The baykeeper: Thanks to Roger Lapenter, Chequamegon Bay is still producing big bass and drawing anglers
ASHLAND — Roger Lapenter covered a lot of territory before he wound up on Chequamegon Bay running a bait shop he never intended to buy.
He was a ski instructor at Aspen Mountain in Colorado, guiding fly fishers on mountain streams in summers. He fly-fished for bonefish in the Bahamas and tarpon in Florida. He guided anglers
in Mexico. He spent a month fishing the Amazon River. He fly-fished England, Greece, Chile, Costa Rica and Honduras.
But once he discovered Chequamegon Bay of Lake Superior, he knew he was home. He and his wife, Carolyn Swartz, have owned Anglers All, a bait and tackle shop in Ashland, for 30 years. Lapenter, 70, guides anglers seeking Chequamegon Bay’s trophy smallmouth bass.
Those big bass — up to 21, 22 inches — are there in large part due to Lapenter’s work to protect the fishery. Earlier this month, at a gathering in Ashland, Lapenter was inducted into the National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame for his conservation efforts on Chequamegon Bay.
On Tuesday afternoon, Lapenter was on the water again, throwing bass flies from the deck of his 19-foot Ranger flats boat and talking about his early days in Ashland.
“In one spot, I caught a limit of 50 perch, five walleyes, five northerns and five bass over 5 pounds,” Lapenter said. “That was my introduction to Chequamegon Bay.”
The bass fishing was fantastic in the early 1980s.
“Every day of the week, you could get five or 10 fish over 5 pounds,” he said. “The average day was in the hundreds.”
Bass on the wane
But the bass fishing had been discovered. Anglers were taking a lot of fish out of the bay, and Lapenter saw the bass fishing going downhill fast.
“It doesn’t take many greedy fishermen to wipe out a fishery,” he said.
He began a campaign to change regulations and protect the bass. Some anglers opposed the idea of releasing bass, but Lapenter took his campaign all the way to Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources headquarters in Madison. In 1994, after a four-year battle, Lapenter was successful in getting a regulation in place that required anglers to release any smallmouth bass less than 22 inches long.
The bass fishing today is about half as good as it once was, Lapenter said.
“And it’s still excellent,” he said. “My average day is around 40 or 50 fish. And the nice thing is the size structure, a lot of fish in the 18- to 19-inch range. This year, I’m sure I’ve had 20 to 30 fish in the 21-inch range.”
Luke Kavajecz grew up in Washburn and guides with Lapenter.
“He wanted to leave the place better than he found it and preserve those fish for future generations,” said Kavajecz, 30. “I’m still catching the same fish today that I was catching when I was a little kid.”
A circuitous route
Lapenter’s road to Chequamegon Bay was an unlikely one. He grew up in the “hillbilly country” of rural New Jersey, where an older man in town gave him a fly rod when he was 7 or 8.
That fly rod opened a new world to him, and he has been a fly fisher since. After a couple of stabs at college, he headed for Aspen. He came from a family of skiers and got a job as a ski instructor, teaching celebrities such as Barbra Streisand and Lucille Ball.
“(Streisand) was so athletic,” he said, “and not afraid of anything.
(Lucille Ball) was as good as Streisand. What a nice lady.
I was there the day she broke both her legs.”
During his 13 years at Aspen and another five at Crested Butte, Lapenter began guiding fly fishers on raft trips to mountain rivers. At the same time, he started fishing Florida and the Bahamas and the west coast of Mexico.
“If I wasn’t skiing, I was fishing,” he said.
After a few unsuccessful marriages, Lapenter happened onto Swartz, an Oklahoman working in Aspen. Swartz followed Lapenter as he guided anglers in Florida, the Bahamas and Mexico. In the early 1980s, they came to Ashland. One of Lapenter’s previous wives had grown up there. It was a long way from the Bahamas and Mexico, Swartz said.
“When we got together, he said, ‘Stick with me. All you’ll ever need is a snorkel and mask.’ He didn’t tell me I’d need a wetsuit,” she said.
Lapenter became friends with a man who owned Anglers All and eventually loaned the man some money to keep the shop going. The business was failing. Lapenter and Swartz took it over in 1984.
“We gave ourselves five years,” Lapenter said.
Lapenter is tall and rangy, deeply tanned, with a flowing white moustache that hangs below his chin and flies in the wind when he drives his 19-foot flats boat across Chequamegon Bay.
Ask him how long he’s had the moustache, and he delivers the standard answer: “Since I was 7.”
It hangs from his upper lip like a pair of chaps hung over the back of a chair.
Lapenter is soft-spoken, the epitome of laid-back.
“He has a very calming nature,” said Chicago’s Tim Patula, a fishing client of Lapenter’s who nominated him for the Hall of Fame.
“It’s pretty hard to get his feathers ruffled,” said Pat Ehlers of the Fly Fishers shop in Milwaukee, who has known Lapenter for 25 years.
And he’s kind, Ehlers said.
“If somebody needs something, he’s the first guy they turn to, and they don’t have to go to a second person,” Ehlers said.
On the water, Lapenter imparts knowledge in subtle ways, Kavajecz said.
“You learn more from him than you think,” he said. “It doesn’t dawn on you at the time. He doesn’t tell me a whole lot, but when he does, I go home and write it down.”
Bass on the flats
On Tuesday, Kavajecz ran the boat, often poling in shallow water from the boat’s stern poling platform. From his lofty vantage point, he could see the bass coming for Lapenter’s Murdich minnow, a bass streamer fly.
“This is as close as you’re going to get to the Bahamas,” Kavajecz said.
He worked the boat along the sandy shallows of Long Island. Lapenter caught plenty of bass. When it was time for lunch, we pulled up on the beach and picked blueberries and raspberries.
Earlier in the day, before we had moved to clearer water, Lapenter made a few casts near shore at Washburn with a 3-inch sucker minnow on a spinning rod. Almost immediately, he tied into a big bass.
The big bass freight-trained to the depths, then powered to the surface and threw itself into the August sunshine. When it landed on the water, it sounded like someone had dropped a meatloaf.
Kavajecz netted the fish for Lapenter. It was 19 inches long, a solid 4-pounder, green and gorgeous.
“That’s an old fish,” Kavajecz said. “Probably 20 years old. That fish was protected because of Roger.”
They placed it back in the rubber net. Kavajecz lowered the net slowly into the water. When the bass detected buoyancy, it righted itself. With two swishes of its ample tail, it descended slowly into the green water.
“Isn’t that beautiful?” Lapenter said. “It’s a beautiful thing to put a fish back.”
It’s happened thousands of times on Chequamegon Bay.
“That fishery is there now because of Roger,” his friend Ehlers said. “Roger was meant to be there to mold that fishery and to be the baykeeper.”