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Andrew R
ANDREW
RAGAS

Andrew's Adventures

Northwoods Report for May 2014

Thu, May 29, 2014

I recently returned from a two week adventure to the north only to do laundry, produce a few videos, let the bass spawn, and painfully work a 60+hr work week. Because time is a commodity this week, before I leave again for the next trip on Saturday the 31st, here’s my northwoods report from May 10 through the 25th. I was originally planning to write weekly reports and post entries during my weekends but the fishing was too good to be sitting at the ‘net cafe.

Shortly before the adventure began…... May 3rd, the official Wisconsin season opener.

In the month of May, I’ve been up north for all but 7 days. In this period since we opened the cabin May 1st, I’ve observed ice-out and witnessed winter giving way to summer and totally disregarding spring. I fished in snow showers and hot 80 degree temperatures. I also caught a lot of fish whose bites and locations encompassed winter, pre-spawn, and spawning periods. Lots of walleyes (not much spearing going on this year), smallmouth bass, largemouth bass, and crappies were caught.

During these few weeks of fishing, I kept my lake hopping routine at a minimum, and focused entirely on my annual spring milk run of 20 different lakes, with adding some new ones to the repertoire. Due to the lack of lake hopping, a lot of meticulous fishing was had on each lake. I wanted to fish each waterbody thoroughly, not skipping out on any of its spots or miss out on any feeding windows. I also focused more on trophies and less with numbers, and did so very successfully. Additionally, with the lake and river water levels high from a much needed snowy winter (my backyard lake rose about 2 feet), I also couldn’t run any float trips with the new jon boat for the second spring season in a row. My rivers likely won’t be fishable until mid June at the earliest.

The week of May 10 thru 17 felt like winter as we fished with bibs and winter hats and big smallmouth bass were leaving their wintering holes, slowly transitioning to the shallows. The fishing during this cold water period was HOT. Meanwhile the week of May 18 to the present the weather got warmer and big smallmouth bass were rapidly transitioning from pre-spawn into the spawning period. The fishing was also HOT. In these two weeks since ice out, water temperatures climbed more than 20 surface degrees, already prompting spawn to take place on majority of the lakes. The bite continues to be HOT and will be until the shallows will be full of beds.

Throughout the first week I fished solo and was joined by my local friends from the MInocqua/Lakeland area. I also fished with St. Germain guide and buddy, Rob Manthei, and television personality John Gillespie. The original plan was to shoot a trophy smallmouth bass segment but by the time I was scheduled to fish with them, they had an overload of smallmouth content. Therefore we attempted to film a combo multi-species crappie and largemouth bass show for Wisconsin’s Waters & Woods. The fish decided not to play nicely with us, so we’ll be doing a TBD re-shoot at some point in the future. Fish or no fish, it was a memorable day nonetheless to be in a boat with John and to go behind the scenes for a day. He is as comical in person as he is on television. Meanwhile in the second week, Jacob Saylor joined me for the fifth spring trip in a row.

With the late ice out and brutal winter, I had zero expectations for the month of May. However, this spring became oddly reminiscent to last year’s epic fishing that was experienced as the weather and fishing patterns aligned. As I kept last May’s log and data in mind, I carried on and everything from the weather to the fish and their locations worked themselves out better than expected. I had them dialed in from the start and was able to replicate the awesome fishing I had from this time last year.

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The spring armory. Don’t leave home without it.

Throughout the first week of fishing when weather and water temperatures were at its coldest, I worked a lot of different largemouth bass water; all weedy, boggy, and dark watered nutrient-rich eutrophic lakes filled with backwaters, channels and warm water sources. With the brutal winter we had, I knew winter kills would pose a problem on many of my favorite bass and pike lakes that are out in the boonies. Thankfully they only suffered partial kills or none at all. I was grateful for that. I fished a lot of smaller backwoods lakes and places off the beaten path. Lots of new water was explored and I made the effort and burned the gas to get back into them with some pretty good results.

Swim jigs, chatterbaits and lipless crankbaits did much of the damage on LMB’s. Very few came on soft plastics. However, that’s all about to change as water temperatures are now approaching 60 degrees and June is already here. The biggest I only caught were up to 18 inches, so nothing too picture-worthy.

Ideally, I wish I had spent more time on the largemouths but I will save the big ones for the first two weeks of June when the weedgrowth begins blooming. The reason I didn’t do well on largemouths was because the weedgrowth was nonexistant on every lake I fished. As the weather and water temps warm, plant life will hopefully sprout, and the fishing will immediately get real good.

