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Waugoshance Point Revival

Waugoshance Point Revival Waugoshance Point is a prime example of what a change in angler attitudes and a transformation in habitat and forage can do to revitalize a fishery.

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Tubes and twister tails in natural colors are good medicine for Waugoshance smallmouths.

Tubes and twister tails in natural colors are good medicine for Waugoshance smallmouths.

Waugoshance Point has been on my bucket list for a long time. The area has been famous for its smallmouth bass fishing since the 1960’s, but declined in the 1970’s when overfishing took its toll. The fishing has rebounded dramatically in recent years. Changes in anglers’ attitudes and changes in the Great Lakes has returned Waugoshance Point to the smallmouth Mecca it once was.

   Waugoshance Point is a myriad of shoals in Michigan's northwest Emmet County that extends from Wilderness State Park. The shoals are evidence of the glaciers that descended on the area some 12,000 years ago and the rubble left behind. The rocky substrate extending from Waugoshance Point is a haven for smallmouth bass, but the reef, along with others in the vicinity, are exceptionally dangerous hazards for sailing vessels and small craft along the northeastern rim of Lake Michigan.

   The word Waugoshance is derived from two words- the Anishinaabemowin word wah’goosh and the French word anse, which means cove.

   A study conducted by graduate student Emily Kristen Martin found, “The smallmouth bass population at Waugoshance Point has increased and individual smallmouth bass are larger, have better condition, and grew faster in juvenile stages in recent years relative to the 1950’s.” A similar increase in bass numbers has been observed in the adjacent Beaver Island Archipelago.

   Waugoshance Point has always had exceptional smallmouth habitat, but recent changes have revitalized the fishery. Bass grow very slow in the cold, clear water of Lake Michigan. A 15- or 16-inch bass is likely to be 10 years old or older. Removing that fish from the population takes a long time to replace. The large bass are also generally females. Fortunately, the horror stories of anglers taking coolers full of bass off their spawning beds are ancient history.

Northern Lake Michigan is slow to warm and the bass spawn usually doesn’t take place until sometime between mid-June and mid-July. Bass can be caught at Waugoshance all summer long though.

Northern Lake Michigan is slow to warm and the bass spawn usually doesn’t take place until sometime between mid-June and mid-July. Bass can be caught at Waugoshance all summer long though.

   What has helped Waugoshance Point smallmouths the most is catch and release. Most anglers these days practice it. Attitudes about keeping bass have altered dramatically since the 1970’s and Waugoshance’s bass have benefited and responded. The change is the result of bass fishing exposure on TV, tournaments, changing attitudes and the fact that anglers are not consumptive orientated anymore.

   You do not hear about anglers keeping limits of bass anymore and the fishery shows it. Studies reveal that, “Increased growth rates and high relative weights indicate that smallmouth bass at Waugoshance Point are not experiencing high natural mortality. Increased abundances and greater length-at-age in the recent time period are also indicative of a population with low natural mortality.” This trend is mainly thanks to anglers. Higher minimum size limits have also helped.

   Another reason why Waugoshance bass are prospering is because of the changes that have occurred in Lake Michigan. Lake Michigan is clearer than it has ever been. That is largely due to the infestation of invasive zebra mussels in the 1990’s. Zebra mussels live by filtering algae from the water column. By filtering algae from the water column, zebra mussels reduce the primary food source for some species, like zooplankton, while increasing the amount of light that reaches plants used as fish habitat on the bottom.

   Zebra mussels actually fix or transfer energy from higher in the water column to the lower levels, a process called benthification. By doing so, zebra mussels redirect vital energy used to support aquatic life on the lake bottom. Clearer water also benefits sight-feeders, like smallmouths. “However, the effects of zebra mussels on fish are not wholly negative,” claimed Andrea Miehls of the Great Lakes Fishery Commission. “Our models suggest that other fishery species actually benefit in some ways from zebra mussels.” Smallmouth bass are one of them.

Matt Gnatkowski works to unhook a big-lake bass.

