A heavy mixing of water interrupts the predawn stillness. A boil appears through a misty haze at dawn. Placing a cast, manipulating the lure, positioning the rod —all must be precise. That moment of contact, the power born of aggression when a trophy bronzeback attempts to crush, kill, and digest the lure in one fell swoop creates another priceless memory; another dangerous tug of war; another crucible of luck, talent, and timing on the smallmouth waters of the world.
In spring I’ve been anticipating going smallmouth fishing for almost six months. In fall, autumn colors and smallmouths are amalgamated in my mind. On brisk, cool mornings when the first green leaves are popping out or the first bright autumnal landscapes bleed through the haze at dawn, my crankin’ hand becomes spasmodic. At times like these, I can go smallmouth fishing or strangle myself, like some bass-fishing version of Dr. Strangeglove.
People sometimes ask how we can stay so excited about fishing 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year. Well, about five hours north of here, In-Fisherman staffers can slide a boat onto Rainy Lake or Lake of the Woods and make a short run into a wilderness of pine-studded islands and submerged boulder fields swarming with premium smalljaws.
Less than four hours east we can trailer to Chaquamegon Bay on Lake Superior, adjacent to one of the world’s most scenic shorelines—the Apostle Islands, where wave action over the millenia transformed huge walls of sedimentary rock into high art. Chaquamegon, meanwhile, quite probably produces the biggest smallmouths in the world, north of the 46th parallel. To the west a few hours lie the prairie lakes of South Dakota, brimming with smallies. Lakes Oahe and Sharpe, sites of recent smallmouth population explosions, are scant hours south from there on the Missouri River. Seven hours east bring us to the slab-rock points and massive boulder fields of Green Bay, and literally right out our back door (I’m looking at it as I write this) flows the hallowed Upper Mississippi River.
What’s not to get excited about? So we asked longtime In-Fisherman correspondent Rich Zaleski what keeps him so high on smallmouth bass and about his favorite bronzeback destinations out East.
The first question doesn’t deserve an answer. Anyone who needs to ask how smallmouths can be held in such high esteem simply hasn’t spent much time chasing them and probably stopped reading this article at the headline.
My favorite smallmouth lake? Depends on the season and how much time I have to travel there and to spend fishing. With only one day free, my attention turns to Candlewood Lake in Connecticut. I’d rather fish than drag a boat down the highway, and “The Wood” is the best nearby smallmouth fishery where I can put in a full day of fishing, knowing my chances for numbers of fish 3 pounds and over are fabulous.
In early spring, smallmouths in Candlewood have a love affair with a small, black hair jig. When the water temperature hits about 50°F, their affection transfers to suspending jerkbaits, especially bass from 3 to 5 pounds. But my favorite time of year on the Wood is postspawn (late May most years), when the Slug-Go bite is incredible. Early fall is fabulous, too, when the biggest bronzebacks in the lake go nuts for a drop-shot rigged 4-inch worm.
If I have the entire weekend to fish, I might truck over to the Mohawk River, or even up to Lake Winnepesaukee or Lake Winnisquam in New Hampshire, depending on the season. The New Hampshire Lakes Region is fabulous in spring when it’s catch and release only for smallmouths, and from prespawn through postspawn when catching over 50 smallmouths in a day isn’t unusual. If you hit it just right and catch a strong mayfly hatch, you might think you died and went to topwater heaven.
In the heat of the summer, I more likely quench my smallmouth thirst in running water. Some of my favorite places are wading water or jet-boat water, like the Penobscott River in Maine, the Connecticut River above Hartford, or the Susquehanna River out Pittsburgh way. But the Mohawk River (the Erie Canal, actually) is my all-time favorite summer smallie beat. It’s fully boatable. In fact, you can range from the Hudson River to Lake Erie on it, but the best smallmouth fishing is centered near a town called Amsterdam.
