Good morning brothers.
It’s chilly again, here in the Midwest.
The days are shorter. The nights are colder. The daydreams are beginning to intensify.
There is a picture frame that lives on our counter. One of the best investments I’ve ever made. It cycles through photos from trips we’ve taken, constantly reminding the kids about their victories. It makes them want to fish and spend more time with family. It keeps the memories fresh, and they love to tell the story of “that fish I caught” and “that place we went” when different images pop up. It keeps them excited…
… truth be told… it has the same effect on me and my wife…
We’re so excited in fact, that I’m in the market for a new boat. Need something simple, minimalist, something that can run shallow and slam into rocks. We’ll be fishing The White River in Arkansas by next November, after all… for trout, yes, but also walleye and smallmouth bass. Lord knows, my wife is an amazing fishing partner, but she is NOT a fan of my 3.5 foot wide jon boat! It’s as wobbly as ‘ol Uncle Butch after his 9th whisky sour. I need to get something wider. More stable. As that search continues, end-of-season cleaning ensues.
Yesterday I came across my Wisconsin Bass Base Box. The presentations in this box accounted for many, many bass this year, including the 5 biggest smallmouth from our annual trip up north. Who caught #1 you ask? …
This bruiser came out of just 7 feet of water. In July. Often, when largemouth are not the dominant species in a lake, you’ll find smallmouth spread out to many different depths – including the warmer, shallower areas that are rich with forage, weeds, and wood cover. We assume that smallmouth prefer crayfish and deep, rocky, cold water, but sometimes they use deeper areas because they have to.
It takes longer to digest a crayfish than it takes to digest a baitfish.
So, in Wisconsin lakes where largemouth are present but not especially dominant, make sure to explore the weedy, warmer areas as well as the deep rocky humps – and everything in between – until you find what the smallmouth, walleye, crappie, pike, panfish & muskie prefer.
These baits will help you target bass throughout the entire water column effectively.
Let’s get into it.
What is a Wisconsin Bass Base Box?
A Base Box is a single Plano container, loaded with presentations that you have confidence in for a specific kind of fishing. This container is something that you can pick up with zero notice – it’s always ready to go. So when Billy Bob calls and says “BROTHER, LET’S FISH!”, you simply grab the correct Base Box along with the Terminal Tackle Base Box (which is always on hand no matter what), load the backpack and head out.
Fishing from the bank?
Just take that backpack.
Fishing from your friend’s boat?
Just take that backpack.
Fishing from your own boat?
Just take that backpack!
My Wisconsin Bass Base Box is focused on targeting smallmouth bass in clear Wisconsin lakes (high visibility) with rocks, weeds, and woody cover.
Over the past 20+ years of fishing in Wisconsin, we’ve boiled it all down the the following presentations. Presentations that I absolutely need to have with me to fish with 100% confidence. This is very different from my Clear Water Base Box, and my Muck Bass Base Box… which we will cover in another article…
Behold: The Wisconsin Bass Base Box
These items are all that remain after years of reduction. Minimizing. In the past, I’d take a complete bait store with me! These days? I take this box, a few bags of plastics, and some terminal tackle… and we all catch more fish.
It’s like this whole Minimalist Fishing thing really works!
Let’s break it down:
Minocqua Must-Have Bait #1: Walking Topwaters
Topwater is fun, and in clear Wisconsin lakes, fishing a topwater in 8 foot of water or less – especially over thick weeds – can be intense. It’s also a great way to cover water. Big pike and the occasional muskie are not afraid to hammer your topwater offerings as well, and that kind of pandemonium is a blast – I don’t care who you are!
I like to start out with a moving bait featuring a natural pattern. Something medium-sized that walks, like the River2Sea Rover 98. I’ll rig this up on a baitcaster, braid, and a 20 Pound Monofilament Leader. This does two things – it floats better than fluorocarbon, and yes – it is slightly less visible than straight braid – but more importantly, that mono is less likely to get twisted up on your guides in-between casts.
Straight braid can be a pain at times, especially if it’s windy.
Minocqua Must-Have Bait #2: Popping Topwaters
Having a few popping topwaters on hand will allow you to do two things:
First, they give you the option to present a smaller profile with distinct pauses, and at times this will coax bites better than a walking bait. (Experiment with a dressed rear treble. If you have follows but no takers, swap it out for a plain treble or try to change the color of your popper.)
Second, they give you one of the tools to make a Pop ‘n Drop. A Pop ‘n Drop is a popper with the rear treble removed, exchanged for a fluorocarbon dropper line, wacky hook and a trailing stickbait that sinks slowly, coming to a rest anywhere from 1 to 3 feet below the popper. This helps you put something irresistible in front of those fish that follow, but just won’t bite.
The popper gets their attention – the stickbait seals the deal.
