Swimming into Fall

Swim baits are a great option for fall

Fall is a great time for swim baits. To be honest, I throw swim baits all year, but spring and fall are my favorite times to use this search bait. Swim baits allow me to cover a lot of water quickly. Even if the fish follow me back to the boat and do not take the bait, they still let me know where they are. I can always follow up with a jig or a soft plastic and pick up some of those hesitant fish that way.

In the fall, fish are chasing bait fish more often than anything. Yes, they will still eat crayfish, but as the bait fish migrate into the shallows and backs of creeks, bass will follow.

I like 3.5-to-4-inch swim baits, and I throw, and make, a variety of them. With most of these, I throw them on a weighted swim bait hook. I use a VMC hook, but there are a lot of really good ones out there. I found VMC years ago and it did exactly what I needed it to do. It performed well and I had no issue with hooksets, so I have never changed from that. I like the screw lock on this hook. It keeps the bait straight, but it can still move freely. One of the things about the way the VMC hooks are made is the weight can be moved. It can be moved a bit farther forward if a nose-down presentation is the ticket, and it can be moved back to keep the bait moving evenly.

I might use more of a nose-down approach when fishing along the bottom. This makes the bait look like a foraging bait fish. When I am fishing through or over vegetation, I opt for more of a centered weight approach.

A swim bait can be fished anywhere in the water column. The pointed nose allows it to go through grass, coontail, milfoil and other vegetation easily. It can be fished around and skipped under docks, too.

When skipping a swimbait under docks or fishing around docks, especially shallower docks, I prefer no weight at all. Instead, I will Texas-rig the bait and use it more like a soft jerk bait. I pop and jerk the bait around to imitate a dying bait fish.

A paddle tail swim bait on the back of a buzzbait is another great tactic. Here, my main colors are black and white. I tend to go for black if it’s a cloudy day and white when the sun is out full – but I have learned not to stick to that completely. The fish will tell you if you’re on to something or if you’re missing the mark.

I make a variety of swim baits, and I like different baits for different purposes. I like to fish my open pour 4-inch swim bait weightless in all depths but the very deepest conditions. These baits take a lot of plastic to make, making them heavy. I also love the tail action of these baits. The paddle tail movement is made even bolder by the very thin tail that extends from the body to the paddle.

I also make smaller swimbaits and I use those for some specific purposes. One of the things I do with a smaller swimbait is use it as a trailer for a swim jig. A swim jig has a bulkier, flashier profile than a swim bait alone. And a paddle tail swim bait creates disturbance in the water to let the fish know it’s coming.

Another way I like to use a smaller swimbait is on a Scrounger head. There are a number of these types of hooks on the market as well, and the particular one an angler uses is completely a personal preference.

A scrounger head is basically a front-weighted hook with a soft bill on it. I rig the swim bait on straight, so the hook is exposed. The bill on the bait makes it somewhat weedless, but it will still get hooked up in thick weeds.

For thick weeds, though, I downsize the weight and burn the bait over the weeds. I want the bait to just tick the top of the weeds as I crank it along.

In the spring and fall, I will usually use a longer bill, creating more of a wobble. I liken it to using a crank bait or spinner bait with a wider wobble in the spring and fall, and less in the heat of the summer. Obviously, there are times and angler should try both – basically any time you’re not getting bit and think you’re in an area with fish – and let the fish tell you what they want.

I feel like fish do not see the Scrounger head as much as they see other baits, making them a great choice when conditions are tough. I have caught more than my fair share of fish on a 3-inch swim bait behind a Scrounger head.

Another obvious way to fish swim baits is on an Alabama rig. I don’t fish the A-rig much, but it is fun when I pick it up. There is always the chance to hook up with more than one fish on any given cast.

Rigging a swim bait simply on a swim bait head can get bites, but it is something I rarely do. I seem to fish more in weeds and wood, and an open swim bait hook just gets hung up too often for me. In open water situations, however, a simple swim bait head, or even a swing head, can be another solid option.

The last use of a swim bait I would like to talk about is what should be a common one, but I don’t feel it is used to its fullest, either. That is on an underspin. The underspin adds a bit of flash and a bit more vibration to the swim bait. Both of these can help bring a reaction strike from a big bass looking for a meal.  Underspins do not work well in heavy vegetation as they tend to get caught up, but around wood, docks and rocks, they are a great choice.

