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Published: Friday, 9/5/2008

Antique tackle in vogue for Michigan man

NAPOLEON, Mich. - When you go bass fishing with Bill Sonnett, be prepared to turn back the clock and turn out the lights.

That is because Sonnett, of Jackson, Mich., is a fan of vintage fishing tackle and using it at night to catch largemouth bass. After an evening fishing with him on Stony Lake here in Jackson County, it is easy to understand why.

"I like night fishing because it's quiet, there's nobody on the lake," Sonnett begins. For his style of fishing, by the way, he adds, "the hotter and muggier the better." He licks his chops at the prospect of a sultry summer evening when it has been in the 90s all day and promises to cool down to just 75 or 80. Big bass will be actively feeding in the shallows then.

Bill Sonnett of Jackson, Mich., fooled this bass with an old Shakespeare plug on Stony Lake in the Irish Hills. Bill Sonnett of Jackson, Mich., fooled this bass with an old Shakespeare plug on Stony Lake in the Irish Hills.
NOT BLADE PHOTO Enlarge

Generally Sonnett leaves the dock at his cottage here about 7 o'clock, fishing usually four or five nights a week until about 10 p.m. - later if the bass are cooperating. It is best to go on a good, dark night, though. "The moon comes up and it shuts right down," the fisherman notes.

Stony Lake, by the way, has no public access. Sonnett is here by virtue of a long career as resident director of outdoor education for Toledo Public Schools, which is a primary user of the YMCA Storers Camps, a sprawling 1,200-acre complex that all but surrounds the lake. On balance, he notes, "there are lots of lakes here with public access and just as good to fish in."

Stony is about 240 acres and mostly shallow, save for a pothole in the middle that dips to 32 feet. Often Sonnett has to row out 500 yards to find water deep enough for his outboard. That far out it may be only two to three feet deep. "You'd be lucky to get your belt wet."

It is a classic glacial kettle lake, and ideally suited to Sonnett's old-fashioned fishing and tackle. The veteran bass angler was born in Ada, Ohio, and grew up fishing and watching old-timers fish on Indian Lake, a shallow, muddy reservoir of some 5,000 acres built in the 1850s as a water supply for the Ohio & Erie Canal.

A member of the National Fishing Lure Collecting Club, he explained it this way once in an article for the NFLCC Gazette:

"When I head for the lake and pull out a Marhoff or Knobby reel on a tubular steel or bamboo rod, I am often met with stunned disbelief. Otherwise competent fishermen will ask if it is really possible to catch bass on such tackle. My answer is usually something to the effect that this tackle caught plenty of fish in the 1930s and 1940s and bass probably haven't evolved that much in the past 70 years.

"There are, of course, two points to be considered. First, men who were good baitcasters in those earlier days were not nearly as common as the occasional fishermen for whom it was a struggle to buy good equipment and to find time to perfect its use. Secondly, the large deep impoundments that most folks think of today as bass water did not exist then and it is far more difficult to fish these deep bodies of very clear water with older tackle.

"I am lucky to live in an area that is covered with small natural lakes with good largemouth populations. Shallow water and natural cover are the norm and much of the fishing is top-water. This is the ideal place to enjoy older tackle, as this is the type of water it was designed for."

That, in a nutshell, is Sonnett's story and he's sticking to it. But to add to the antique tackle mystique, know that he fishes from an old, narrow, 14-foot aluminum boat, home-made by a tinsmith and abandoned in the tall grass on the lakeshore. "It's a little on the tippy side," the angler said, adding that a pipe fitting serves as the drain plug.

The man pushes the old boat around with a little three-horsepower Evinrude outboard that he bought when he was a senior in high school - 46 years ago. "I don't run it hard," Sonnett said of the faithful little motor, which he said can be torn down and rebuilt with pliers and a screwdriver.

