Hiding in Plain Sight

On the Menominee River, between Wisconsin and the U.P., the gamest fish that swims swims almost unmolested.
Article & Photography by Tom Davis
From the 2009 Expeditions & Guides Annual.

Bart Landwehr looked stricken. The grinning Huck Finn boyishness had vanished; you’d have thought someone shot his dog.

Bart Landwehr looked stricken. The grinning Huck Finn boyishness had vanished; you’d have thought someone shot his dog. I hadn’t seen a fishing guide so comprehensively undone since the time we came off the Pere Marquette after a steelhead trip and found a tree—and not a small one—resting across the caved-in roof of Jim Johnson’s pickup.

Truth to tell, I was a bit nonplussed myself. I was standing in the bow of Bart’s driftboat, the 8-weight limp in my hand and the Murdich Minnow trailing fecklessly in the current of the Menominee River, which for some 115 miles
defines the remote and sinuous border between
northeastern Wisconsin and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Until very recently this fly, with its uncanny resemblance to the twirling tassels of old-time burlesque artists, had been attached to a whopping smallmouth bass in Bart’s net. But between the net and the boat something had gone horribly, tragically wrong.

Bart turned to me, his mouth agape, and said, “I . . . dropped . . . your . . . fish.”

He then dropped the F-bomb, an oath of such resounding yield that it rattled the oarlocks of his cousin Tim Landwehr’s driftboat a hundred yards downstream.

Tim, the proprietor of the Tight Lines Fly Fishing Co. in DePere, Wisconsin—and Bart’s nominal employer—later acknowledged, “We knew that couldn’t be good.”

In Bart’s defense, the bass came in a little hot. I’d tossed the Murdich toward the top of a skeletal submerged tree—one of the gazillion or so bassy-looking spots you cast to during the course of a float on the Menominee—let it sink for a couple of counts, and on about the third twitch through the tea-tinted water the fish streaked out from cover and savaged it. At first Bart and I thought it might be a northern, an encounter likely to result in a razored leader and a lost fly (one that cousin Tim gets $5.50 apiece for in the shop). Then it jumped, and all three of us—the third man in the boat was the great animal painter Bob Kuhn—had a “Holy shit!” moment. It was a brute of a bass, with the humped-up shoulders of a rodeo bull and, if its torquing leap was any indication, that same incendiary rage.

What you have to understand about these Menominee smallmouth is that they’re not typical river fish. Fattened on a diet of all-they-can-eat crayfish, minnows, and bugs (the Menominee supports hatches that would make trout fishermen weep), they boast the deep-bodied profile more characteristic of “lake” smallies. An 18-inch bass will put a scare into four pounds, while a 20-incher will go an easy five and maybe even five and a half. And this fish looked to be in that class.

So, wanting to land it for all the usual reasons, I bore down as hard as I dared. Another thing about the Menominee’s smallmouth is that, even by the rigorous standards of their tribe (“The gamest fish that swims,” and all that), they’re incredibly powerful. My friend Bubba Wood, who as near as I can tell has fished every body of water even rumored to hold smallmouth, says flat out that the Menominee fish are on a different level. If you underestimate them or let them play you, they’ll beat you silly.  

You have to use enough gun: A 7-weight is the practical minimum, an 8 is standard, and if you want to unholster a 9, no one will think the less of you. This is dictated to some extent by the size of the flies—lots of 2s and 1/0s, and wind-resistant ones at that—but also by the size and strength of the fish. You may have read that 5- and 6-weight rods are “ideal” for smallmouth. Maybe on streams where a 15-incher is big—but not on the Menominee. At least once every time I float with him and a bass is roughing me up on my 8, Tim Landwehr will deadpan, “Yep, a five-weight’s just the ticket.”

You need to tame these beasts, not coax them.   

Which is exactly what I tried to do. The fight was still in the middle rounds when I managed to lever the bass to the surface, control its head, and skid it into Bart’s long-handled boat net. It was the size of a grouper.

Unfortunately, it was also about as rank as a caught smallmouth can possibly be. Bart slipped the fly from its jaw and lifted it from the net. And then, fixing me with its glowering red eye the way the white whale stared into Ahab’s black heart, it thrashed loose of his lip-lock, dropped through the crack between net and gunwale, and was gone. It happened in an instant, but the moment seemed to pass with excruciating deliberation, as if time itself were a thick, viscous fluid.