With all of these tactics, the fish will usually hit the bait, turn, and then you will feel the weight. Wait until you feel that weight and set the hook. Obviously, in the case of the buzz bait, this can be more difficult. I tend to want to set the hook immediately when the fish strikes. But the hook up ratio with a swim bait improves if you can wait just that second or two. But – wait too long, and the fish will be long gone.

My swim bait set up is usually a medium heavy rod, and I like a longer rod to get those longer casts. I use a medium heavy because that gives me enough back bone to get the hook set into the fish and get it to the boat.

For a reel, I usually use a 6.3:1 or a 7.0:1. You don’t need a super high-speed reel to be effective, but sometimes something in the range of 7.0:1 will allow you to crank the bait fast enough to keep it where you want to in the water column.

For line, I always use braid. I started out always using braid, and I will always use it. I have better castability and control with braid. It also has no stretch, which makes for better hook sets. I know some people use Fluorocarbon, and I suppose that is an okay option, too, but I like braid. Braid floats, which helps keep the bait higher in the water column. Second, braid cuts through vegetation. So if I am fishing in some weeds and hook into a fish, it is much easier to get the fish to the boat. I find, when using braid, I am able to get the fish to the boat much more often rather than “chasing” the fish down with the boat.

As far as colors, I think I am more particular with swim baits than I am with many other baits. I am not sure if it is a matter of catching the fisherman before catching the fish, but I feel as though it really makes a difference.

Black and white, especially as trailers, are always in my tackle box. But I also like bluegill, crappie and perch are solid options, in my opinion. This is really a “match the hatch” situation. Colors such as ayu and various shad colors all have their place in my tackle box as well. When putting eyes on my open pour swim baits, I almost always opt for red. Again, I think this is a confidence thing more than anything. I have no idea a fish can see the eyes on a bait before it hits it or not. But I can, and it makes it seem more lifelike, so I usually opt for the eyes.

In all, swim baits, fished a variety of ways, take up their fair share of real estate on the deck of my boat in the fall. They are versatile, cover a lot of water quickly, and will help you put more fish in the box.

Being a “Jerk” can pay off

Okay, not an actual jerk.  I’m talking about soft jerk baits.  These are another type of bait that seems to have fallen out of favor, but will likely make its way back into tackle boxes.  The life of many soft plastic baits is incredibly cyclical.  We all jump on a bandwagon because, let’s face it, we’ve seen it work for someone else.  That someone else is usually a pro who is catching more fish than we are.  So we leave our staple baits to try something new.

For some reason, the soft plastic jerk bait has not made its way back as many others have, but it would not surprise me if more people than I am aware of actually use this bait on a regular basis.  When I started fishing tournaments, I fished as a non-boater.  I still fish out of the back of the boat sometimes.  One of the things I like about soft plastic jerk baits is that they are versatile – more versatile than a hard jerk bait.  And I do not have to deal with treble hooks.  I sometimes find treble hooks a bit more challenging when I am fishing out of the back of the boat, but I know that is not the true for everyone. 

The point of a soft plastic jerk bait is to mimic a injured or dying bait fish.  I don’t get too caught up in colors.  I always have white and black, but I also have had good results with a baby bass or bluegill color.  With the white jerk baits, I often change them up a bit with garlic scented markers.  I might make the tail chartreuse and put an orange kill dot under the head of the bait.  Does that make a difference?  I suppose there could be arguments either way, but at times it gives me more confidence, so the bait “works better.”  As the old saying goes, “you have to catch the fisherman before you can catch the fish.”

Just like a hard jerk bait, a soft plastic jerk bait imitates an injured or dying bait fish – an easy meal for a bass on the prowl.  Soft plastic jerk baits can be fished in a variety of ways.  One of my favorite ways to fish it is to Texas rig it weightless.  I normally use this when I am working over vegetation.  It works well through lily pads and can also be worked quickly over grass, milfoil or coontail that may be holding fish.  The bait will dart back and forth and make enough noise to alert the bass a meal may be coming its way.  The sound of a dying bait fish overhead to a bass is like the jingling of the bell on the ice cream truck to an eight-year-old.  They can’t resist it.  I will let the bait fall into openings in the vegetation, much like one would with a worm.