Additionally, walleyes were smacking my crankbaits hard whether it was on accident or purposely, and the smallmouths were waking up immediately following ice-out. I had to fish for what made the most sense…... Big smallmouth bass.

But first, the walleyes:

Besides the coldfront and ice-out largemouths, I caught a lot of walleyes too as they were either in abundance, in midst of the spawn or just finishing up. Most of them were targeted in the evenings while casting shorelines with crankbaits, and pitching jigs with oversized minnows. A number of them were also caught by accident while fishing and jigging for coldwater smallmouths. Here’s some of the better ones caught, along with a new Wisconsin personal best from my little private backyard lake which we estimated being close to 27 inches long. It hammered a Strike King chatterbait while fishing the boggy shorelines of my 20 acre lake. I contemplated on keeping it for a cool wall mount but the thought of rearing a potential 30 inch pet was too good of an idea to pass up. Like all big walleyes I catch, she still swims happily ever after. The last time I did a walleye stocking was in 2005-06, so I know where this big one came from…...

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Here’s a few more samplers:

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This concludes my 2014 walleye fishing until this summer’s trips to Ontario’s Rainy Lake and Lake of the Woods, and then up north and down south in the fall.

And now to our main event. Big smallmouth bass:

As the water temperatures finally warmed up to a modest and more respectable 44 degrees beginning on Wednesday May 14th, I began my full scale assault on smallmouth bass. I’ve dedicated the bulk of my last five seasons up north to the art of angling for these fish and I keep learning new things about the game. This spring has been a good representation of my continued self-education.

In my opinion, the first three weeks following ice-out, preceding to the spawning period offers anglers some of the best fishing of the year. About a week following ice out, smallmouths are usually schooled and stacked in large groups along the edges of structural elements - this is one of the few times you will ever find them in heavy concentrations. In contrast to largemouths which will move into shallow mud bays with warmer water, smallmouths move to warm water lake locations that are best influenced by wind direction, sunlight penetration, and proximity to annual spawning location.

Identify these spots, you can literally catch 100 fish or more in a single day. Although I didn’t focus on numbers at all these last few weeks, I concentrated every day on trophies and was greatly rewarded. And numbers of big fish were caught.

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^ May 14th, first SMB of 2014.

The style of fishing employed during my first and second weeks greatly contrasted, all due to water temperatures. The first week I had water temps in the low 40’s and barely cresting above 50. This called for an exclusive jerkbait fishing program with a variety of suspending jerkbaits, and soft baits such as fluke styles fished weightless, or pitched and jigged vertically with a minnow head. In the second week, the first warm front of the spring arrived in which I saw water temperatures quickly rise from 50 degrees to as much as 60 degrees which is where we presently stand. My spring favorites, the jerkbait, gave way to a more diverse selection comprised of crankbaits, tube jigs, and soft plastics. Right now, either of these three are rocking out fish.

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^ Posing with a 21 incher with my musky tournament partner & pal, Steve Peterson. Caught with the Dynamic Lures Travado. What a great suspending jerkbait that catches big bass. I’ve stocked up for next month’s trip to Rainy Lake!

Here’s my winning formula during the first week.

If you are a bank hugger, you weren’t going to catch any fish. It’s that simple. While folks kept waiting for water temperatures to warm, I was often the only boat out on my lakes fishing for bass. And I was catching lots.

In recent years, I’ve developed an affection for locating open water schools of smallmouth. Fish are often found with electronics in off shore locations, usually within short migratory distances from their spring staging spots. During most of my outings, I’ve began my search deep, looking for fish in the 15 to 30 foot zones and then progressing shallower and shallower. By working closely with my Lowrance Elite-7 HDI that’s equipped with Lake Insight HD charts and down imaging, I make quick drive-by’s along the deepest edges of spring feeding flats, and the sides of rock humps. In these open water locations, seeing the markings of schooling smallmouth will be obvious on-screen.

Offshore complexes were money on each of the ten smallmouth lakes I fished throughout the first week. This pattern eventually overlapped into the second week of fishing and subsided as soon as water temperatures warmed.

Below are some of the typical looking areas I pounded. Very little spot hopping and water coverage was required. Just be good at boat control and good with the electronics.

If you fail to contact fish early, move. It’s on to the next area that offers feeding and structure opportunities. In spring, they are not going to be located everywhere like they will be in summer, and in several spots like later on in the season. Look for places like this where fish want to be connected to structure, and puzzle these pieces together from the depths to shallows. Run these high percentage areas and you’re eventually bound to find fish foraging heavily in an area.