We were all sort of frozen in place, blinking and trying to process the information, until Bart broke the silence in the manner previously described. He was more upset than I was, frankly; the only thing I’d lost was the chance to snap a few photos and impress my friends with some blatant fish porn. Kuhn, who at 84 had earned the right to be philosophical, tried to offer consolation.

“That fish was landed fair and square,” he said, standing up to make another effortless left-handed cast. “It counts in my book and anybody else’s. You were going to release it anyway, so what the hell.”

That was pretty much the way I saw it, too. And whatever I might have lost in the transaction was more than offset by what I’d gained: a more-or-less unbreakable stick that I could thrash Bart with whenever the situation called for it, such as failing to deliver on his promise to burn me a copy of a certain Gov’t Mule recording.

“Hey Bart, you old sea dog. Fumbled any fish of a lifetime lately?”


Formed by the confluence of the Brule and Michigamme rivers (the “Border” Brule, not the better-known Bois Brule), the Menominee is full-grown at birth. Draining a watershed of more than 4,000 square miles that encompasses some of the least populated territory in Wisconsin and the U.P., it meanders generally south-southeast, annexing the Pine, Popple, Sturgeon, and Pike rivers, along with scores of smaller creeks, before debouching into Green Bay. The port cities of Marinette,
Wisconsin, and Menominee, Michigan, flank the river’s mouth, but you have to travel nearly 100 miles upstream, to Iron Mountain-Kingsford (an old mining area), to find the next place where the Menominee feels at all urban.

For that matter, there are long stretches of the river where, other than a primitive canoe landing, an old railroad trestle, and maybe some crumbling pillars from an abandoned wing dam, you won’t see any tokens of civilization whatsoever. At least not any obvious ones.

This was and is logging country, the heart of the historic pinery that arced across the northern United States from Minnesota to Maine. The largest river in the region, the Menominee, served as the conduit for spectacular—and frequently deadly—spring log drives, ushering giant centuries-old white pines to the sawmills in Marinette-Menominee and beyond. Hydrogeologists can point to places where the grinding action of the logs remade the river’s bed, essentially smoothing its wrinkles. In the backwaters and side channels, you can still find log junkyards littered with timbers that sat too long, soaked up water, and sank. As you’d expect, these are prime places to find smallmouth—and prime places to lose them.
Farmers pioneered the cutover after the first wave of loggers rolled through, and while the soil is rocky and the growing season short, a few dairy farms, some of them achingly picturesque, still dot the largely forested landscape. There is a sprinkling of forlorn little towns with names like Daggett and Faithorn and Spread Eagle, all with at least one tavern (sometimes more), a cemetery, and not much else. Logging continues to be the linchpin of the local economy, although these days the focus is on fast-growing softwoods for the pulp and paper industry. Like knowing you carry the gene for an incurable disease, the threat of mill closures is a constant presence in the lives of people here, a troubling smear on
the horizon.

With a substantial flow and a gradient of five feet per mile, the Menominee was inevitably harnessed for hydroelectricity. A dozen or so dams are scattered along the river, and without getting into a debate over their pros and cons, I feel their impact on the smallmouth
fishery is negligible and their impact on the aesthetics of a float trip nil. Interestingly, given the remoteness of their locations, some of these dams incorporate architectural and decorative elements deemed historically significant. Dating to 1926–27, the Chalk Hill Dam near Amberg, Wisconsin, features gothic-arched windows of leaded stained glass, glazed-brick walls, tiled floors, and cast-bronze light fixtures—a far-flung monument to the spirit of
an age.

The Menominee’s character is changeable. In places it resembles a classic Midwestern river, sweeping in long, lazy curves through deciduous forests, its low banks composed of scoured glacial till. In others the stern geology of the Canadian Shield dominates, and the river, pouring around islands and sheeting over ledges of upthrust granite, strikes a deeper, wilder note. In some stretches, pines command the cliffs above the river and eagles nest in their skyscraping crowns. It all puts a damn sweet taste in your mouth, whether there’s a smallmouth bending your rod or not.


Two things remain constant on the Menominee. One is its smallmouth fishery, which no less an authority than Dave Whitlock rates as one of the two or three best on the planet. The Menominee’s smallmouths are natives through and through. While I can’t cite statistics, I think it’s safe to say that it’s frighteningly rare, in 21st-century America, to find a population of native all-wild gamefish that is not only stable but also, by all appearances, thriving. Indeed, as far as I know all the Menominee’s major fish species—upstream of the first dam above Green Bay, anyway—are natives. This list includes lake sturgeon, which routinely reach five feet in length and have the unnerving habit of hurling themselves from the water whenever they feel like it. Actually, the unnerving part is the re-entry, rather like a piece of fuselage fell off the turbo-prop to Escanaba.