When working weed edges or over breaks, I start with the typical, “jerk, jerk, pause,” cadence and vary it from there as I get clues as to what the fish want.  This is one bait I will keep in the water while I am doing things like messing with my electronics or going for a drink of water.  If a fish hits while I’m doing something else, I know I need a slower presentation.

Skipping docks is another good use of a soft plastic jerk bait.  I let the bait fall on a bit of a slack line to give it a more life-like action.  If I am fishing particularly deep docks, I might put a split shot on the line.  There are many good quality lead-free split shots on the market.  I use a split shot because it can be added to and removed from the line without retying as I go to fish different areas. 

How about the old “ball and chain?”  Soft jerk baits are great on a Carolina rig.  Really, they can be fished in any situation you would fish a worm, as I mentioned earlier.  Letting this bait fish imitation rise and fall behind a 3/8 to ½ ounce sinker can be a great tactic.  For those who like to throw a Carolina rig (and I admit I should throw one more often), a soft plastic jerk bait can be just the difference needed to get big bass in the boat.

When fishing deep, I will use a swim bait hook on my soft plastic jerk bait.  While this does change the action a bit, sometimes that is okay and, to be honest, I am not patient enough to let a weightless jerk bait fall into 15-20 feet of water.  It can be used I any way I would normally use a swim bait, too.

Another way I like to use a soft plastic jerk bait is as a swim jig trailer.  It has a little bit longer/bigger profile than a grub, for instance, and sometimes that bigger profile is what the fish want.  It can be slow-rolled along the bottom or fished a little faster anywhere in the water column.  I like to use them on crappie or bluegill colored jigs, but I will use them on a white or black swim jig, too, depending on water color.  Again, I think it has a lot to do with what the angler is comfortable fishing.

I use a 3/0 or 4/0 hook when rigging a soft plastic jerk bait weightless or weighted. I have no issue using the smaller 3/0, but a 4/0 will help the bait fall a bit faster.  It’s all about the fall rate, and I vary that depending on what the fish are telling me.

As far as line, again, I feel this is a versatile bait.  Monofilament and braid float and fluorocarbon sinks.  Mono-based copolymers will float. Fluro/Mono hybrids will sink.  Personally, I do not give too much credence to that in any situation where I am fishing something weighted.  The weight will make the bait sink, obviously. That is the reason for using it. Depending on the line diameter, it may make more of a difference, but I do not feel it is as important as when I am fishing weightless.   I choose line for this application based more on what I am fishing.  Fluorocarbon is not the best around rock.  Braid will slice through grass and other vegetation where the others may not.

My go-to for soft plastic jerk baits is a 5”.  I make a 5” and a 6”, but I have been throwing the five so long that I have not given the six a fair shake.  I sell a good amount of 6-inch baits, so I know I will eventually break down and see what that is all about, but for now I will stick with the five-inch. It gets results.  And I can’t argue with a bait that gets results… but what if …..

Join me in Kaukauna Saturday, April 3, 2021

Join me tomorrow, with a bunch of my friends and fellow outdoor business owners, at the Fishing Swap Meet at Maloney’s Bar and Grill in Kaukauna, WI. We will all be set up in the Venue and talking fishing, camping, hunting – you name it! If you are getting ready for fishing season (and who isn’t, right?), be sure to stop in and talk with all of us.

FLaG Baits will be onsite with some of our new colors and styles of baits as well as tried and true favorites. We will be there from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission to the event is free, and set up by Tony Mollica.

Enter to win a $25 gift certificate from FLaG Baits. It can be used on stock colors or special orders. You are only limited by your imagination when you shop with us! We have quick turn around times and offer just about any color, scent or glitter you can imagine.

To enter, just guess the number of baits in the Tote of Baits. If more than one person guesses correctly, we will assign each person a number and use a randomizer app (live on Facebook) to chooses a number. If the number of baits is not correctly guessed, we will take all of those who are closest, without going over, and pick a winner using the same procedure.

Get yourself out of the house for a bit and great ready for fishing season! See you tomorrow at Maloney’s!

Site improvements in the works

As you will see, looking around the site, we are under construction a bit. I am revamping the Bait Co. pages to separate them by type. I will be updating our stock colors, but please know we have the ability to make most any color you normally use. We have laminates and swirls at a small extra charge. We have a new variety of scents, for those who like scents as well. I will be posting all of those in the next few days.

With all of the political mess in the country right now, I think we could all use a little more thought toward fishing and the other things we love to do. I will say I am not much of an ice fisherman, but I almost want to get out there just to give it a try again after years away. Almost.

