening lows would drop into the low 40s. Early in the week winds were light and out of the southeast. Although the temperatures remained steady, by mid-day Thursday the winds had swung around to the southwest, were gusting to 20 mph and rain had started to fall.

Early in the week weather conditions were just about ideal on Green Bay and we opted to fish Monument Shoals. Green Bay is actually a large bay off the northwest side of Lake Michigan and is also the north side of the peninsula. The Shoals are a huge series of shallow rock bars that parallel the north shoreline of Door County and are about a mile offshore. Anyone planning to fish this area or just about any place on Green Bay quickly learns to keep an eye on the weather. Green Bay can get rough and dangerous real fast.

Door County is located in Northeast Wisconsin and is a peninsula that sticks out into Lake Michigan. Green Bay is the large bay on the northwest side of the peninsula.

The shoals are an area I had fished many times before and when weather and seasonal conditions are right this area produces smallmouth bass, perch, northern pike, walleye and an occasional muskie. Salmon fishing is also common around the Door peninsula. During our trips to the Shoals, we opted to fish with spinner rigs tipped with night crawlers to locate smallmouth and then we would switch to plain jigs tipped with crawlers. Leeches would have been my first choice, but none of the local bait and tackle shops carry them this late in the season.

Tube jigs seemed to produce smallmouth bass just about as well as the nightcrawlers, but we opted to fish crawlers most of the time in hopes of finding some walleyes. As it turned out we should have gone with the tube jigs. We only caught two small walleye during this trip, but the crawlers were deadly on the gobies. Most of the fish we caught on the Shoals came from 14 to 20-feet of water.

On Thursday, we decided to fish the flats and as the day progressed we were glad we had. The Flats is a shallow rocky area on the Green Bay side of the Peninsula, just outside the shipping canal, and they run from Sunset Park to the old Stone Quarry. It started raining early in the morning, by noontime the winds had picked up and waves out on the Bay were cresting at 4 to 5-feet. Wave heights on the flats were running around 2 to 3-feet and shortly after noon we decided to call it a day.

On the flats dragging spinner rigs tipped with night crawlers produced all the fish we caught. My experience in the past has been that this area can be a good spot for smallmouth on tube baits or crankbaits. Later in the fall big walleye are taken at night on the flats trolling thin profile crankbaits.

Friday and Saturday the winds were blowing out of the west with gust over 20 mph. Early morning temperature on both days dropped to the low 40-degree range, mid-day the temperatures climbed to the upper sixties, but with the wind and temperature combination it was very much like late fall weather. Both Friday and Saturday, because of the weather, we chose to fish the Sturgeon Bay Shipping Canal.

Practically all of the shipping canal can be safely fished even when weather conditions make it too dangerous to venture out on Green Bay or Lake Michigan. The problem is that everyone that was in Door County at the time seemed to know this, including a group pre-fishing for a weekend bass tournament and a second group fishing a three-day northern pike tournament.

Adding to the crowded conditions, salmon had moved into the shipping canal and this annual event always draws a lot of anglers. Salmon fishermen work the Lake Michigan side of the shipping canal and most other fishermen work the Green Bay side. Competition for even marginal fishing spots was tough and catching even a small fish drew an instant crowd.

The shipping canal is not normally a very popular fishing area in Door County, both with tourist and local anglers. When I lived there, with the exception of the annual salmon runs it was rare to see anyone fishing there. My first few fishing trips in Door County were to the shipping canal and I was surprised when my friends told me that I had a lot to learn about fishing in the area.

The reason I was surprised was that even on my first days of fishing I had no trouble catching limits of smallmouth bass or northern pike. Tube jigs, small plastic worms or crankbaits would always provide plenty of action and I’ve always considered smallmouth bass one of the strongest fighting fish there is. In time, I found out that most local fishermen consider northern pike a trash fish and smallmouth bass were not held in much higher esteem. If wasn’t a walleye or yellow perch, most locals didn’t consider it worth catching.

Saturday, we stopped by the weigh-in for the bass tournament and it was amazing to see. Winning weight for the first day was a five-fish limit of smallmouth bass weighing 20.72 pounds. The next four places were all in the 16-pound range and there were several total weights in the 14 and 15 pond range. Pretty amazing when you consider the weather conditions in the area prevented tournament participants from fishing the prime areas.