Barefootin’ the bay: Fishing for bass on Chequamegon Bay
ASHLAND — Luke Kavajecz had been thinking about this day of smallmouth bass fishing on Chequamegon Bay of Lake Superior. The 31-year-old guide from Washburn is a thoughtful, soft-spoken guy by nature. He strikes you as someone who lives his life with intention.
“My goal for the day is to catch a smallmouth on a fly rod and a spinning rod — at the same time,” he announced Monday morning, not long after idling his big Ranger flats boat along a brushy finger of land that reaches into the bay.
On a lot of smallmouth fisheries, such a goal would seem outlandish. But on Chequamegon Bay, a world-class bass fishery where the fish are both numerous and large, the idea didn’t seem so preposterous. And Kavajecz, who has spent some time in the Bahamas, had heard about a famous fly-fishing guide who once did that with a tarpon and snook.
We would keep that in mind as the two of us fished. But first, we just sat and watched the water for a few minutes on this early June morning. That’s how Kavajecz usually starts fishing — by just looking.
“We just hang out off the spots, see what the current is doing and see if there are fish feeding,” he said.
He learned that fishing flats in the Bahamas.
“That’s kind of a saltwater thing,” he said. “You wait and look.”
He watched the surface to see if bass were rising to feed. Not today. He looked for terns, his favorite birds, which often show him where to fish.
“When the birds are over a pod of baitfish, sometimes you’ll see smallmouth slashing through the bait, too,” he said.
It’s the nature of Chequamegon Bay bass fishing that an angler can see all of this happening in the shallows or along the edge of a sand flat. The water seems transparent, and sunlight penetrates easily. Often, Kavajecz will spot bass along a log or moving across a flat, and he’ll throw to it much as a Bahamas fly-fisher would try to drop a fly in front of a permit or bonefish.
This saltwater fascination of Kavajecz’s may be why he’s fishing barefooted on this 51-degree morning. It also explains, in part, why he’s long been a Lake Superior surfer as well.
“It’s been my mission in life to do everything on Lake Superior that you can do in saltwater, whether it’s fishing from a flats boat or surfing,” he said.
We started with light spinning gear, throwing soft plastics like a Vixen Sweet Beaver and wacky-rigged Yamamoto Senkos. Wacky rigging means that the Senko is hooked right in the middle, letting it flop on each end. We retrieved them very slowly.
“Plastics work better because you can fish ’em so slow,” Kavajecz said. “And they’re easy on the fish.”
Kavajecz was dragging his Sweet Beaver, a crayfish imitation, across the sand when a chunky bay bronzeback snatched it. The bass battled with an attitude — the way all bass fight. When you think they’ve had enough, they turn and go again. Or they launch themselves toward the stratosphere, shaking their heads like angry terriers with an old rag. If you have spent too much time fishing walleyes, you can forget what it’s like to fight a fish with so much heart.
“They just don’t give up. They’re like street fighters,” Kavajecz said.
In order to protect the bay’s smallmouth bass fishery, fishing is catch-and-release only through June 19, after which the limit is one with a minimum length of 22 inches. The growing season is short in these cool waters. Conservationists such as Kavajecz’s mentor Roger Lapenter of Angler’s All in Ashland worked hard, starting about 30 years ago, for regulations that would protect these bass. The new rules have been in place since 1994, and the fishery has responded.
Kavajecz caught his first 22-inch smallie last fall, and he’s caught them up to 21¾ inches on a fly rod. The bay is full of the 17- and 18-inchers he calls the “cookie cutter” smallmouths of Chequamegon Bay.
We moved from spot to spot and caught bass nearly everywhere we stopped. Kavajecz caught them on hair flies he tied himself, and we both caught them on plastics. Much of the time, we tossed our offerings to fish we saw lying along submerged logs or near patches of emerging weeds. You’d see a quick flash of green, and you knew a bass had taken your bait.
Such moments are the kind Kavajecz seeks in life, whether he’s catching a wave or a smallmouth.
“Surfing or hooking a fish, you put yourself in a situation where the whole world goes quiet,” he said. “It’s important to have those moments in life when you can shut it all out.”
Taking care of the resource
Kavajecz, who has been guiding for four years, follows Lapenter’s practice of going easy on these bass.
“We see a lot of 21-inch fish,” he said. “It takes ’em so long to grow that big.”
Kavajecz uses only barbless hooks and nets with rubber baskets. He doesn’t use multi-hooked crankbaits.
“They catch fish, but they’re hard on the fish,” he said. “You don’t need nine hooks to catch a smallmouth bass.”
We had caught a bunch of bass by early afternoon, when Kavajecz was up on his poling platform fly-casting with a floating Wiggle Minnow. A smallmouth shot off of the sand and smacked it. Kavajecz stripped line madly, clamping it in his teeth when he ran out of hands as the bass thrashed.
It was time.
“Can you hand me my spinning rod?” he asked.
While he squeezed his fly rod between his legs to hold the bass at bay, he cast a Sweet Beaver with the spinning rod and started working it slowly.
It was hard to say just what he looked like, barefooted up there on the poling platform — a bit like a little kid who really had to find a bathroom, and a bit like a solo performer running a marionette show.
That’s when the second bass took the Beaver and began zinging across the flats. Kavajecz managed to climb down and land both fish, a modest 14-incher on the fly rod and a predictably musclebound 18-incher on the spinning rod.
When it was all over, he just sat on the bow smiling for some time.
“That was so cool,” he said through a big grin. “I’ve been thinking about this for a while.”
I wondered if the whole world had gone quiet twice for him, but I didn’t ask.