Ever wonder what a fishing guide does on his day off?

Chris Noffsinger, who’d been guiding bass fishermen virtually every day since the catch-and-release season opened the last Saturday in April, decided he wanted to set aside his son’s ninth birthday in early July to spend the day with his boy. So what do you suppose the youngster wanted to do with his dad?

You guessed it.

Noffsinger invited me to tag along. And though I didn’t want to be a fifth wheel, I’m not about to turn down an invitation to fish with one of the state’s best bass anglers on some of the Michigan’s best smallmouth water—especially when Noffsinger assured me his son was kind of excited about having an outdoor writer tag along. I was there bright and early.

Chris Noffsinger unhooks a smallmouth taken on a rattling bait.
Chris Noffsinger unhooks a smallmouth taken on a rattling bait.

When I met up with the pair, however, it seemed like anything but a July morning. There was a cold, peppery rain falling, the kind that brings to mind duck hunting more than bass fishing. After the brief run from the launch ramp on the Old Mission Peninsula to the southeast corner of the east arm of Grand Traverse Bay, the outlook was even gloomier. The surface temperature gauge on Noffsinger’s 21-foot Nitro read 44 degrees.

“It was 68 degrees here, three days ago,” he said. “When the water temperature drops more than 20 degrees in 72 hours…”

He didn’t even need to finish that thought.

Still, what are you going to do? Stuff happens. Noffsinger got on the trolling motor and began maneuvering his boat along the edge of a sand grass line in about seven feet of water. Despite the overcast skies, I could see a mosaic of spawning beds in the vodka-clear water. Problem was, there didn’t appear to be any fish on them. Any of them.

“They were here yesterday,” said Noffsinger, explaining that he’d had a more than 30-fish day with a pair of inexperienced sports.

The original game plan—to sight-fish for bedding smallies—was kaput. We simply started covering water, me with a sinking/vibrating bait (a Strike King Red Eye Shad), the captain with a plastic grub on a jig head, and young Wyatt with a tube. Though we went fishless for a while as Noffsinger piloted his boat deeper, we noticed the water gradually warming. When we hit 48 degrees, we hit a fish. Wyatt (who seemed to know his way around a rod and reel pretty well for a nine-year-old) caught the first one, a two-pound class smallmouth.

It started something. Over the next half hour, I caught three on the rattle bait (which is always a good choice when the bass are scattered and the water’s chilly) and the senior Noffsinger got one on the grub. Five bass in a half hour—fishing into the teeth of a cold front—was, in truth, better than I’d expected when I saw the water temperature that morning.

They were all nice, chunky bass in the two- to three-pound range, but not what Noffsinger had in mind when he invited me, he said.

“So far this year we’ve caught six over seven [pounds],” he said, “and 16 over six.”

That’s strong.

Chris Noffsinger shows off a dandy Grand Traverse Bay smallmouth.
Chris Noffsinger shows off a dandy Grand Traverse Bay smallmouth.

The wind switched directions and built. What had been a nice little fisherman’s chop on the surface became swells. The water temperature started falling. The bite slowed. Noffsinger got on the trolling motor and checked a couple of other spots. Again, the bottom was littered with spawning beds, but they all appeared abandoned. We went 80 minutes without a bite.

Noffsinger abandoned fishing “spots” and started looking for warmer water. I switched to a tube and when we started finding water in the 47- to 48-degree range again, I caught a couple of fish. Noffsinger had one hammer his grub and he called for Wyatt to grab the net. The fish, which weighed in at five pounds, four ounces on a hand-held scale, was fat-bellied.

“That’s a pre-spawn female,” Noffsinger noted, which led us to surmise that the spawn wasn’t finished, but had simply been interrupted by the radical change in water temperature.

It’s easy to understand how changing winds (a big south wind, blowing the warm water out of the bay, followed by a north wind, blowing the cold water in from the big lake) could impact the water temperature, but I was surprised by the degree of change. I was also surprised by differences in water temperature within the bay itself—we found water temps with seven or eight degrees of variation. That’s something you see on the big lake, like where you find a scum line and the water on either side of it varies by up to 10 degrees, but not something I think I’ve ever seen in the relative shallows (we fished in anywhere from six to 12 feet of water). I still can’t explain it.

Noffsinger tried one more spot where we found some 50-degree water. He caught one on his grub and his boy caught one on the tube. But when we figured out that they weren’t stacked up, we called it a day at 11:30 that morning.

Ten bass among three anglers in four hours is not what Noffsinger or I had expected. Wyatt, however, said he thought the fishing was pretty good.

“You know, when you consider the conditions,” Noffsinger started. Again, there was no need for him to finish. A slow day on Grand Traverse Bay is a still a pretty good day many, many other places.

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This article was produced in partnership with Pure Michigan.

Images by Bob Gwizdz

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