The other constant, which along with the phenomenal habitat and the virtually unlimited food supply helps explain why the fishing is so good, is the near-total absence of other anglers. It’s not uncommon, on an 8-to 10 hour float covering seven or eight miles, to have the river entirely to yourself. Of the five stretches the Tight Lines guides float, the only one where you can count on seeing other anglers (and never more than a handful) is the farthest downriver, which ends just a few miles upstream from Marinette-Menominee and is where cabins and cottages start to show up in numbers. Ah, the plash of oars, the hiss of fly lines, the glug of poppers, the drone of lawn mowers!

Why the lack of pressure? Well, access is a problem, services are few and far-between, motorboats are operable in limited areas (and then
only with good local knowledge), and the logistics of arranging shuttles in this benighted part of the world are tantamount to arranging an interview with Thomas Pynchon. Tim Landwehr, who’s nothing if not a savvy businessman, would just as
soon hand over the key to his cash register than share his shuttle drivers, whom he literally had to beat the bushes to find and whose identities he guards with the irritated pugnacity of a pit bull with a toothache.

Also in the smallmouth’s corner is the walleye, the primary focus of the local hardware and bait fishermen. Walleyes stretch the definition of “gamefish” tissue-thin, but are such sublime table fare that whenever I think of them my right hand involuntarily clenches an invisible fillet knife.

The thing is, if the Menominee were a trout stream of comparable quality, the brothers of the angle would be pulling guns on each other at the launch ramps, and there’d be so many Hydes and Clackacrafts jockeying for casting position at the honey holes that you could walk from bank to bank without getting your feet wet. When you weigh the evidence for so few fishermen chasing so few fish, the only possible conclusion is that, despite a string of endorsements stretching from Henshall and McClane to Whitlock, Kreh, Clouser, Murray, and Ryan, the smallmouth remains underappreciated—if not altogether ignored—by the majority of fly fishermen.

Good news for those of us who feel there’s no better fly rod fish in fresh water. And it explains why the finest smallmouth river I know lies hidden in plain sight.

   
Like the old saw about sex (The worst I ever had was great), smallmouth are fabulous any way you catch them. But the best way—meaning the most entertaining and exciting if not always the most productive—is on the surface with bugs and poppers. For this pilgrim, a beefy smallmouth detonating on a popper is fly-fishing’s definitive Yee-haw moment. When I play the If-you-had-only-one-day-to-fish game, this is the scenario I choose. I’m revealing not only my age but also my dubious cultural influences here, but when smallmouth start slamming the topwater stuff, I think of the fight scenes from the old Batman TV series—Pow! Wham! Zowie!

The point is, it’s about as close to unvarnished fun as adults can get without having a dog around. And when you boil it down, this is the core of the Menominee’s attraction: the chance to catch big smallmouth on the surface. Sometimes the top-water bite lasts from put-in till take-out; sometimes it comes in the middle of the day when the sun warms the water after a cool morning and the bass move up to prowl the shallows; sometimes it happens when it classically does, in the twilight hours when the shadows lengthen, the water goes smooth, and you feel the air begin to tighten.

Where? Take your pick: over the deep wood and under the overhanging trees; around the rocks and hard against the undercut banks; along the weedy edges and in the slick spots between the tongues of current and the shore; even out of the inscrutable depths, the places that always prompt Bart to break into his wobbly cover of the Doobies’ “Black Water.”

I could very happily fish nothing but a Dahlberg Strip Diver all day long, buoyed by the knowledge that at some point a bass is going to cream it. The color of the fly doesn’t matter, as long as it’s chartreuse. Bart and Tim find my devotion to this pattern amusing, even quirkily endearing, and one of the little rituals we have to get out of the way before we launch is a dialogue along the following lines:

“What do you think, Tom; feel like a chartreuse Strip Diver day?”

“It always feels like a chartreuse Strip Diver day.”