Since zebra mussels began filtering the Mohawk, the smallmouth population has exploded in the clearing water. Numbers and size have exploded, expanding outward from the Great Lakes into tribs like the Mohawk. Twenty years ago, the Mohawk was a flippin’ game around shallow riprap for little runts. Today, my favorite presentations include twitching a white Lunker City Fin-S-Fish and slow-rolling a tiny spinnerbait for fish in the 21⁄2- to 31⁄2-pound range. On the small, wind-protected water common here, wind is rarely a problem.
If I can tack another half day onto each end of the weekend, I’m off for Lake Champlain. Here I can expect to catch good numbers of bronze bass in the 4-pound range, and numbers of big largemouths, too. As anyone who followed the recent BASS ProAm tourneys on Champlain can attest, this is a stupendously good fishery. The clear water on the north end of the lake is dominated by smallmouths. By midsummer, most of the bass are on grubs or Carolina rigs. By the end of August, the smallies start moving shallower and become more aggressive. A spinnerbait worked on weededges in 12 feet of water becomes the dominant pattern.
If I have enough time to travel and still have 3 or 4 days for fishing, Lake Erie becomes awfully tempting. Or if it’s late in the season and northern smallmouth angling requires cutting a hole in the top of the lake, I might head south to the fabled reservoirs of the TVA system, where Billy’s “brown fish” grow biggest. It’s a magic feeling, casting to waters where there’s a possibility—however remote—of catching a true giant. Dale Hollow remains a pilgrimage to hallowed waters, where several behemoth smallmouths over 10 pounds have been captured over the years, and fish over 8 pounds are caught annually. But these days, I feel the best opportunity for that fish of a lifetime—especially in winter—steers my truck toward Pickwick Lake on the Tennessee-Alabama border.
In summer and early fall, though, Lake Erie is closer. Odds for landing a 7-pounder might be slimmer than on Pickwick, but chances are good that I’ll tangle with more 4s and 5s on Erie. Erie is big, but relatively shallow, and provides little protection from the wind on the eastern end. A four-day trip sometimes can leave only two days of fishing. But on those two days, I might boat 20 or 30 bass ranging from 3 to 5 pounds, which makes waiting for safe conditions easier.
On the days Erie allows you to enjoy its smallmouth bounty to the fullest, the hot technique is dragging tubes on heavy jigs. Cast out behind the boat and let the jig tumble along bottom as the wind pushes you across a hard-bottom flat. Driftsocks are mandatory here, where open water and wind can make things downright nasty. Dealing with the wind and getting used to the flat, slow-tapering structures of this Great Lake can be a hassle, but well worthwhile once you learn the tricks and start catching fish. Big fish. I’ve yet to journey to Erie without one person in the party wrestling up a smallmouth over 6 pounds.
In September in Minnesota, after a late breakfast, a local says the air is “crisp.” Transplanted In-Fisherman editor Steve Quinn says it’s just downright cold. (He waits until after lunch.) And he’s right, especially when it’s Dark:30 and you’re scraping ice off the windshield.
But daybreak is too good to miss. On a calm morning, late in the month, the air is dense and still. The sunlight feels oh so good, and the water is sprinkled with pieces of rainbow. Fall colors are popping and bright, delicate skiffs for ants are drifting downriver, following the geese south for the winter.
The water was high last fall. Where the Mississippi widens and the current slows, migrating smallmouths stack on big shallow flats behind shoreline breaks. The air is quiet and cold as the trolling motor dips into the river. The glassy surface becomes an impressionistic mirror of the brightly colored scene. Geese, riding high in a big V, honk overhead.
The first fish from the flat boiled on the crankbait before the retrieve could start, then tail walked across the pool like a little tarpon. And then it pulled. Oh, man, did it pull. Bronze sides bulged in the net as it crunched the scale down beyond the five-pound mark. The next bass weighed over 4, and the next was almost 6. Such is the Big Muddy up north of the mud.
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