The Hunt for Giant Smallmouth Bass
October 27, 2017
Eight miles to the first spot. Flat seas at 64 mph. Fish my way back, I thought. Dropped the trolling motor 80 feet from a waypoint at the end of a favorite reef. Made one cast and hooked up. The beast made for the open sea to my left. Heavy but I finally turned it. The bronze monster careened back across the face of the reef to my right, hardly getting any closer. Ran at the boat and tried to jump but couldn't get its tail out of the water. Bent the rod around the hull. Personal best? I'll never know. Came unpinned.
I bent double and groaned. One cast. One giant dumped. One hour of existential angst.
With a lifetime best of 7 pounds 6 ounces, I've since dumped other bass I'm sure were bigger on Pickwick, Lake Erie, Lake Michigan, and a few other waters. Fish long enough and anyone will fumble one (or a dozen) might-have-been records. Or maybe land a world record. Somebody has to do it. The book is full of names. The one attached to the biggest smallmouth bass of all time is David L. Hayes with an 11-pound 15-ouncer caught back in 1955.
That begs the question: Has the golden age of giant smallmouths passed? Or is it just beginning? The world record and several bass over 10 pounds came from the revered mecca of smallmouthdom—Dale Hollow Reservoir in Tennessee. Billy Westmoreland, author of Them Ol' Brown Fish, netted three over 10 pounds there. After more than half a century with no bass approaching world-record status, the "almost 12" caught by Hayes appeared to be a lead-filled unicorn and I wrote as much in "The Biggest Smallmouths of All Time" (In-Fisherman, January, 2002). Only 5 or 6 over 10 pounds have been officially recorded and nothing even approached the record, prompting me to write any "smallmouth over 11 pounds teeters dangerously on the brink of mythology."
Bobby Wilson is the assistant director of fisheries for the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency. "I don't think you can go any place in the smallmouth's native range here and beat that world record," he said. "It's been a long time. Three of the four largest smallmouths ever caught were taken at Dale Hollow, but it's been many years since anything approaching 10 pounds appeared there. I think a lot of those giant bass were caught after the lake was first impounded and loss of productivity and fishing pressure has taken a toll ever since. A reservoir is so productive in the first 10 years of its life, so much forage there, it's easier for fish to achieve great size. Productivity decreases over time. I did hear of an 8-pounder caught recently in Watts Bar Reservoir that has been confirmed, but I don't think anywhere except the small two-story lakes with trout in California will see fish approaching the world record."
In-Fisherman Senior Editor Steve Quinn, who chases bass everywhere, echoed Wilson's assessment. "On Cumberland Reservoir, the smallmouth population is large, but primarily tops out around 5 pounds," he says. "I've not heard of any true giants from Dale Hollow in a long time. Not even any 8-pounders lately. Eddie Nuchols (Charlie's brother), master of the float'n' fly, told me they don't see real giants at Cherokee or those other Tennessee smallie hotspots either. It seems far likelier to get one from Erie, though that could be a long haul, too. Even Simcoe seems a bit down for the true jumbos. The Tennessee River system does produce some big ones, but not like it used to. The top size there seems generally around 6 pounds and the fish, though long, don't seem Mille Lacs or Erie fat."
A window has closed in the land of giant smallmouth bass, making it likely the world record will never be broken. But as the climate changes, growing seasons up north expand. And smallmouths are growing old out West, where several state records have fallen in recent years. Suddenly, landing a smallmouth exceeding 8 pounds might be easier than ever. Not saying it's easy, but true tanks are being caught in the Midwest and North.
New North Behemoths
The Smallmouth Trophy Belt, like the Grain Belt, is drifting north in a changing climate. In evidence, Ben Royce, fishing with guide Eric Haataja, caught what was potentially a new Wisconsin state record bass a couple years ago on Lake Michigan. It was 24 inches long with a 20-inch girth. They weighed it at just over 9 pounds on a Chatillon scale (the entire tableau can be seen on YouTube).
Since then, Michigan's 100-year-old smallmouth bass record has been broken twice. Greg Gasiciel landed a 9.33-pound, 24.50-inch fish from Hubbard Lake in Alcona County in October of 2015. Then Robert Bruce Kraemer of Treasure Island, Florida, caught a 23.10-inch, 9.98-pounder on the Indian River in Cheboygan County in September, 2016. Prior to Gasiciel's catch, the smallmouth bass state record had stood since 1906 (a 9.25-pound, 27-incher from Long Lake in Cheboygan County).
Just prior to Kraemer landing that nearly 10-pound giant smallmouth bass, Patrick Hildenbrand tied the New York state record with a balloon-shaped, 8-pound 4-ounce giant in a bass tournament on the St. Lawrence River at Cape Vincent. It measured only 21"1/2 inches but had a 20" 4-inch girth. The previous New York smallmouth record was set in 1995 by Andrew Kartesz. Hildenbrand was using a Berkley PowerBait Dropshot Minnow and released the fish after getting the weight verified.