A key forage for my bodies of water in early spring are smelt, mud minnows and yellow perch. For that reason, I often focus on long, slender 3 to 5 inch baits.

What I did for much of the month was begin my offshore structure fishing with suspending jerkbaits. Some of the better ones producing fish consistently for me were the Rapala X-Rap in sizes 8 and 10, Matzuo Phantom Minnow, and Dynamic Lures JSpec and Travado. Then as fish grew conditioned to the suspenders, I followed up and generated more strikes with the fluke rigged either weightless or on a minnow head. I used this reciprocation a lot and it kept catching. You get the hint this will be an article for next year? You bet.

I use soft jerkbaits rigged on a minnow style jig head a lot in mid-summer and fall when smallmouths are deep. However, they also have a time and place in the spring, and that takes place from ice-out until fish move in too shallow, thus eventually making this technique ineffective. Soft jerkbaits in the “fluke” style such as a Trigger-X Minnow, GNUGEN Lures Live Minnow, and Stankx Bait Company Fluke are pitched and vertically jigged in horizontal presentations. I prefer using Northland Mimic Minnow, and Matzuo Minnow Head jigs in 1/8 or 1/4 oz sizes depending upon depth and wind.

Here’s some tanks caught with suspending jerkbaits.

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^ Caught with Dynamic Lures Travado in Ghost Shad.

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^ Caught with Dynamic Lures Travado in Ghost Shad.

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^ My largest of the year so far, a 21 incher caught with the Dynamic Lures Travado in Ghost Shad color.

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^ I have yet to catch a fish surpassing 20 inches on this lake, but at 19 inches above, and 18.5 inches here, this one is a dandy. Caught on Matzuo Phantom Minnow.

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^ Jacob Saylor with a 20.5” caught with an X-Rap 08. This is a 20yr old fish from this particular lake. C&R is important for special fisheries like these. It works wonders and I advocate for Wisconsin to continue its spring C&R season for these next several years.

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^ At 18 inches, this fish is considered a trophy on the 300 oligotrophic lake it came from. This lake will have lots of big ones in a few years if they keep growing like this guy. Caught with X-Rap 10 in Albino Shiner.

 

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^ See how far away I am from shore? There’s no bank hugging in this early spring game.

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^ Absolute giant here, and the fattest 20 incher I’ve ever pulled out from this particular lake. Wish I had a scale. Caught with Rapala X-Rap 10 in hot head color.

To maximize on catch rates and generate more strikes, the soft plastic jerkbait in fluke style were used as a throwback. It was deadly on these mid lake, offshore structures. The throwback softbaits caught A TON and kept the bite going even as if it seemed I had pounded it to death already. With this system, I kept catching fish for almost 4 hours straight on one single bar.

Here’s some nice catches made with the soft baits.

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Winning formula for the second week.

By the time the second week of fishing arrived, water temperatures were slowly on the rise, and different patterns emerged but most of them still weren’t players. Fish were progressing shallower also, and it was unique to observe the progressions in locations between first week and now. I finally got a few fish to go on soft plastics such as tube jigs and swimming grubs to make things interesting. I was also able to get onto a crankbait bite that lasted in short spurts. With zero crayfish presence, I wasn’t banking on either tube nor crank to be players just yet, but they were once waters surpassed 55 degrees, and both resulted in some of my largest fish from this trip.

My second week of fishing had some ups and downs as certain lakes slowed by uncooperative weather, but a memorable day took place. Each spring it seems as if I have one day that stands out more than others, and it eventually turns itself into an epic day of fishing. Happened again this year.

On Friday, May 23rd, we dedicated the entire day’s fishing to trophy hunt. Anything less than 18 inches wasn’t worthy of a picture. We did film the entire day’s body of work on video and it will be produced shortly. We didn’t catch numbers, but quality was had. Two lakes were fished, and a slew of smallmouth up to 20.5 inches were caught from both. My pal Jake ended up catching his largest of the week from one lake, and I repeated the feat again on the second lake fished. On this day, the whole barn door blew open and multiple patterns emerged. Fish were going on jerkbaits, crankbaits, tube jigs, football heads, and soft plastics. The fish were hungry, males were invading the shallows for spawn, and big females were moving up the breakline to feed with fury before dropping eggs.

The top producer on this day was a new jig from a company I’ve been working with since 2013. Freedom Lures and what I fished with was the Zodiac Jig. It’s an interchangeable jig designed to be fished with any hook type. I had it rigged with a Strike King Coffee Tube.