Except when it isn’t. One overcast afternoon, Winston Ostrow and I were peppering the usual targets with our bugs, picking up an occasional fish, when Tim noticed riseforms spackling a long, smooth flat on the other side of the river. He ferried us across, where we discovered a hatch of small dark mayflies coming off, flies that Tim and Winston (whose entomological knowledge dwarfs mine) identified as Pseudocloeons. Nothing in any of our fly boxes remotely matched, but Tim dug out some small panfish poppers that worked remarkably well when we twitched them once, just to get the fish’s attention, and then covered
the rise on a dead drift. The bass weren’t big—in the 12- to-14-inch range—but we had a ball working down the flat, playing connect-the-dots with the rises.

I’ve faithfully packed a box of mayfly imitations, along with a box of caddis, in my tackle bag ever since, but I’ve never had the opportunity to open them.

The Holy Grail of Menominee hatches, however, is the flying ant, which occurs on warm, humid afternoons toward the end of August and, according to Tim, brings up even the biggest bass in the river, suckers for a well-presented imitation in size 12 or 14. Having never had the pleasure, I can only take his word for it. And dream.

If topwater’s not happening, my first choice is always the Murdich Minnow. A pattern originally designed for stripers—which tells you (again) that you’re not dealing with the regular run of smallmouth here—I like it not only because it’s
so effective, but also because it shows up so well. A couple years ago I was fishing with Ben McMahon on his 14th birthday (his dad, John, was off closing a deal somewhere and asked me to fill in) when he cast his Murdich to the edge of a drop-off. Tim and I were watching the fly as he began his retrieve, and when it was T-boned by a bronze freight train we made quick eye contact, just to confirm what we both suspected without saying anything that would put more pressure on
the lad.

It didn’t take long for Ben to figure out he was into a hell of a smallmouth. But he made all the right moves, getting the fish on the reel, keeping the line tight and the rod bent, and while he may have horsed it a little, everything that needed to hold together did. After several tense minutes Tim scooped it up, and there were high fives, whoops of celebration, and ear-to-ear grins all around. I did my best to play
the father role, hoping to impress on Ben the magnitude of his
accomplishment.

“There are a lot of guys who fish for smallmouth all their lives,” I said, trying to strike an appropriately serious yet congratulatory tone, “and never catch one this big.”

I like to think that some of this message sank in, although as the
parent of a teenager I hesitate to press the argument very far.

For the record, Ben’s fish taped exactly 20 inches—the smallmouth of a lifetime. The next time I saw Bart, I told him it was almost as big as the one he dropped. n

Tom Davis caught his first smallmouth bass on Lake of the Woods when he was eight years old, and he’s been hooked on smallmouth ever since. He lives in Green Bay—“Dangerously close to the Menominee River,” he notes—where he bird hunts, fly fishes, and writes some. His latest book, a collaboration with GSJ Contributing Editor Denver Bryan, is The Orvis Book of Dogs.




If You Go
The Tight Lines Fly Fishing Co. runs driftboat trips on the Menominee River from mid-May to mid-September, although they take a hiatus for a couple of weeks in late-May and early June to allow the smallmouth to spawn undisturbed. A full-day float goes for $425. Lunch, snacks, and soft drinks are provided. If you like beer—and I would posit that a cold one rarely tastes better than it does after you’ve been throwing bass bugs for three or four hours under a hammering sun—you need to bring your own. (For newcomers to this part of the world, the regional microbrews of the moment are New Glarus Spotted Cow and Capital Island Wheat.)

An 8-weight outfit equipped with a weight-forward floating line is standard. If you haven’t tried it, do yourself a favor and rig up a RIO Clouser line—it’ll make you feel like a hero. The guides have everything you’ll need in the way of flies, leaders, etc., although you should certainly feel free to bring your own. The deerflies can be nasty at times—they typically peak around mid-July—so you need to be prepared to repel them, or at least to tolerate them. All the fishing is done from driftboats, so while you can wear whatever you want to (temperatures typically range from the mid-60s to low-80s), you should be sure to have footwear, such as Teva sandals, that allow you to get your feet wet.

The nearest major airport is in Green Bay—about a 10-minute drive from the Tight Lines shop, as it happens. Famously described as “a drinking town with a football problem,” Green Bay has good places to stay and some surprisingly excellent restaurants. Once you head north toward the river, however, the lodging-dining options narrow considerably. Tim Landwehr has a handle on this, fortunately, and can book you into places where the roofs don’t leak and the food won’t kill you. For more information, visit www.tightlinesflyshop.com or call (920) 336-4106.
 
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