So that about completes the package for this fan of old-fashioned fishing. Oh, he uses old-fashioned braided nylon line, often found on the Internet or at antique tackle swap-meets. Vintage fans also may use silk line if they can find it. Only Cortland makes braided nylon any more.

Sonnett's favorite area is called Little Stony Lake; it is the smaller, more southerly end of this figure eight-shaped body of water. No signs of camp or settlement are to be seen on its shore. "It's like fishing in 1910 out here," said Sonnett as we cast for bass after dark under the stars.

No lights, no noise, just the crickets and cicadas and frogs and a host of bats and nightbirds - the latter including sandhill cranes, which collect of an evening on the northwest shallows of Big Stony Lake. The scene is complete with the occasional thrash of a largemouth as it slashes at a gurgling or bubbling or popping surface plug. They called them plugs back then, by the way, not crankbaits.

Sonnett loves to use an old Shakespeare Swimming Mouse - "the most popular lure on Indian Lake when I was in my youth." This one was so beat up when he bought it that he repainted it - on an orange theme. It works.

The Mouse was made from the 1920s until 1953, Sonnett said. He has owned more than 100 of them.

Part of his old-fashioned style is equally noteworthy - fishing as recreation and therapy, not the catch-it-all or catch-it-for-money or dog-eat-dog competition that bass fishing too often has become nowadays.

"I don't mind losing a fish as long as I get a look at it," he said.

He has caught his fair share of five-pounders from Stony in a nearly lifelong association with the lake. Now almost 65, he started fishing here in 1957 "when I was a kid. I came here as a camper [Storer Camps have operated since 1918], but all I wanted to do was fish." The Camps property, he added, "is a natural treasure."

He will probably be on the lake again tonight in that little old rowboat. Maybe he'll be casting a 1923 Shakespeare Mouse with a 1938 Pflueger Knobby reel on a 1950 True Temper hollow glass rod, all of it carefully and tenderly cared for.

For sure, Sonnett will be enjoying the stars and solitude and the night sounds - and waiting for the slurp of a largemouth as it inhales a bait much older than he is.

A couple of other bass round out the week's fishing tales.

Gene Cole of Maumee has a cottage on Sand Lake in southeast Michigan's Irish Hills, and he and family catch lots of panfish and some bass and walleyes every summer, mostly on live bait.

But one evening this summer Cole strolled down to the dock, his six-year-old grandson Jake Kowalski in tow, to retrieve a fishing rod from a paddle boat. Jake asked him to cast a purple worm a couple of times, a request with which Cole readily complied.

Presently he hooked up a dandy largemouth in the dark, and hollered for a net. Jake found a small butterfly net and eventually grandfather and grandson get the fish in, but not until it tore half of the stitching out of the net. It was a four-pounder measuring 20 inches.

"We are real proud of Jake," said Cole. "Without him and his butterfly net we would not have landed this one." After proud photos, they let it go. Adds Cole: "My wife Judy went out the next day and caught a 17-inch largemouth bass."

The other tale comes from Toledo angler Greg Alexander, who sent along a photo of a fine five-pound smallmouth bass, taken on a recent trip off Port Clinton with Mike Munoz of Elmore, and Ben Meyer of Woodville.

The dandy bass is an indication that smallmouth activity may be heating up. Alexander said that the trio caught quite a few bass, including some in the three-pound range, in addition to the lunker. Meyer added they were using tube grubs on drop-shot rigs.

On western Lake Erie, walleye activity is reported to remain slow, but yellow perch action is excellent offshore.

Dan Baker at Butch and Denny's Bait on Corduroy Road said that good catches are coming from the outer end of the Toledo Ship Channel around the Turning Buoy and inside around the radar buoy, as well as off Niagara Reef. In-shore waters remain muddy. Farther east, the Ohio Division of Wildlife reports good perch activity between Green and Rattlesnake islands, north of Rattlesnake, and four miles west of North Bass Island.

This will be the last edition of Follow the Fish for the season. Steve Pollick will resume a regular column in this space next Friday.



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