Matt Gnatkowski works to unhook a big-lake bass.

   Waugoshance smallmouths also benefit from the change in substrate or lake bottom attributed to zebra mussels. Smallmouth bass cannot spawn successfully on a smooth rock or sand bottom. Once zebra mussels colonize the rocks, the mussels themselves provide a substrate bass can spawn on, and the interstitial space between the mussels produces crevasses that smallmouth eggs can nestle into and be protected from predators. Now that zebra mussels have colonized the habitat, bass spawning success has improved dramatically.      

   Other invasive species have benefited Waugoshance bass, too. Round gobies have provided a reliable food source that has help smallmouth bass thrive. Martin found, “Increased growth at a younger age due to predation on round goby may also contribute to increased length-at-age and higher proportion of large smallmouth bass. The increase in age 1 growth increments for smallmouth bass may result from the availability of round goby as a prey source and their transition to piscivory may also be aided by the abundant prey source.” Zebra mussels may be responsible for higher bass spawning success and round gobies help young bass grow faster during their early life stages.

   While adult bass at Waugoshance Point eat gobies like candy, they also gobble up another invasive specie-the rusty crayfish. Native to the Ohio River Valley, rusty crayfish are one of four crayfish species native to the Great Lakes region. Likely introduced via someone’s bait bucket, rusty crayfish are voracious feeders and feast on aquatic plants, invertebrates, aquatic insects, detritus, fish eggs, small fish and other crustaceans. So far their impact has not been quantified, except for the fact that smallmouth love them. With two more forge species to prey on, the trend for more catch and release and better spawning conditions it’s easy to see why Waugoshance bass are thriving again.

Zebra mussels are one reason Waugoshance smallmouths are thriving.

Zebra mussels are one reason Waugoshance smallmouths are thriving.

   There is evidence that Waugoshance Point, the Beaver Island Archipelago and the northern shore of Lake Michigan and even northern shore of Lake Huron may share some of the same bass. Bass from Beaver Island have been caught at Waugoshance Point, but it appears to be basically a one-way trip.

   Wilderness State Park is an ideal base of operations for anglers looking to sample Waugoshance’s surreal smallmouth fishing. Wilderness Sate Park has modern and semi-modern campsites and cabins. There is a boat launch and harbor at the park adjacent to Waugoshance Point. For more information go to- http://www.michigandnr.com/parksandtrails or call 231-436-5381.

   Northern Lake Michigan is slow to warm and the bass spawn usually doesn’t take place until sometime between mid-June and mid-July. Bass can be caught at Waugoshance all summer long though. Some of the best fishing might be during the post-spawn when bass are putting on the feedbag. Look for the bigger bass to be forging on some of the outer shoals such as New Shoal #1, #2 and #3, Rose Shoal, and Grays Reef in deeper water. The reefs and shoals extend some 15 miles or more into Lake Michigan toward Beaver Island.

   Probably the most important tool for anglers fishing Waugoshance Point is a pair of good polarized sunglasses. The glasses are needed to spot spawning bass and rocks and boulders where bass may be hiding. Pay particular attention to the shadows of boulders during midday.

   Anglers can wade, kick around in a float tube or use a boat, but do all three with caution. Keep an eye on the weather. Waugoshance Point is very exposed and weather systems can move in a hurry.

Jigs and cranks that imitate gobies are killer on Waugoshance smallmouths.

Jigs and cranks that imitate gobies are killer on Waugoshance smallmouths.

   Back in the 50’s and 60’s when bass fishing was just being discovered at Waugoshance Point there was no such thing as drop-shotting. The technique is deadly on Waugoshance bass. Hopping a tube along the bottom or searching with a white spinner bait or twitching a stick bait on a calm morning can be a hoot, too for bass that will average 2- to 3-pounds. 5-pound brutes are not unheard of these days. Use spinning gear and 4- to 8-pound fluorocarbon or clear mono in the crystalline waters.

   Waugoshance Point is a prime example of what a change in angler attitudes and a transformation in habitat and forge can do to revitalize a fishery.

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