Smallmouths and Shipwrecks
July 18, 2012
"The wind in the wires made a tattletale sound and a wave broke over the railing . . . "
"The Wreck of The Edmund Fitzgerald" Gordon Lightfoot
A ghost ship appears in the mists of many a maritime legend. From The Odyssey to The Perfect Storm, tales of shipwrecks have held our attention for thousands of years.
When anglers' thoughts turn to shipwrecks, visions of groupers dance in their heads. The Great Lakes also have swallowed tens of thousands of ocean-going vessels over the centuries. Big ships. More ocean-going ships pass through the Soo Locks between Michigan and Ontario through the Panama and Suez canals combined. The Edmund Fitzgerald, now in two pieces on the bottom of Lake Superior, was 729 feet long. Many shipwrecks have yet to be found, and only a secretive handful of anglers have explored any of them for giant smallmouth bass. One lake Erie angler, Joe Balog, has finally decided to loosen his lips.
Though Lake Michigan has swallowed more ships than all the other Great Lakes combined, Balog says Erie has "about 4,000 major shipwrecks." Balog describes in detail how he fishes shipwrecks in the June-July issue of In-Fisherman magazine, and here we offer additional information on this fascinating new pattern.
Diving Without Getting Wet
"The greatest asset to a shipwreck fisherman has been the advent of the underwater camera," Balog says. "My Atlantis color camera teaches me a great deal about habitat choices and how bass position on wrecks. It's possible to prefish for tournaments without wetting a line." Balog has used the shipwreck pattern to win several tournaments on Lake Erie. "The camera tells me instantly whether or not smallmouths are using the wreck, and it helps me find subtle pieces that other anglers overlook."
Some of the best spots on a wreck aren't connected to it, Balog says. Pieces of the ship or piles of ore that fell from the hold can be a hundred yards away or more. "Sometimes these related spots don't show up on a depthfinder," Balog adds. "One spot that produced the winning weight in a tournament for me is 40 yards from the wreck itself. It's a pile of iron ore only a few feet high and less than 8 feet across. I wouldn't have found that spot without my Atlantis.
"The camera shows me some interesting things. Sometimes a wreck will harbor no large bass or walleyes, but will be overrun with jumbo yellow perch."
When Balog spots bass with the camera, he immediately drops a marker buoy. "I always carry eight or nine markers," he says. "
When you spot bass on a wreck with the camera and drop a marker right on them, you always catch them. Always. Most of my wreck fishing on Erie has been confined to depths of 20 to 45 feet. The best fishing, as I mentioned, tends to be on small or specific pieces of the wreck, so drifting and dragging tubes isn't effective. Pinpoint casting and vertical presentations are a must."
Balog uses tubes or grubs on 1/2- to 3/4-ounce jigs most of the summer, but he switches to 1/2-ounce jigging spoons and bladebaits in fall.
The top priority when fishing with smallmouths and shipwrecks is not becoming a shipwreck yourself. "Above and beyond the equipment mandated by law, big-water bass boaters need additional safety equipment, regardless of weather" Balog says. "I carry a spare bilge pump with 6 feet of hose and 4 feet of wire attached with large alligator clips on the end. I always have a marine radio and a cell phone. Should the boat be swamped, it pays to have spare heavy wool clothing, which keeps you warm -- wet or dry.
"Items in the front of the boat take the worst punishment when running big waves. The trolling motor on the bow needs to be super secure. I use six large stainless bolts, instead of the usual 4. The bolts should have large fender washers and lock nuts beneath the deck. I also place three tie-down straps and a 'bounce buster' on my motor.
"Everything has to be waterproof -- all tackle boxes, storage boxes, and boat bags. I like Plano's waterproof Stowaway boxes. And, for keeping bass alive in tournaments (hopefully you're releasing them otherwise), it's essential to install an Oxygen Injection System. Good electronics are a must, too. My Bottom Line 5300 GPS is invaluable, not just for finding wrecks, but for getting home safely."
Carry two jumbo driftsocks to slow the drift of the boat over key spots on wrecks. Don't run too hard getting there, use a long-handled net to land fish, and get a good anchor with plenty of rope. If the main engine goes down, you need to hold bottom and tie off to the front to keep the bow into the wind until help arrives.
The last thing you need is to have Gordon Lightfoot writing ballads about your fishing trips. The adventurous side of shipwreck fishing doesn't have to be dangerous. Stay on shore when small-craft warnings are issued, and keep one ear trained on the marine-band radio when you're out on a major wreck, looking for freshwater groupers in gin-clear water. If you try it, you'll probably be the first one in port to do it.
(For more information on finding Great Lakes shipwrecks, see the June-July issue of In-Fisherman magazine.)