IF YOU’VE never caught 30 to 40 bass in a day’s time, grab some leeches or minnows and head for one of those clear lakes in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest east of Eagle River.

That’s my suggestion to anyone who longs for nonstop fishing action. How these bass fight while trying to return to cover, in clear water, is nothing short of phenomenal.

The purists will despise my suggestion, of course, because they don’t use live bait. It’s true that you can catch plenty of bass, both largemouth and smallmouth, on scented plastics, salted tube jigs and other artificial baits.

The bass topic is a good one this week because we are into a spring when water temperatures are behind and the bass spawning period is delayed. Combine that with the earliest possible opener for the catch-and-keep smallmouth season that opens this Saturday, and there is reason for concern.

I just want to remind anglers that we have an incredible bass fishery today because around 1991, common folk won a major victory when the Natural Resources Board decided to delay the harvest season from the first Saturday in May to the middle of June, a move that protects spawning bass in most years.

That victory came after 15 years of complaints to the department about how anglers were stealing bass from their spawning beds, when they are most vulnerable while hitting anything to protect their egg-laying territory.

This is one of the few years when smallmouth bass will still be spawning on some lakes when the harvest season opens, so anglers taking advantage of that could do some damage on the big females if they keep them.

As a former secretary of the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) once proclaimed, the harvest of spawning game fish “tears at the fabric of natural resources ethics that Wisconsin conservationists have woven so painfully and slowly over the years.”

This issue really doesn’t affect walleyes and muskies and other species that don’t create territorial nests in the shallows to lay their eggs.

We aren’t talking about whether the fish spawn or not, but how easy it is to target spawning smallmouth bass in shallow waters when they’ll strike virtually anything that threatens their marital bedroom.

It’s a blast to catch and release them but it’s certainly unfair to harvest them under those circumstances. At least that’s what the state determined many decades ago.

Let history once again show that it was a few avid bass anglers in Vilas County that led the charge on this, convincing the late Natural Resources Board member Don O’Melia, a respected Rhinelander attorney, to champion the cause.

Since that time, and boosted by a minimum size limit on bass, we have witnessed an all-out explosion in bass numbers across the North Woods. These two counties now harbor some of the best smallmouth bass fisheries in Wisconsin.

Kentuck, Anvil, Butternut and Franklin lakes are teaming with bass these days, thanks to those grassroots conservation efforts from long ago.

The action has really heated up since Memorial Day weekend, when the first decent water temperatures of the spring kicked off the pre-spawn bass bite. They were hitting salted tubes at first, off the first break, and then jerk baits when they moved shallower under windy conditions.

That changed to a spawning-related bite once they made those big tire-looking nests in the gravel, putting the most enormous smallies in shallow water where they can be easily seen and caught.

On a recent trip to Franklin Lake, we were catching smallmouth bass in excess of four pounds and some of them went 21 inches and more than five pounds. It’s really hard to believe how great those smallmouth bass fight, and pound for pound, their power compares favorably with any lake-dwelling fish I’ve ever caught. 

If you are into plastics instead of live bait, try a drop-shot rig with a very small plastic worm in brown or green. The heavier sinker on the drop-shot rig makes it easy to hit a smallmouth spawning ring and keep the bait in the strike zone.

And I’m not exactly sure why, but a white Rooster Tail spinner drives smallmouth bass crazy this time of year. They’ll hit it on the retrieve, nail it on the vertical jig or pick it off the bottom from their spawning bed.

And that’s not the only species that likes white. I was working a white spinner in the shallows the other day on Butternut Lake when no less than 100 perch followed the bait right to my boat. Some of those perch were keepers in the nine- to 11-inch range.

We currently have a world-class bass fishery in the North Woods and a lot of people want to keep it that way. So please release all or most of those smallmouth bass you might catch off beds after the harvest season opens this weekend.

Anglers need to continue to take the lead on this and other conservation topics. Prior to 1992, DNR officials in Madison talked ignorantly about how the harvest during spawning made no difference.

But then we changed all that and the result was an explosion in bass numbers that exceeded even the scribbler’s expectations. 

There’s some great fishing to be had in early June, and especially this year, when water temperatures are behind normal and the fish are relatively shallow.

The comeback of bass populations is a modern-day success story for grassroots conservation. Let’s work to keep it that way.