Fishing for smallmouth with kayaks.
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."
Frank Briggs (left) of McHenry, Ill., fights a smallmouth bass while fishing with Bill Schultz of New Berlin on the Oconto River.
Schultz displays a smallmouth bass caught while fishing near Oconto, Wis.