Fish­ing for small­mouth with kayaks.

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel - - SPORTS - PAUL A. SMITH

OCONTO The Oconto River slipped to­ward Lake Michi­gan like a wide, smooth rib­bon of tea.

Its clear, am­ber-col­ored wa­ter was un­ruf­fled. But charged with re­cent pre­cip­i­ta­tion, the Oconto car­ried a quiet power that packed about twice its normal punch.

At the mo­ment, kayak an­gler Bill Schultz of New Ber­lin was not only deal­ing with the ro­bust cur­rent but also bat­tling an­other of the river's nat­u­ral pow­ers.

"Nice smallie," said Schultz, 65. "I'm go­ing to try to get him over in that slack wa­ter."

The small­mouth bass had hun­kered near the rocky bot­tom as Schultz's pad­dle­boat slowly pirou­et­ted down­stream.

As the drag on Schultz's reel be­gan to scream, the fish rock­eted up and out of the wa­ter, spray­ing liq­uid di­a­monds into the morn­ing sun­shine.

Schultz was able to bring the 3pound bronze­back to hand af­ter a cou­ple min­utes of to-and-fro. With a quick flick, the hook was re­moved and the fish was re­turned to its river home.

With that, Schultz, Frank Briggs of McHenry, Ill., and I re­sumed our trip up­river.

It was the first time for each of us on this stretch of the Oconto, a medium-sized trib­u­tary to Green Bay per­haps best known for its spring wall­eye run.

But like so many Wis­con­sin rivers, we knew we'd find small­mouth here.

We parked and launched at the Oconto County pub­lic land­ing on River­front Road just east of High­way J.

Our agenda was to pad­dle and fish up­stream un­der the High­way J bridge to­ward the Stiles Dam and back again.

Kayak fish­ing for small­mouth on rivers is a match made in an­gling heaven.

The ag­ile, stealthy craft al­low an­glers ac­cess to big and skinny wa­ters alike. And the hu­man-pow­ered ex­pe­ri­ence pro­vides an ex­er­cise ben­e­fit rarely avail­able to boat fish­er­men.

Schultz re­cently re­tired from di­rec­tor of alumni re­la­tions at the Med­i­cal Col­lege of Wis­con­sin. But he is as busy as ever, in­clud­ing in his pas­sion for spread­ing the gospels of small­mouth and catch-and-re­lease fish­ing.

Schultz an­nu­ally hosts a "Smallie Night Out" event in Pe­wau­kee and gives small­mouth sem­i­nars at sports shows.

Briggs, 60, is a self-em­ployed car­pen­ter who, if not at a con­struc­tion site, can of­ten be found pur­su­ing small­ies.

Af­ter car­ing for his mother as she died of Alzheimer's dis­ease at age 64, Briggs has no use for couch time.

"Drive it like you stole it," Briggs said of his de­sire to live each day fully.

The feisty, hand­some, na­tive fish was the com­mon ground for a friend­ship Briggs and Schultz built in re­cent years.

The three of us de­cided to in­ves­ti­gate the small­mouth ac­tion on the lower Oconto in late sum­mer, a time when flows are usu­ally down and pools and runs and rif­fles are wellde­fined.

When we ar­rived, though, the Oconto was car­ry­ing a flow of 630 cu­bic feet per sec­ond, about twice the norm for this time of year.

The con­di­tions made it slightly more chal­leng­ing to hold po­si­tion near prime spots. How­ever, the river ran clear and the fish hit well in the ap­prox­i­mately one mile we fished.

We used medium ac­tion 7-foot spin­ning rods spooled with braided line and fluoro­car­bon lead­ers to present soft plas­tic baits.

Most fish were caught on 1/8th or 1/16th ounce jig heads tipped with 3or 4-inch plas­tic grubs.

The ma­jor Wis­con­sin trib­u­taries on the west and south shores of Green Bay - the lower Fox, Menom­i­nee, Oconto and Peshtigo - all host good small­mouth pop­u­la­tions and great small­mouth fish­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties, said Mike Donofrio, DNR fish­eries su­per­vi­sor in Peshtigo.

Sum­mer and fall are ex­cel­lent times to fish the rivers, Donofrio said, and an­glers have the chance to catch walleyes, north­ern pike and muskel­lunge while try­ing for small­mouth.

The DNR an­nu­ally con­ducts fish­eries wall­eye sur­veys in Oc­to­ber on the lower Fox, Oconto and Peshtigo rivers.

Other species are also caught and noted, in­clud­ing small­mouth. In 2015, 23% of the small­mouth caught in the Oconto were more than 14 inches in length.

In the Menom­i­nee River, a lift is used to trans­port adult stur­geon above the two dams that block fish pas­sage in the lower river.

In 2016, the av­er­age size of small­mouth cap­tured in the lift was 16 inches and 85% were longer than 14 inches.

To il­lus­trate the im­por­tance of catch and re­lease, DNR stud­ies on the lower Menom­i­nee show it takes a small­mouth four years to reach 14 inches and eight to 10 years to reach 20 inches.

Schultz, Briggs and I are ar­dent sup­port­ers of catch-and-re­lease an­gling for small­ies. In an age of high an­gling pres­sure, proper han­dling and re­lease of species such as small­mouth help en­sure good fish­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties for the fu­ture.

Over about five hours, we pad­dled and fished in the main river chan­nel and ex­plored sev­eral side cuts.

Blushes of fall color high­lighted the trees along the Oconto. A stout north­west wind car­ried a hint of fall, too.

Cedar waxwings en­ter­tained us as they flit­ted over the wa­ter, grabbed in­sects and re­turned to perches along the river.

As we drifted down­stream, we passed over rocky bars pep­pered with empty mus­sel shells.

The wa­ter and air achieved a rare equi­lib­rium on this day — both were 72 de­grees.

Sit­ting close to the wa­ter, we were eas­ily able to see depth changes and other struc­ture. Most fish hit in 3 to 6 feet of wa­ter when the baits were re­trieved close to the bot­tom.

The small­ies ranged from 8 to 17 inches in length.

Though the Oconto re­ceives sea­sonal runs of walleyes, brown trout, steel­head and chi­nook salmon, the small­mouth are resident fish.

With their dark brown color and barred sides, the small­ies were beau­ti­fully cam­ou­flaged in the stained wa­ters of the Oconto.

"Such great fish," Schultz said as he re­leased one of the last of the day. "You just know they be­long here. And hope­fully, all an­glers will help make that hap­pen."

PAUL A. SMITH / MIL­WAU­KEE JOUR­NAL SEN­TINEL

Frank Briggs (left) of McHenry, Ill., fights a small­mouth bass while fish­ing with Bill Schultz of New Ber­lin on the Oconto River.

PAUL A. SMITH / MIL­WAU­KEE JOUR­NAL SEN­TINEL

Schultz dis­plays a small­mouth bass caught while fish­ing near Oconto, Wis.

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