But, for now, I think I’ll concentrate on making some awesome baits for all of you to enjoy during your next open water season. 2020 did not start off the way tournament anglers would have liked, with DNR stipulations on tournaments meaning many were cancelled or postponed early on in the season. Hopefully we will not see a repeat of that in 2021. If we need anything right now, it is to spend some time outdoors to clear out heads.

Thanks for checking out the website and for looking at our baits. If you have any questions or want more information about other things we can do for you, feel free to send an email, text, message, homing pigeon – whatever works for you!

National Novel Writing Month is upon us!

The time is at hand, once again, where thousands of people from all over the world gather together, working separately, to complete a feat not often undertaken by the faint of heart. That feat is called National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo. Those of us crazy enough to undertake this unique challenge pledge to do our level best to write 50,000 words of a first draft of a novel in November. 30 days. 50,000 words. It sounds like a lot. And it is! But for those of us who love the written word, we are happy to give it a try, and to write the worst strings of words we may ever see hit the “page.”

The thing with NaNo, which is the shortened version of what we call our challenge, is to get a writer to write every day. It is also to shut off the “internal editor,” who will always be the doubter. The one to say our writing will never be good enough. The one who, really, stops us from writing junk that we can later turn into gold.

You cannot write gold before you write junk. You just can’t. We all get that, but we all doubt ourselves as we stare at a blank Word document, or as we open to the first page of a “really cool” notebook we bought specifically because we have an idea we want to get down on paper. But, largely, that idea never gets written. We never feel “good enough.” We never feel that we are “important enough” that anyone will want to read our work.

Here’s the great thing about fiction, though: We do not have to be “good enough” or “interesting enough” or “important enough.” We need to leave that to our characters. Let them be important or interesting or “good enough!” That is their job.

Okay, part of our job is to craft those characters. But that is not going to happen in a character sketch. That is not going to happen in the first character interview we conduct with our protagonist (that’s the good guy). It will also be hard for us to want to get to know our antagonist (the bad guy) enough to write about him or her. But we need to get to know them, so we know why people may actually feel sorry for them. We need to know why and when, long before our story started, readers should care about them.

The good news? We get to keep writing about our characters until they prove themselves worthy of our time. They need to prove themselves to us. As authors, we are in the background. Sure. We need to tell the story, but it up to our characters to shoulder the big weight. They need to make people care about them and what they go through in our novel, right?

I hope this idea might get just one more person to get involved in NaNo this year. Or to support a writer who undertakes the challenge. I know this is an aside from where I normally go with my blog, but it’s also something about which I am passionate. I believe everyone has a story. I also believe all of those stories deserve to be told! If you would like to get involved, check it out on the National Novel Writing Month website: nanowrimo.org

Gardener’s Wisdom – a book review

Not only do I love the outdoors, but I have a deep love of books that started even before I could read myself. I remember memorizing a book before I could read, and I would “read” that book to anyone who would listen.

Being an outdoor reporter has a bunch of perks. One of them is access to local authors’ books. I have been lucky enough to have many authors within the state send me a copy of their book, which I gladly read and reviewed in my column in the newspaper. I will always read local authors whenever possible and enjoy buying their books and attending book signings.

When I first saw the title of this book, “Garden Wisdom: Lessons Learned from 60 Years of Gardening,” I immediately felt like I was about to get my grandma or grandpa back again. The book is by Jerry Apps with photography by Steve Apps and recipes by Ruth Apps. While I have never met the author, the lessons he was willing to share in the book made me feel as if I knew at least a part of him.

For one thing, there is something about reading a local author, or even one who writes about things close to home. It just makes it that much more personal and fun, at least for me. I would always recommend, for those looking for a good read, the Wisconsin Historical Society Press, It is one of the greatest places I have ever found to immerse oneself in an adventure or a different time in this place. We have so many talented authors in our midst and so many incredible stories to be told.

But back to Apps gardening book. It would be easy to write a book about successes. It would also be easy for any gardener to discount that in hand. Gardening is about learning, and it is an undertaking in which I do not think most ever stop learning. Gardening was something that I learned to enjoy at an early age, regardless of the work involved.

