ASHLAND, Wis. --The ports of Lake Superior have never been strangers to the North Country's most valuable natural resources.
From fur trading in the 1600s and 1700s to timber, copper and iron in the last two centuries, prized materials have flowed through these waters and stoked local economies.
All were based on extraction, however.
More recently a living, resident bronze has been a primary attraction here in Chequamegon Bay.
Unlike previous industries, this precious metal typically only leaves the water by its own volition. And when handled by humans, it's almost always returned to the bay.
"That's the thump I've been waiting for," said Brian "Bro" Brosdahl, my fishing partner for the afternoon.
Brosdahl had detected the telltale hit of a fish at the end of his line. He gently reeled in a bit of slack and then swept back his rod to stiff resistance.
The single beat transformed to an entire song--the drag zipped, the line sliced through water and Brosdahl groaned a happy chorus. After a long minute, the fish angled upward and broke the surface. It was a smallmouth bass, about 18 inches long and with shoulders fit for a linebacker.
Several more runs later, the fish was brought boat-side and I slid a net under it. Brosdahl admired its handsome markings and held it for a photo before it was released back to the water.
The smallmouth, commonly known as a "bronzeback," is the leading character in a fishing renaissance in Chequamegon Bay.
Brosdahl, a professional fisherman, guide and outdoors writer from Max, Minn., and I attended the annual conference of the Association of Great Lakes Outdoor Writers held Sept. 13-17 in Ashland.
As part of its conferences, the group holds "Learn It, Do It" sessions. The first part features indoor education by experts; the second requires fieldwork.
When the field is a 12- by 6-mile piece of Lake Superior, it helps to have local knowledge. We benefited from a presentation by Jim Hudson of Hudson's On The Spot Guide Service in Bayfield. Hudson has lived his 32 years on the shore of Chequamegon Bay.
The bay is a unique, relatively fertile ecosystem in the large, cold expanse of Lake Superior. The average depth of "Gitche Gumee" is 500 feet; it's 28 feet in the bay.
"We've got one of the best populations of smallmouth bass you'll find anywhere," Hudson said. "But it's also a very diverse fishery."
Hudson said he and his clients have caught as many as 12 species on a single day of fishing on the bay--brown trout, coho salmon, whitefish, splake, herring, smelt, yellow perch, walleye, sturgeon, crappie, sucker and smallmouth bass.
But it's that last one that has developed a reputation for Chequamegon Bay as a world-class fishing destination.
In-Fisherman Magazine rates Chequamegon Bay on its top 10 list of the world's best smallmouth fishing destinations. (Also included is Sturgeon Bay).
While the bay has excellent forage and habitat, the reason for its reputation is found in the regulations pamphlet--Chequamegon Bay has a 22-inch minimum size, one-fish daily bag limit on smallmouth bass.
Further, the bass fishery is catch-and-release until the third week of June, protecting the fish from harvest until after they spawn.
The rules have been in place since 1994, said Steve Schram, retired Department of Natural Resources fisheries supervisor from Bayfield.
"There was quite a bit of exploitation here of the bass, particularly when they were concentrated during spring and early summer," said Schram. "Once we started to look into it, we found the size structure was small and proposed to change the regulations."
The changes enjoyed sufficient local support, including by Roger LaPenter, a longtime fishing guide from Ashland.
"This is close to perfect smallmouth habitat," LaPenter said, noting the maze of sloughs, rocky points and other structure that makes Chequamegon unique. "It didn't take too much to know that if we gave them a chance they would come back."
If ever there were a case study to show the value of protective regulations and catch-and-release fishing, it's here: The average length of smallmouth caught in the DNR's spring assessments on the bay increased from about 14.5 inches in 1993 to about 17.5 inches in 2003.
The average size has now stabilized in the 17- to 18-inch range. That bears repeating--the average size. That's scientific data, not an angler's tale.
"These are pigs," said Brosdahl, as we caught and released several more bass from 16 to 19 inches. Anglers should know this, too: Such fish don't appear overnight. According to DNR studies, it takes at least 11 years to grow a 19-inch smallmouth in Chequamegon Bay. The oldest smallmouth sampled by DNR personnel in their spring assessment was 20 years old. That fish, caught and released in the 2006 survey, was 19.8 inches long.
But if handled properly, these fish survive and thrive in the bay.
Only a dozen or so smallmouth came to hand this afternoon. Brosdahl and I looked down in the clear waters of the bay on several occasions only to see dozens more football-shaped bronzebacks swim away from our jigs and other offerings.
It's good to know that, with proper protections and enforcement, at least one local resource can both have the world's attention and remain sustainable.