Minocqua Must-Have Bait #3: Wakebaits
Clear Wisconsin lakes are known to have expansive weed beds. In some places, they can stretch for miles and miles, and while you can jig fish them to target clearly defined transitions, pockets or other submerged cover (and you should), this makes covering a lot of water difficult.
If you’re searching for bass, consider running a wakebait right over the top of these weeds. You might be surprised at what lunges out!
Minocqua Must-Have Bait #4: Jerkbaits
Two years ago, I decided it was time to learn – yes, I said LEARN – to use jerkbaits. I’m glad that I dedicated time to the technique, because jerkbaits are fun, and they work.
I take a few with me when I fish Minocqua and the Manitowish Chain ‘O Lakes. They are great for covering water, especially around sandy flats with sparse weed clumps, stumps and logs. However, they are not the best option for the thick weed beds mentioned above.
I’ve had days where they were lights out – and days where they were ignored outright.
Take a few & test ’em.
Minocqua Must-Have Bait #5: Lipless Crankbaits
Pike will destroy a lipless. I love to throw them when the water is a bit cooler and the big fish are active. We usually visit Minocqua during “the dog days” though… so pike fishing is hit or miss.
Smallmouth bass are not to be underestimated, as they will demolish a lipless crankbait as well – when they’re active. A great way to catch ’em is by throwing a lipless crankbait over the tops of the weed beds – then ripping your bait free when it gets hung up. My wife landed this beauty just minutes before a big storm rolled in using this technique. (You should have heard her warcry ring out across the empty lake as the bass came aboard and thunder rolled – it was truly epic!)
Minocqua Must-Have Bait #6: Swim Jigs
Finally, swim jigs round out our bulky bait repertoire. The added weight, weed guard and skirt on a swim jig allow you to control the depth of your swimbaits while remaining very weedless and adding girth.
You can retrieve these bulked-up baits right through the cabbage and grass to get the attention of any number of species – they go where the trebled jerkbaits dare not tread!
Minocqua Must-Have Bait #7: Hair Jigs
Now that we’ve covered our moving baits, it’s time to sloooooow down a bit… hair jigs have increased in popularity over the last several years. Bass fisherman (largemouth, smallmouth and spotted) stayed tight-lipped about them for quite some time, but anglers like Kevin VanDam were seen using them in major tournaments, and us “normies” started to get wise…
I keep several on hand in different colors (usually natural or black with a highlight color for attraction) sized from 1/16 to 3/8 ounce.
Now, you can fish these a few different ways… some anglers like to fish them as-is, working them up and down and drifting them out from shallow to deep water with a simple pendulum motion.
This can work – but I prefer to tip mine with live bait…
The hair adds bulk, motion (especially the marabou) and slows the rate of fall. If you use a black jig with a leech the color matches well, and the motion and taste of the leech can help to create a surprisingly effective package.
Minocqua Must-Have Bait #8: NedlockZ & BulletZ
While fishing the Manitowish Chain ‘O Lakes this year, I spent quite a bit of time fine-tuning The Snakebite Rig. Even though this rig was originally developed for fishing the heavy muck here in Illinois – a few modifications allowed me to slither it through thick weedy areas that dropped into deeper water.
Minocqua Must-Have Bait #9: Ball Head & Live Bait Jigs
Tip ’em with plastics, leeches, crawlers, minnows – you name it. One of my favorite techniques for “bonus fish” involves setting up an extra pole with a slip-bobber rig. I’ll set this in a rod holder and allow it to leisurely drift behind the boat with a leech on one of these Lindy Live Bait Jigs while I’m simultaneously fishing a more active presentation. The weight of the jig removes the need for split-shot.
It’s like having an extra set of hands, and even when I’m retying I always have a bait in the water. If the panfish are a problem, I’ll swap the leech out for a small plastic and drift that instead.
Minocqua Must-Have Bait #10: Mushroomhead Jigs
Mushroomhead jigs have been around for a long time. They pair perfectly with plastics, allowing you to keep a low profile with minimal negative cues. I keep an assortment on hand from 1/16 to 1/4 ounce in both weedless and extra-weedy varieties. (Notice that weedless and standard jigs live in the same compartment in the Wisconsin Bass Base Box, so they take up less space.)
Mustad Grip-Pin Jigs have a slightly thicker hook shank, so go this route if you’re worried you might bend a hook out. Eagle Claw Lazer Sharp Pro-V Finesse Jigs have a light wire hook and can be used on lighter line and ultralight rods.
Minocqua Must-Have Bait #11: Deep-Vee Jigs
The Northland Tackle Deep-Vee Jigs are a bit of a hybrid, and more importantly, they are extremely effective. The tend to stand up, they have a light wire hook with a longer shank, and they also have an angled head with large, realistic eyes.
That light wire hook makes for easy penetration in the mouth of a fish, so it’s a great option for younger anglers and old pros alike.
