BOULDER JUNCTION — Duane Harpster offered thoughts on everything from the war in Afghanistan to his shortcomings as a dog trainer as we fished Tuesday on Little Trout Lake.
Somehow, though, the retired game warden and Vilas County sage never got around to the state’s recent decision to remove largemouth bass from the North’s early catch-and-release season starting in 2014. Smallmouths must still be released then, but as long as a largemouth meets length and bag-limit restrictions, you can take it home for dinner.
Studies by the Department of Natural Resources suggest the change won’t hurt the largemouth population. Similar studies, however, suggest smallmouth numbers would suffer if they weren’t protected in May and most of June.
Of course, some folks like this plan for other reasons: By removing a few more largemouths, they hope they’ll spare more young walleyes, Wisconsin’s most coveted fish. Coincidence or not, largemouth numbers have increased on some Northwoods lakes in recent years while walleye numbers decreased.
Whether we can change that trend through regulations is doubtful. After all, this problem is further complicated by conflicting research and uncertain findings on walleye stocking and climate change, even as it boils and steams with assumptions and accusations about tribal spearing.
Maybe that’s why Harpster and I were content to work on our sunburns while chucking spinner baits into reed beds and cranking Rapalas over weed beds.
Or maybe we just aren’t intrigued about a law with no immediate impact on us or the fish of Little Trout Lake. When you’re struggling to make a bass strike today, you don’t fret whether you’d keep or release one a year from now.
We had our moments, though. After missing a few strikes while fishing the weeds in about 7 feet of water on the lake’s eastern end, Harpster pulled up his electric trolling motor, fired up his outboard and drove us westward. Minutes later he eased us along green reeds jutting from the water like bristles on a dog brush.
“Look at all those minnows,” Harpster said, pointing to a gray cloud of ever-changing shapes in the water below. Seconds later, the water boiled about 30 yards away as a big fish broke the calm surface in deeper water.
Leaving that phantom to Harpster, I faced shore and sent a blaze-orange spinner arcing out over the reeds. As it clipped through the green stalks on its descent, the surface roiled with frightened minnows bursting into flight. The fish that hit my spinner two cranks into my retrieve spit the hooks before I could respond.
Minutes later, Harpster was pointing again, this time off the starboard bow where a largemouth and three smallmouths in the 18-inch range cruised in loose formation. “Look at those bass!” With that, he whipped his fake frog through the air, plunked it into their path and twitched it to life, making it swim like a frog dimpling a millpond.
If the fish saw it, they weren’t hungry. “If I’d been born a fish, I wouldn’t have lasted a day,” he said. “I’d hit everything. All these baits look good to me.”
We soon decided our best bet would be northern pike, fishing’s version of Mikey, the little brother of Life cereal fame who eats everything. Pike, too, attack anything, whether it’s a spinner, spoon, crankbait or live bait.
Harpster understands. “I’m not too picky about what kind of fish I catch,” he said. “I just like to have something wiggling on the end of my line.”
When I agreed, Harpster offered: “If you catch a pike you’d like to eat, I’m pretty good at cleaning them.”
But Little Trout’s eating-size pike weren’t pushovers. The “hammer handles,” however, kept us guessing as they torpedoed our baits, sometimes scoring hits and sometimes breaking off their attacks at boat-side.
About 12:05 p.m., with the sun microwaving my ears, I heard a watery wallop as a largemouth slammed Harpster’s neutral-buoyancy Rapala just below the surface. Harpster played the fish, brought it along side, thumb-locked its jaw and hoisted it aboard.
After removing the treble hook, he released the keeper-sized bass without asking if I’d like to eat it. He probably sensed my feelings.
We have research on that, too, you see. When the DNR polled anglers in 2007, it learned they kept 5.5 percent of all bass they caught, but 20 percent of pike and 30 percent of walleyes.
The state can regulate when we keep largemouth bass, but it can’t force us to eat them.
Patrick Durkin is a freelance writer who covers outdoors for Press-Gazette Media. Email him at email@example.com.