By DAVID RAINER, ADCNR

As a lifelong bass fisherman who caught his first black bass on a Johnson spincast reel with a purple Creme worm a long, long time ago, I can honestly say the thrill of setting the hook has not faded after all these years.

When I set the hook on a smallmouth bass, the adrenaline rush is higher because anglers from Alabama most often have a largemouth bass on the end of the line. Those fortunate enough to live close to the Tennessee River lakes of Pickwick, Wheeler and Wilson have the opportunity to hook into a drag-stripping bronzeback when conditions are favorable, most often in the spring and fall. 
 
That’s why I never pass up a chance to hit one of those Tennessee River lakes – because of the possibility of hooking into a smallmouth, a species that fights twice as hard as most largemouths, in my opinion. The Alabama spotted bass can give a smallmouth a run for the money, but just can’t quite match the smallmouth’s penchant for testing the drag system on your reel.
 
When the opportunity to fish one of the premier smallmouth fisheries in the nation popped up recently, I was the first to raise my hand.
 
After 25 years of service on the National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame Awards Committee, Larry Colombo of Humminbird fame decided to retire and recommended I take his place on the committee. That was three years ago, and it has been an honor to serve on the committee that decides who should be selected for induction into the hall.
 
The Hall of Fame is located in Hayward, Wis., and the first two committee meetings I attended were in Hayward. The 2014 meeting was held just a little farther north in Ashland, Wis., which is situated on the south end of Chequamegon Bay on Lake Superior. 
 
Do a search of Chequamegon Bay and you will discover it is rated among the top smallmouth fisheries in North America. Pickwick is right up there with the best, too, although there is a significant difference. At Pickwick, you might catch a smallmouth on one cast and a largemouth on the next. In fact, I did that one time at Pickwick, hooking a 4-pound largemouth on the first cast with a Carolina-rigged worm and a 4-pound smallmouth on the next cast. The difference in the fight of those two fish is the reason I made the aforementioned assessment of the fighting power of each species.
 
While we were at the Hall of Fame meeting recently, we got to sample the fishing at Chequamegon Bay, and after that trip, I suggested we make Ashland the permanent site for the awards committee meeting.
 
The smallmouth fishing was phenomenal, not only in terms of numbers but in average size. Fellow committee member Wade Bourne and I fished with guide Luke Kavajecz, and we lost count at 30-plus fish with an incredible average between 3 1/2 and 4 pounds. We both caught 20-inchers, which is a 5-pound smallmouth. We didn’t catch a single largemouth during the trip.
 
“There are a few largemouths around, but very few,” Kavajecz said. “We hardly ever catch one.”
Of course, Wisconsin doesn’t have the year-round smallmouth opportunities of Pickwick, Wilson and Wheeler for the obvious reasons. Ice covers Chequamegon Bay from late December at least through April.
 
“We were dodging ice in May this year, but this past winter was cold,” Kavajecz said. “Normally, we start fishing for smallmouths in May, and it usually gets too cold in late November.
 
“Our fall fishing usually starts in mid-September and just gets stronger as it gets colder. The colder it gets, the better the fishing. The fish start to feed heavily before winter. We’re still running live-bait rigs in September. As it gets cooler, we switch to jigging spoons or heavy tubes fished on the bottom or drop-shot rigs. Sometimes we fish a wacky worm on a heavier jig head. If the fish aren’t moving much, it’s a good way to pick them up. The fish are concentrated and feed heavily all the way through November until the water gets too cold and the lake starts to ice over.”
 
Kavajecz said the smallmouths are going to be the heaviest they get in the fall because they’ve been able to feed all summer long.
“In the summer, you’re going to average 3 to 5 pounds,” he said. “In the fall, you’re going to see a lot of 5 to 6 1/2-pound fish. Occasionally, we’ll see a 7-pounder or even an 8-pounder. The only limiting factor in the fall is the weather. If it’s blowing, it’s hard to get out. But the thing about November is that you can be out on the bay and if wind is blowing from the northeast and the moisture is right, it’ll start blizzarding, and you’ll be catching smallmouth bass. And, you’ve also got shots at trout and salmon all in the same place. But bring lots of clothes.”
 
For those anglers who may visit Wisconsin during the warmer months for business or pleasure, it’s worth the time and diversion to experience the Chequamegon Bay smallmouth fishery. Kavajecz and the local guides start running trips on May 15 and continue until it gets too cold in the fall.
 
“The pre-spawn bass start showing up in the middle of May, and the ice is gone most years,” he said. “We’ll have pre-spawn fishing through the end of May, and it can be some of the best fishing of the year. The fish haven’t seen a bait for months, and it’s all artificial fishing – mainly soft plastics.”
 
The fish will transition to live bait in mid-July when they move out of the shallows and into the deeper water from 15 to 30 feet.
Kavajecz said his mentor, Roger Lapenter, helped make Chequamegon Bay what it is today because of Lapenter’s effort to make the bay essentially a catch-and-release fishery. Lapenter was feted at a ceremony while we were in Ashland to commemorate his induction into the Hall of Fame.
 
“The most special part of Chequamegon Bay is we’ve had protective regulations on the bay for the last 20 years,” Kavajecz said. “We have a one-fish limit and the fish has to be 22 inches. That ensures the fish grows to be big and to be old. We’ve got the perfect recipe to grow big smallmouth – great spawning areas with plenty of wood, remnants of the old wood industry days, lots of food and perfect water temperatures for growing big fish.”
 
The Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division also keeps a close eye on the smallmouth population in the Tennessee River. In 2012, the creel limit for smallmouth bass was reduced to five fish per angler per day with a minimum size limit of 15 inches on Pickwick, Wheeler, Wilson and its tributaries. Bass anglers who fish those lakes regularly say the changes have already improved the smallmouth fishing.
 
Of course, the next time I get to experience the fantastic fishing on Pickwick, Wilson and Wheeler, I’m going to enjoy that just as much as I always have. But it is nice to check out great smallmouth fishing elsewhere.
 
There was only one disappointment on my trip to Wisconsin. As we went through the nominations for induction into the Hall of Fame, the list was devoid of nominees from the South.
 

That needs to be rectified before we meet next August. Go to www.freshwater-fishing.org and you can see the list of previous inductees and find a link to the online nomination form. There’s a link for the rules and regulations for induction into the hall also. It’s not easy to pass the muster with the awards committee, but there have to be several legendary anglers, guides or communicators from our neck of the woods who deserve recognition.
 
If you think of people who could be candidates for induction, send their names to me at david.rainer@dcnr.alabama.gov and let’s get some nominations sent in from our area. Because there are only about a dozen inductees each year, it’s not easy to be selected, but it surely won’t happen without a nomination.
 
PHOTOS: Renowned outdoor writer Wade Bourne, left, and Chequamegon Bay guide Luke Kavajecz show off a one of more than 30 smallmouth bass caught during a recent outdoor on the bay on the south end of Lake Superior. Kavajecz fished out of a 19-foot flats boat that he can pole into shallow water to avoid spooking the fish. The National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame, with its iconic muskie, is located south of Chequamegon Bay in Hayward, Wis.