This jig, paired with a small plastic, was responsible for the biggest bass of the trip. Sure they’re pricey, but DO NOT sleep on this jig!
Minocqua Must-Have Bait #12: Bait Rigs Slo-Poke Jigs
The Bait Rigs Slo-Poke Jig is a must-have item for fishing live bait in the weeds. The inline eye increases hookups and reduces snags. The center-balanced weight has a slower, more horizontal fall than a ball head jig, which falls vertically. The hook shank is strong and compact.
Walk into any Wisconsin bait shop, and they’ll have a tray with Slo-Pokes in many weights & sizes. Grab an assortment, both with and without the weed guard.
You’ll thank me.
I like to stick with 1/16 to 1/8 ounce jigs, and I can usually get away with fishing without a weed guard. Black and orange are great colors, and everything you see in the image above is in my tackle box. I prefer to tip with leeches, and Dad likes crawlers.
Minocqua Must-Have Bait #13: Terminal Tackle
A small assortment of Must-Have Terminal Tackle includes the following:
With these components you can make Neko Rigs, Dropshot Rigs, Trailing Slip-Bobber Rigs, Texas Rigs and Carolina Rigs – provided you also have the following hooks…
Minocqua Must-Have Bait #14: Weedless Wacky Hooks
Wacky hooks with and without a weed guard are a must. They can be used for wacky rigs of course, but they also work on dropshot rigs. The dropshot was something new I played with this year for fishing weedy humps all the way down to depths of 25 feet.
(Check out Dad’s All-Star Scoop on this one right as the hook popped free!)
I caught a few, but next year I’ll be dedicating more time to the dropshot and adding in some Hayabusa Spin Muscle Dropshot Hooks. These have worked surprisingly well here in Illinois in my deep, clear pits. Make sure to toss a few Eagle Claw Offset Octopus Hooks (size 2) in here as well, for your trailing bobber rigs when you switch from leeches to 3″ plastics.
I typically take what I use here in Illinois where a heavy weed guard is required: Berkley Fusion19 Weedless Wacky Hooks have a thick fluorocarbon weed guard. VMC Weedless Wacky Hooks are even more rigid and come with a very stiff wire weed guard.
However, this year I realized that both of these were too heavy. The Trokar Weedless Wacky Hooks gave us better hookups, due to their light wire and softer fiber weed guard, and still came through the cabbage effortlessly. By the end of the trip we were using these exclusively, because they also allowed us to lighten up our line – a huge advantage in clear Wisconsin water.
Minocqua Must-Have Bait #15: EWG Hooks
Finally, we need to round out the Wisconsin Bass Base Box with a few different “worm hooks.” My favorites include the standard Trokar EWG, the Trokar Pro-V Worm Hook, the standard Mustad Grip-Pin EWG, and the Weighted Mustad Grip-Pin EWG.
Stick to 2/0 or smaller if you’re targeting smallmouth bass in clear Wisconsin water. Maybe grab a few 3/0 hooks if you like to use bulkier plastics: tubes or creatures for example… I’ve had some luck on these baits, but not enough that I plan to put away the leeches or smaller plastics… well, most of the time…
OH! Before I forget…
What plastics catch bass in Minocqua?
We talked about all of the tackle and hard baits, but what else will we need aside from live bait? There are a lot of plastics that will work… but here are the ones I’ll be taking next year, after testing many, many, many different baits:
- Z-Man TRDs: Great for Ned Rigs around sparse cover.
- Z-Man Hula Sticks: Great on Snakebite Rigs & Deep-Vee jigs in and around thicker cover.
- 3″ Yum Dingers: Great for trailing bobbers when you’re out of leeches.
- 4″ Yum Dingers: Great for Neko Rigs.
- Strike King Swim-N-Shiners: Great swim jig trailer.
- Z-Man EZ Tubes: Great for thick weeds mid-day or when you want a spiraling fall.
- Z-Man TRD TubeZ: Great Ned Rig alternative.
Any color will work as long as it’s green pumpkin.
99% of the time I’m fishing natural colors. Green pumpkins, natural baitfish colors, some white and gray and maybe a touch of purple or red flake. A few ElaZtechs in coppertreuse for overcast days. Don’t overcomplicate this – and try to mimic the local forage.
What fishing line should I use in Minocqua?
In terms of fishing line, always try to use the lightest line you can get away with. I prefer Seaguar InvisX, anywhere from 6 to 12 pound test. I also like Seaguar AbraizX in the 17 to 20 pound range for leaders. I use the best knot for connecting a fluorocarbon leader to braided line, and this prevents bite-offs and helps me bring (delicious) pike into the boat!
Keep is simple. Keep it invisible. Keep colors natural.
You’ll get bit.
Again, and again… and again…
If you have any questions, let me know – and please share the pictures of YOUR lunkers!
This place is a gift from God. Be respectful, and enjoy it.
Tight Lines & Godspeed, Patriots.
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