To say that my childhood was a happy one would be a gross overstatement. But I do remember two places where I was happy. One was in the woods with my Dad. The other was in the garden alone. Of course, I would never want Mother to catch me “stealing” vegetables out of the garden while weeding or picking rocks, but the reward was more than worth the punishment to me, so I often munched to my heart’s content. After all, we had bunnies and squirrels and so many other animals that helped themselves as well, I figured there would be little harm in it. We had plenty of food in the house, of course, but there was something about picking a fresh vegetable, brushing off the dirt, and just enjoying it in a moment of solitude.

App’s situation was different than mine, with actual acreage of farming going on, but it was his vegetable garden, and his mother’s vegetable garden, which brought back the most memories for me. I do not remember that my sister nor I were ever involved in choosing what would go in the garden, but I know we looked through seed catalogs, just like Mom did. One of the simple joys, I suppose. Apps, too, remembered his mother doing the same thing – looking for specific seeds from particular catalogs at just the right time.

While I do not have a lot of space currently for a garden, I make use of the space I have. In my old house, I had a large deck that was probably half the size of the apartment in which I now live. And that was perfect, because I lived in the woods. With the deck, I did not have to worry about bunnies or deer or any other critters, for the most part, getting into my garden. Although, in the winter when I thought it would be fun to hang some suet for the birds, some sort of mustelid did come up on the deck and help himself. I think it may have been a raccoon, although I had never seen one around. The other option was a porcupine, which I did find evidence of from time to time.

But, in both instances, it almost feels like cheating to not have to deal with those things. This year I grew two small tomato plants, which suffered some life-ending blight fairly early in the season (I believe I still got 3 or 4 yellow tomatoes, though, and I did manage one sauce tomato). My peppers fared much better, with the jalapenos and garden salsa peppers outperforming the banana peppers. My herbs, too, thrived on the north-facing balcony.

Reading Apps book, and learning about his successes and failures – not only his but those of his parents, and how his gardening has changed as he has gotten older, I am reminded of an elderly gentleman I had the pleasure of living next to when I did have a large garden. He was a botanist, as a stroke of luck, and a teacher at the local high school. I always thought I might bother him by asking “stupid” questions over the fence between our yards – until he told me a story about being overseas in the army and learning to darn sock via mail from his mother. That must have been quite the long process for him! Apps book reminded me of those days, too, and wondering if I would ever have all of the answers to gardening.

The answer to that, by the way, I believe is “no.” Even Apps, in 60 years of gardening, still has a degree of trial and error in his gardening. His book allows us to learn from his mistakes as well, and to follow his lead in his successes. And that is one of the great things about books like this – he is a Wisconsin gardener, just as many of us are. Granted, he likely has more experience than many of us, certainly more than I have, but to know that he is still learning, too, is comforting in some ways. I hate to put it as akin to misery loves company, but those who garden understand. We pour our hearts and souls into some of our gardening adventures, only to be wiped out by a pathogen or a torrential rain!

As you create your winter reading list, I really hope you will consider Gardener’s Wisdom by Jerry Apps. It will truly be time well spent, and hopefully will give you inspiration for next year’s garden.

Fish Like a Girl Baits

It has been a long time coming, but Fish Like a Girl Baits is finally here. As some know, this is something I have been working on since I started hand pouring baits about a year ago. Now I have a dual injector, and a good start on the molds that I want for my business. I have a Facebook page set up and a fairly good start. But, of course, there is still more work to do.

I have several photographs of my baits posted on my Facebook page under photos. I will post them here, as well, for those who come to my website looking for products. I will also list my stock colors, but many more colors will be available.

I will be also doing laminate baits as well as swirl baits. Those will be posted after I get all of my stock baits listed. Those looking for a color they do not see, please shoot me an email. If you have a bait you use quite a bit, that I do not stock, please let me know that, too. I will be purchasing more molds in the next month or two and would be happy for the input! Stay tuned for more information. Here is the start of the catalog of baits. I will add a separate page when I get more samples done.

Flip B = 4″ craw 6 pack for $4.00
Mini B – 3.5″ craw 6 pack for $4.00
Sexy Sally – 6″ salamander 6 pack $4.00
Double Trouble – 4″ double tail grub 6 pack $4.00
Rhonda – 4″ craw 6 pack $4.00
Torpedo – 4″ creature 6 pack $4.00
Middle Child – 4″ craw 6 pack $4.00
Big Swim – 3.75″ paddle tail swimbait with eye sockets 5 pack $4.50
Tiny Teak – 2.75″ ned craw 8 pack $4.00
Francie – 4″ French fry worm 5 pack $4.00
Squirrely Girl – 4″ curly tail worm 6 pack $4.50

Blowing in the wind

Today’s writing prompt: Write about wind

Spring tends to be a bit windy. Whether we are out fishing or enjoying some grilling, the wind can change how we do things. The winds of change are called that, I suppose, for a reason.