"That record has been unofficially tied twice in the past 9 months," says Captain Frank Campbell, owner of Niagara Region Charter Service. "A client (Dr. Tom Quinzi) of guide Jim Hanley caught one that weighed 8.26 on a digital scale in New York waters of Lake Erie just before Memorial Day, 2017, and released it. Two years ago, an 8.93 was weighed in at a tournament. We put a couple 7s in the boat this year for the first time in a long time. Our big-fish bite hasn't been this good for years. And it's everywhere, from Lake Erie through the Niagara River and into Lake Ontario. We have better year-classes, more catch-and-release, and gobies for forage. People are taking better care of fish so there are lots of reasons why we're seeing bigger fish. Smallmouths have a longer growing season now, and that definitely has an effect. All the fatty, high-protein baitfish, like gizzard shad, alewives, and smelt are thriving. Forage populations are strong."
Hanley, owner of Jim Hanley's Charters, said his day with Dr. Quinzi was a real elephant safari. "I topped my personal best that day with a 7.8," he says. "In addition to those two pigs, we boated 5 over 6 pounds and 11 more over 5. To have that happen in one day—I was shaking like a little kid."
Lake Erie has been on the bucket list of every trophy hunter since Randy VanDam popped one weighing 9.5 pounds in Ohio waters on June 16, 1993. But Outdoor Promotions Director for Niagara Falls, Bill Hilts, opines that the St. Lawrence has the potential to break New York's record again, and soon. "The St. Lawrence River/Thousand Islands area is well known for its trophy smallmouth bass fishery," he says. "It's been the site of numerous recent national bass tournaments."
Even in the Far North, In-Fisherman Field Editor and former natural resource manager Gord Pyzer sees potential for a world record to be broken. "Gobies are changing the smallmouth scene in eastern Lake Ontario and select places like Lake Simcoe," he says. "Together with a warming— climate, it's producing the 'perfect storm' of conditions for smallmouth bass to grow to epic proportions. In the past, record-size smallmouth bass were genetic freaksone of a kind fish—but we're now seeing entire populations of smallmouths growing larger. So, is it possible? Yes! Is it likely? Yes! It would be even more likely if agencies would manage for it. And it will happen in a very narrow geographic area centered around Lake Ontario in southeastern Ontario and northern New York. And possibly a large nearby trophy water like Lake Simcoe."
But the biggest bass out of Simcoe recently was a little under 8 pounds, and that was 7 years ago. Farther east, longtime In-Fisherman contributor Rich Zaleski tells us the giants don't quite reach 8 pounds in Connecticut, either. "Seems to me there are more 'heavy fives' taken at Candlewood, and the occasional six," he says. "Same with Quabbin Reservoir in Massachusetts. Overall size has increased, but not to the proportions we're seeing from the St. Lawrence, Lake Ontario, Sturgeon Bay, Erie, and Simcoe. One place that's always had some true toads and still does, from what I'm hearing, is Chatauqua Lake in western New York. Over the last six years of his life, it was Billy Westmorland's favorite smallmouth lake. He'd fish it in late fall just about every year."
Horses of The Wild West
In all, 15 state records have fallen or have been tied in the past 17 years—mostly in the North, Midwest, and West. Product Manager for DUO International David Swendseid, a former state-record holder from Oregon, says a world record might be possible in the fast-expanding smallmouth fisheries out West. "Odds are it would come from a California reservoir with excellent forage and a long growing season," he says. "I believe the Pacific Northwest will break 9 pounds, possibly 10. Howard Hardin broke California's record with a 9-pound 13-ounce monster. Oregon, Washington, and Idaho are all 8 pounds or better now, but I haven't seen any true giants recently. I netted two that bumped 7 last year."
That California record came from Pardee Reservoir, one of those two-story trout lakes Wilson mentioned. The previous record of 9.1 pounds was caught at Trinity Lake—another two-story venue stocked with trout. California bass enthusiasts are calling Pardee the new Dale Hollow. Hardin told ESPN he's lost "significantly larger" smallies there. And Dennis Johnston, manager of Pardee Recreation, told reporter Joel Shangle that people have "seen 11- and 12-pound smallmouths there. There's absolutely a world record in Pardee." Suddenly, the California bassin' crowd is turning a jaundiced eye toward that "almost 12" from Dale Hollow.
Swendseid held the Oregon record for a while with a 7.6-pound specimen. "Oregon's world class fishery is the Columbia and lower Snake River system," he says "A lot more 5-pounders are caught in that system than anywhere else out here."
Pardee, according to Swendseid, has the potential to produce a world record. "California should have the best opportunity for a world record due to its longer growing season," he says. "Places where other new state records might be caught out here include Hanford Reach in Washington, Dworshak Reservoir in Idaho, Wallula Pool on the Columbia River, and Lake Havasu in Arizona where I once caught 12 smallmouth totaling 80 pounds, a 6-pound average."
But the old order changeth. The Midsouth realm of world records and 10-pound fish seems to have passed into the realm of memory. But the encouraging thing, with regard to possibly breaking the record, is this: Giant smallmouths are being caught in new places. As growing seasons lengthen at higher latitudes, and forage options increase, who knows what sizes smallmouths can attain in the Great Lakes and elsewhere?