By now, these bass photographed below are all spawning. Here were our notables from this magnificent day of fishing. Cant wait to get the video out. Just a remarkable day.

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^ Any day you’re hooking into doubles is a good day. This tandem of smallies was caught with X-Raps on the first lake.

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^ Jacob with his largest of the week, another 20.5” caught from the first lake.

Now the Freedom Lures fun begins. They make the most unique jigs I’ve ever fished with. I’m not sure if it was the plastic I was using, because Coffee Tubes are pretty damn good to begin with, but I attribute this day’s success with the jig. It was hooking fish right on the second lake as every hook-set with it felt like magic, and I put on a clinic with it. These next few fish all ranged between 18 and 19 inches.

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I also said crankbaits finally started producing. Below is a back-to-back-to-back-to-back quadruple of smallmouths caught with last year’s top bass whacker of mine, the Rapala Crankin’ Rap. The biggest fish highlighted here is a 20.5”

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At this writing, bass are either spawning or shortly beginning their spawn season on many area lakes. I’m glad to have taken the week off. This final outing on the 23rd capped off an excellent week and a half of smallmouth fishing, and I can’t wait for what’s in store for me this coming weekend. Patterns will change and I will turn my focus to the largest, coldest and deepest lakes in the area as I still have a second round of pre-spawners to catch.

Before returning home for the week, our final day was spent crappie fishing. I like to dedicate one day each spring to these fish and call it a crappiethon. We spent the entire day working our tans and covering two different lakes. We didn’t keep our limit because who in God’s name wants to spend 3+hrs filleting 25 fish apiece. But by day’s end, we had caught between 40 and 50 crappies on an assortment of plastics and took home 20 of them. Fish were beginning to move in for the spawn. Most fish caught and kept ranged between 10 and 12 inches. Anything over 12 such as the 13 inchers were released to grow bigger. Did you know it takes 8 to 12 years for a crappie to attain trophy sizes in the north? Lots of folks were out and taking advantage of this crappie “run”. While it’s an enjoyable event, it’s a bit disheartening when the meat hogs begin hurting the fisheries by slaughtering and keeping nearly everything they catch until a limit is reached. I am a proponent for reduced panfish limits or a 10” minimum length rule.

This day was all the major crappie fishing I’ll probably do for 2014.

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My week off to heal the beat up hands and bass thumbs is nearly over. I depart for the north again during the wee hours of Saturday morning to search for more northwoods bronze and catch a few muskies. My goal is to always catch one surpassing seven pounds but the game is going to be different this time around. Fish will be spawning on most lakes while some will still be in pre-spawn cold water mode like last week was. Plastics and other diverse lures will finally come into play, and I will have to cover water. It will be interesting to examine. I’ve already got my list of lakes in mind. With the rivers finally receding from their spring floods, I will also get the river boat put to use and a few float trips will be in order.

For most of these next two weeks I will be fishing solo, and with friends and guides who live locally in the area. I can’t wait to have their company joining me in the retro Lund.

That’s all I’ve got for now, before eventually turning this two week report into an article or even a novel.

If anyone wants information on lakes or has questions for me concerning the north, I’ll be more than happy to help anyone out. When I get the new boat at season’s end, I am contemplating on starting an “experimental” guide service for the 2015 season. Give me a shout anytime through my sites at www.ragasfishing.com and www.fishing-headquarters.com

Videos will be making their way online soon.

Love me some walleyes and beer for breakfast.

Comments

Great pics man and it looks like it was a killer trip.  I have a question for you.  How much longer do you think it will be before even the deeper and colder lakes have smallies on beds?  We were planning on making our trip in about 10 days but based on what your article, we are thinking about leaving tomorrow.  What are your thoughts?  Definitely don’t want to be too late and miss all the pre spawn.

Posted by JB IL on May 29

Thanks. It all depends on their depth and acreage and whether it has a trout fishery. BIG for me is anything greater than 3,000 acres. Last year at this time, these waters already had fish spawning the first week of June and it happened quick thanks to prolonged warm fronts. Most of the lakes are already in spawn stage so we’re about on par with last year’s calendar. But considering these cold waters are running in the low 50’s right now, it’s probably not happening till end of next week hopefully. Next week’s forecast of 70’s is telling me it will start up. Now would be as good of a time as ever.

Posted by Andrew Ragas on May 29

Those are some incredible smallies, great job! Have you ever spent any time in the Sturgeon Bay area? I have always wanted to go up in that area of Lake Michigan for giant smallies but after seeing this and many of your other posts, maybe I shouldn’t dream only of that area and expand to about any lake up in the north woods/north country that has a decent smallie population.