This spring the winds of change blew quite strongly, not just here in Wisconsin, but across the world. The winds of change drove a deep divide between friends, family, and co-workers. With the coronavirus pandemic sweeping across the globe and national media doing what it could to create scary, horrible, and sensationalized headlines, these wedges were driven exponentially deep.

While the “feel good” catchphrase of the spring has been, “we’re all in this together,” nothing could be further from the truth. Everyone is dealing with the circumstances in their own ways. While some of us have others with which to weather this health storm, others are wondering when they will see family again. Not all of us have been torn asunder by this, but some have. But spring is a time for renewed life and a renewed spirit. And spring can teach us much about the world around us, and ourselves.

For those of us who have a deep love of the outdoors, we do not ask for much: water to enjoy and a deep wood to roam. There is nothing more therapeutic, in my estimation, than a long walk in the woods as it starts to green up and the natural world comes back to it’s bright spring green. There is no color quite like that new-growth green, and it is a color that I am not entirely sure can be captured by a camera.

Maybe the reason it cannot be captured it because it is more than a color. It is a feeling. It is a renewed hope. It is the sense that things really can be okay again. The first “peepers” come out and we hear them in the quiet evenings off in the distant wetlands and swamps. Soft shoots of hostas and other early perennials in our gardens start to show themselves, pushing up through leaf duff and other decomposing organic material. Everything feels new again.

And the wind softly blows through our hair to remind us life is coming back, renewed just as promised. Birds start to build their nests, ready to create another year’s young. Eventually we start to see hummingbirds at the feeders again, their tiny wings buzzing as they flit by.

If we are lucky, as we traverse those woods, we may spy some of springs other miracles in the way of baby animals learning the way of the world. I am reminded of one day as a young adult exploring in the woods, headed to a river near by Dad’s new home. I was not thinking about anything, but just enjoying being outdoors. That was the last time I was so careless in that neck of the woods.

I came through to a small clearing with two small black forms playing near its edge. It did not take me long to realize, although they were what I thought was a safe distance away, they were bear cubs. It also did not take long, when I heard an indignant “huff” from my other side, for me to realize I had done just about one of the dumbest things a 22-year-old kid could do in the Wisconsin woods. I had put myself between mama and her cubs.

I slowly, oh so painfully slowly, backed up from where I was, headed in the direction from which I came. Viewing the river would have to wait until another day. It felt like I backed up a mile before I felt like it was safe to turn around and walk out without looking over my shoulder.

“Did ya learn anything?” I could already hear my Dad say as I came out of the woods. It was one of his favorite expressions with me, and, yes, I did usually learn something when it came to a situation where he felt the need to ask. Lo and behold, when I relayed the story, those were his exact words. It was dangerous, to be sure, but it was also one of the coolest experiences, albeit an accidental one, that I have had with wildlife.

The joys of spring. The winds of change. The new life, as well as the need to be careful. I have spied birds learning to fly, fawns learning to walk, and even ducks learning to swim in my time in the outdoors. Trees budding and flowers opening to show themselves off to the world, all at the same time. So many animals rely on native flowers, trees and shrubs. Even the plant community relies on its neighbors to be healthy and strong. Animals creating the food web rely on each other as well, each of them with their own place.

All of these phenomenon remind me that everything truly is connected. So, while we are all experiencing this spring in our own ways, we are not as alone in our cocoon as we may sometimes feel. Somehow we are all connected, and learning to live in a connected way, rather than struggle against each other, is perhaps one of springs greatest lessons.

Batty about bats

Photo credit Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources

It seems like it’s always “National Something Day,” with most everything getting its turn in the lime light. For me, some of those days are more fun than others, and some I like to point out more than others.

April 17, 2020 was Bat Appreciation Day. In Wisconsin, we think more about bats as they are darting above our heads when we are sitting around the campfire than at most other times of the year. However, with White Nose Syndrome being found in New York in 2007, and moving steadily west, we started to think about them in the winter time as well. Since the detection of the disease, it has been found in 33 states and 7 Canadian provinces.

