TRAVERSE CITY — Chris Noffsinger set the hook, then skated a 14-inch smallmouth bass to the boat.
“We could catch 100 like this, 12 to 14 inches, if we were to go up into the shallows,” said Noffsinger, whose 21-foot Nitro was rocking on the waves in Grand Traverse Bay in 14 feet of water. “We could catch them until our arms are sore. But there have been some better fish out here.”
He was right; just minutes later, I set the hook on a fish in the three-pound class.
Noffsinger, who guides bass anglers here and on inland waters in the area, has built a national reputation for catching good smallmouths. He and his clients have caught 11 that weighed better than six pounds so far this season and one over seven, he said.
“The big ones have been a little harder to come by lately, though,” he noted.
That figures. Post-spawn, the big ones seem to almost disappear until fall. But there’s a world of two- to four-pounders out here and, for the most part, they are fat, feisty and willing.
We were fishing with tubes along swatches of sand grass in the ultra-clear water of Grand Traverse Bay, a body of water that has long been known for lake trout and whitefish, but has been getting increasing attention as a smallmouth bass hot spot in recent years. The pumpkin-colored tubes we were using, Noffsinger said, are the best bet for what’s going on — a goby bite.
“They’re feeding on gobies big time,” said Noffsinger. “We went from a jerk-bait bite to a goby bite pretty quick this year.”
Noffsinger, 38, has been a professional angler almost his whole life. He started out working as a mate on charter boats as a young teen and, except for a stint in the army, has been at it non-stop. He’s attracted his share of attention on the bass-fishing scene since he switched over from salmonids about eight years ago.
“I don’t really start fishing the bay hard-core until mid-June,” said Noffsinger, who fishes inland lakes when bass season first opens. “In July and August, I fish the bay unless the weather looks like it’ll cause problems like it does early in the season.”
The weather was cool and windy; windy enough to keep the pleasure boat traffic down, which is unusual on a summer weekend. By the time we saw another bass boat, we’d put 25 fish in the boat.
“We’ve been catching 25 to 50 a day,” Noffsinger said. “The best day I had this year we caught 163 – all on a jerk bait except for a few I caught on a blade just to do something different. We hit them that day when they were charging the bank for the first time and every one of them was eating. I think we had something like 40 doubles.”
We moved a couple of times, usually no more than a mile, from one patch of grass to another. The weed growth is well behind this year. Noffsinger said, and the overcast skies made it harder to spot them. But every place we found sand grass we found smallmouths. Sometimes a few. Sometimes a bunch.
“Everything’s behind this year,” he said. “We had ice on the lakes until two days before the season this year. That’s unheard of.”
The drill was simple: toss a tube on a 3/8th ounce Bite Me Big Dude jighead (“I just like the head,” Noffsinger said) at the edges of the weeds, then drag it along the bottom. You could feel the gobies nipping at it, but when a bass picked it up, there was no confusing it.
“The stand-by bait is obviously a tube,” Noffsinger said. “Smallmouth will eat a tube anywhere in the country at any given time.”
We kept picking away at them, never getting more than 15 feet deep.
“As the season progresses, they’ll continue to move deep,” Noffsinger said. “I’ve caught them as deep as 75 feet out here — it depends on how hot the summer gets. A lot of times I’ll fish suspended fish over 120 feet of water, 20, 30, 40 feet down.”
By late morning, the wind had calmed down a bit and the boat traffic picked up. I looked at my watch; at 11:30 a.m., four hours after we’d started, we’d caught 35, a bunch of them better than three pounds with several that would scare the heck out of, if not beat, four pounds. Noffsinger asked if I wanted to go to a nursery area and bump up our numbers. I told him I’d just as soon go to lunch.
Noffsinger said he’s booked up for most days this summer and he doesn’t fish a lot in the fall, because he goes to Kansas, where he was stationed in the service, to guide whitetail hunters.
“I like the fall bite, but I’m in Kansas for most of it,” he said. “I pray that there isn’t ice on the water when I get back in December so I can get out here and fish a little.”
You can reach Noffsinger at (231) 620-7000 or at www.northernadventuresfishing.com.