Mining Bronze in Iron Country
The late, great Jim Hudson's advice on winter smallmouth fishing
Editor’s Note: Just a few weeks after our trip to Chequamegon Bay but before this was to go to press; Capt. Jim Hudson was killed in a tragic ice fishing accident, his snowmobile breaking through the ice. Hudson always held safety as a top priority and even canceled plans to fish browns and cohos one day during our trip due to unsafe ice conditions.
His passing was truly a tragic accident and only serves to remind us that no ice conditions are completely safe and precautions must be considered paramount at all times.
A legend in the Midwest fishing industry, Hudson was dedicated to sharing his extensive knowledge of fishing while introducing visitors to the incredible beauty of the Apostle Islands/Chequamegon Bay area.
Hudson was a frequent contributor to both local and regional fishing media and his legacy will not soon be forgotten. He would have wanted to share his insights into catching winter smallmouth with any and all, so here are the fruits from one of Jim’s last media projects.
ASHLAND, Wis. -- When people think of ice fishing, the standard image is an old guy on a bucket jigging a little pole up and down hoping for a perch or bluegill to bite while he sits there freezing.
Ice fishing has come a long way. Advances in technology, equipment, and tactics have allowed anglers to be more efficient in catching not just panfish, but many species of game fish.
One of the few exceptions has been bass. For whatever reason, both largemouth and especially smallmouth often disappear during the winter months to even the most serious ice anglers.
Ask your average ice fisherman, even the diehards, how many smallmouth they’ve caught through the ice, and they’re probably not going to have to take off their boots to count.
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If catching smallmouth through the ice is such a rarity, what is a diehard bass angler from the upper-Midwest supposed to do to scratch his winter smallmouth itch?
For many the answer is to either drive south to one of the famed Tennessee brown bass meccas like Dale Hollow or Percy Priest; or to suck it up.
Another and much closer (to many) option is to head to the big, frozen waters of Lake Superior’s Chequamegon Bay for an ice fishing experience that can’t be matched -- big smallies that can be caught through the ice.
In one of his last media projects, the late Capt. Jim Hudson, who ran Hudson’s On the Spot Guide Service out of Bayfield, Wis., was able to take us out and share some of his winter smallmouth knowledge.
Chequamegon Bay’s open water smallmouth fishery is nothing short of spectacular, a result of great habitat, low angling pressure and a stout 21-inch size limit strictly enforced to ensure a “trophy fishery.” So venturing out on the ice, one knows there’s a healthy population of smallmouth underneath.
Just because the smallmouth are there doesn’t mean they’re easy to catch. They become lethargic to the point of frustration during the winter. The key is patience.
“They’ve still got to eat,” was one of Hudson’s easily conjured lines whenever talking about slow fishing. He then explained, “The hardest part to catching winter smallmouth is being patient enough to wait for feeding windows throughout the day, and to capitalize during the periods of time that the fish are most active.”
We arrived in “The Bay,” as the locals call it, during what Hudson had called “picture perfect” midwinter smallmouth weather -- above freezing conditions, misting, and almost impossible to fish without ending up completely soaked due to a two-inch layer of standing water on the ice.
What Hudson meant by “perfect conditions” is that bitter cold and high pressure makes the fish even more lethargic, whereas approaching storms, warming trends, and overcast conditions make feeding windows more frequent.
We set up over the edge of a channel with fairly gentle slopes and drilled a series of holes along the breakline and on the edges of the flat. According to Hudson, tip-ups can be effective, but more often than not you’re better off jigging because of the mobility it allows.
“When you’re targeting smallmouth, you’ve got to be around fish to catch them and jigging allows you the most mobility,” Hudson said. “Once you locate some fish, that’s when you should set your tip-ups.”
With fellow guides Josh Teigen and Nate Baron from Hudson’s operation helping out, it didn’t take long to get into the fish, and Josh hooked up with a big smallmouth in minutes. After that, there was fairly steady action throughout the day, tallying six beautiful smallies and several other bites lost or missed.
We targeted smallmouth with medium action ice combos spooled with either 6- or 8-pound monofilament. For jigs, we had the best luck with the Lindy Buck-shot spoon tipped with either a minnow head or a couple of waxies. Other jigs that can work well are Swedish pimples, Rapala jigging raps, and even little panfish jigs, which can score big if the smallies are especially finicky.
The trick was to keep your bait wet and hole-hop every 5-10 minutes while watching your Vexilar sonar fish finder until you moved a fish. If you pulled a big mark up off the bottom, the key was to hold the jig as still as possible. If it didn’t bite right away, the fish would usually stare at the bait and then drift away.
In addition to offering arguably the best smallmouth ice fishing in the world, the real secret to Chequamegon Bay’s winter fishery is the multi-species opportunity. About two hours into the day, guide Nate Baron landed a 25-inch brown trout on a Buck-Shot Spoon after a 10-minute, drag-screaming battle.
Hudson felt a lot of pride in the Chequamegon Bay fishery, and was always ready to articulate that pride and make other anglers want to come to the bay and fish, like when he talked about the diversity of the fishery.
“The mystery is what I think gets to most people,” he said. “One series of holes can produce warm water species like smallmouth, walleye, perch and pike one day, then the very next day you might catch coho salmon, brown trout, steelhead or whitefish.”
Chequamegon Bay is truly a unique fishery, and should be a lifetime destination for anyone who has a bad case of ice fever. It should also be high on your list if you’re like me and have an insatiable hunger for smallmouth fishing. Captain Jim Hudson’s fellow guides will be keeping his memory alive for years to come, so whether it’s smallmouth through the ice, or some other wonderful fishing opportunity, “The Bay” is a worthwhile trip for all.
Ashland, Wis., is a great place to stay, and because it’s on the biggest of the big lakes, has a host of great fisherman-friendly amenities. An example is the River Rock Inn and Bait shop, which owner Scott Bretting has recently remodeled to provide boat/ATV parking, electrical hookups and a fish cleaning station. Most places offer extremely cheap winter rates. To contact the River Rock Inn, go to www.riverrockinn.net.