White Nose Syndrome, WNS as it is knows, is a fungus that affects cave-dwelling bats while they hibernate. It is characterized by a white fuzzy appearance of a bats’ nose and wings. Bats affected by WNS are often seen flying around outside their hibernacula in the winter long before they should emerge. They often come out, looking for water. They usually seem disoriented and can be unable to fly. They quickly succumb to the extreme temperatures, or starve to death, as no food sources are available and the cold temperatures cause them to use up food store much more quickly.

The Wisconsin Bat Program recently reported that approximately 6.7 million bats have died due to this disease since it has been found in the United States. Thirteen species in all have been confirmed to have the disease nationwide with eight more carrying the fungus without exhibiting signs of the disease.

The program’s recent report stated there were over 200 hibernacula in Wisconsin including natural caves, mines, abandoned rail tunnels and old beer cellars. The 2019-2020 winter survey done on these hibernacula showed the disease was still widespread and, even worse, was still decimating bat populations. Every site surveyed this past year showed signs of the fungus, which grows well in these damp, cool conditions, as one would expect. While some sites had decreased to no bats at all, in others a 72-79 percent decline was seen.

According to Bat program lead and DNR ecologist Paul White, there were some bats, however, that were surviving with the disease. He felt the bats had learned to adapt somehow, possibly choosing hibernating sites that were colder and less hospitable to the WNS fungus. It was found that, in some places, year-over-year survival was increasing, even though WNS was still present in the bat community. This was good news!

So, why should we care? That is a common question some ask. Those of us who study the outdoors understand that everything from opossums to penguins are related. For others, those connections are not as obvious. So, what is the deal with bats anyway?

Bats eat insects. Most of us know that. They dive bomb around us, swooping through and snatching insects out of midair as we finish our late picnics or sit around the campfire in the summer. But the impact they have on agriculture is much, much bigger.

Bats, is has been estimated, save billions of dollars per year in pesticides and other control measures for those in the field of ag. One recent estimate I saw was as high as $53 billion per year. Even the most conservative estimates are in the billions of dollars. This total, wherever it falls, takes into account only the direct impact of bats, and does not take into account the downstream effects, if you will, of harm done to other wildlife, native plants, and even humans, when increased pesticides are needed to control a variety of insects on crops.

In the big scheme of things, then, these little bats are big business. This makes their plight important. Of the eight bat species in Wisconsin, all four of the cave-dwelling species, little brown bats, big brown bats, long-eared bats, and the Eastern Pipistrelle, are all listed as as threatened.

The good news is, there are many ways people can help. As many have heard multiple times, I am a citizen science geek. I love learning about anything outdoors. The Wisconsin Bat Program, and, at least in Wisconsin, your local county Land and Water Conservation Department, are great resources to help people learn more about how they can help bats.

Bat houses are fairly simple to make and erect. There are directions on how to accomplish this on the Wisconsin Bat Program website. This is actually a section of a larger citizen science website, so feel free to look around if you happen to visit there. There are many opportunities to monitor bats, too. Summer surveys are done around the state, in an attempt to see which bats are where and how populations are surviving and adapting.

I agree, it seems creepy at first – little mice with wings, as some people say. But if you can get out on a lake with an eco-locator that can capture the sounds of bats that we cannot hear with our “naked ear”, and later get to hear those sounds – it really can change your mind about them.

I remember Joel Knutson, a young man with a passion for bats, coming to talk to a Master Gardeners group a few years back. He brought audio of bats he had been out monitoring. It was really a cool experience to hear them darting through the trees, using their sonar to not run into anything at a dizzying pace. There was one recording where the sound went quickly dead for not even a second, and then picked up again. It did not take much for the group to interpret the fact the bat had been chasing an insect, and had caught it in midair, causing the brief pause in the action as it swallowed it’s prey. It was a really interesting discussion overall, but I think the audio really made it stick for all of us.

Bat Appreciation Day. On the surface, it might sound about as important as National Pickle Day (although at one point in history, I am very sure those were more important than as a burger side or a stir stick for a Bloody Mary). But, in reality, bats provide a much-needed service in the food web. I encourage everyone to hit the link for the Wisconsin Bat Program above and check it out with the whole family. Bats really are an interesting and important species.