Posted by esox_lucius on May 29

I was considering joining some of my friends on Sturgeon Bay during the 11th thru 14th, helping them prefish for the tournaments. I was all set to go with the weather still cold but then I realized it was an inconvenient 4hr drive from the northwoods and couldn’t justify doing it. Maybe next year, or I’ll go at some point this year. Chef Todd was hammering em out there with Bret Alexander last week. The north country is solid. The only thing worrying me is the DNR and state is considering eliminating the spring C&R season to thin the herd so inland walleye fisheries can recover from spearing and overharvest (dumb imo). When that happens, some of these smallmouth fisheries will be going to hell. But the tradeoff is some lakes will still have the c&r for over 18” and 20” trophy rule. (That’s word from the Vilas co. lake manager whom I’m good pals with).

Posted by Andrew Ragas on May 29

Awesome fish Andrew….What kinda beer u drinking with the fish and eggs???lol…Ive never saw that brand before….

Posted by WhitetailFreak on May 29

Sturgeon Bay is just awesome well worth the trip. I just read where is was just named the top bass fishing spot in the US. Sister Bay, Egg Harbour or any or the other places up there is just awesome fishing also

Posted by berlin on May 29

Spotted Cow by New Glarus. You’re missing out. Part of the allure is getting unlimited stock of these special beers that are sold nowhere else in the country.

Posted by Andrew Ragas on May 29

This may be a stupid question Andrew but what does the smallmouth population have to do with the walleye fishery? Seems to me they could just limit the spearing and enforce stricter harvest practices on walleye rather than get rid of seemingly spectacular smallmouth bass fisheries. I gotta say the C&R of stream smallies here in Illinois (April 1-June 15) might just be one of the best things our DNR has enacted (with obvious thanks to the ISA). The streams I fish for smallmouth continually produce quality fish and lots of them.

Posted by esox_lucius on May 29

Dysfunctional DNR always makes a government-influenced excuse from Madison blaming a certain fish species when the real problem is overharvest and spearing/netting. It’s all about $$$‘s. They’d rather bring in tourism dollars thru walleye fishing rather than bass fishing.

Posted by Andrew Ragas on May 29

That sucks, it’s too bad they can’t figure out they could have both without sacrificing one or the other. Like Berlin just mentioned, I believe Bassmaster was the one that listed Sturgeon Bay as the top bass destination. You would think they would be more than happy to not thin the bass. The serious fishing crowd who may be unfamiliar with Wisconsin, likely would get awful curious about other places as they drive through on their way to the Bay and perhaps spend more time throughout the rest of the state. Government at it’s finest I suppose…

Posted by esox_lucius on May 29

Totally agreed. This rule implementation would only be for the inland lakes. Great Lakes and GB waters are under a different jurisdiction/management plan. Nobody gets it, and it’s pathetic Walker and his team isn’t letting our biologists do their jobs. This spring they’ve opened up largemouth bass fishing to harvest and are promoting their harvest from just about all of the lakes in the state. Their reasoning: To help improve walleye recruitment. Problem is many of these largemouth bass lakes and ponds don’t have walleyes in them. The hilarity of this gets to me the wrong way. Bass fisheries will get destructed over time.

Posted by Andrew Ragas on May 29

grin So that’s why they call them ‘Bronzebacks’!!!

Posted by jpphish on May 30

Excellent read and great pics. Hands down one of, if not the single best blog on this site. I am primarily a flyfisherman and don’t relate to the bulk of your informative lure selections and electronic data. I do applaud your instructional writing format. I visit this site daily and get sick of seeing trophy pic after pic of fish caught from private waters that only they can fish, or pay to fish areas. No instruction, no fishing insight or knowledge, just bragging and self advertisement. You break the mold by catching trophy fish, on public waters, tell the reader how to be successful, then answer reader inquiries. Bravo my friend, Bravo! While bronze is a true love of mine, my preference is catching them in small streams. I would love to pick your brain on some areas in WI to target northerns. I am on the hunt for a good pike hole, not necessarily trophies as much as numbers. Need to fill the urge for a toothy critter. Central IL musky have been giving me fits with a flyrod. I have had just enough success to keep me chasing but not enough to fill the urge. Once again excellent job Andrew. Cheers!

Posted by Colt on May 31

^ Thank you for the compliment. I won’t be returning to civilization again until mid June, but feel free to email me, andrew @ fishing-headquarters.com and I’d be glad to help out some.

Posted by Andrew Ragas on June 08

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