September 14, 2020
By Matt Straw
It wasn’t a giant—probably less than 2 pounds. But river bass pump iron. They battle current every day. It fought so much harder than the largemouths I chased in area lakes that I figured it must be one of the river’s larger brown trout. Laying at my feet on the sandy bank, I was disappointed by its size but intrigued by its spirit.
So, about half a century ago, my hunt for bronze bass began. It took me down the Muskegon in a canoe with my college friend, Gary Kramer. We caught something like 120 bass on a half day drift—all on #3 Mepps Spinners. None were over 4 pounds, but they bit aggressively, leapt high, and battled like something from salt water. I was gut hooked.
Next came Northport on Grand Traverse Bay in a canoe, where 5-pound bronze bass were already common. Then Waugoshance Point in Wilderness Park, one of the most remote areas in Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. Hiking and wading at Waugoshance, anglers can leave feeling disappointed if they caught fewer than 100 smallmouths. When topwaters couldn’t score, those shallow, rocky flats taught me the importance of weightless plastics—Texas-hooked worms and soft jerks without sinkers, twitched and slithered along over broken granite.
Helplessly curious by then—and an inveterate scofflaw—I began fishing smallmouths on local lakes at ice-out, long before bass season opened. Catch-and-release only, but I had to know how smallies responded to cold water. If the statute of limitations isn’t up, Michigan’s DNR enforcement folks should know it was Al and Ron Lindner’s fault. Early In-Fisherman segments on cold-water bass fishing had me sitting in front of the TV every Saturday morning with a pot of coffee, a pen, and a notebook. Other than Billy Westmorland’s book, Them Ol’ Brown Fish, and the articles of In‑Fisherman and Fishing Facts, those TV shows were the only expert guidance I could find. Books on largemouths were common, but smallmouths were nowhere near the darlings of the angling world they are today. So classrooms were small, professors were few, and I was constrained to my home state as I paid my way through college.
But, with Al and Ron’s help, I found ice-out bass either hugging the base of a break at 15 to 24 feet, or cruising around on spawning flats beyond the lip of the same break. And they couldn’t resist a stand-up bucktail jig tipped with a Mann’s Sting Ray grub, or a black Lindy Fuzz-E-Grub tipped with an Uncle Josh Spin Strip, dragged, paused, and tickled across bottom.
From each lake, river, and stream in each season of the year, lessons kept piling up. Heading to Canada alone in 1976, car stuffed with tackle and camping gear for a party of four that would follow two days later, visions of trout fillets sizzling in butter danced in my head, making me veer off I-95 in the Upper Peninsula. Suddenly I was camping on the Two Hearted River with just a frying pan and some oil. But I was confident. Pathetically overconfident, in fact. The day ended with no trout in the creel. The next morning, skunked again, in a state of shocked disbelief compounded by agonizing hunger, I jumped in the Chevy and made for the nearby Tahquamenon River, armed with a spinning rod and an Original Floating Rapala.
Wading into the big pool below the Lower Falls, I was amazed to see two anglers backtrolling for walleyes, another casting big plugs for muskies, and a fly fisherman pursuing brown trout in the rapids. Taking it all in, I heard a commotion behind me. Smallmouths were hitting the surface right where I waded in, a mere 10 feet away. Drifting and twitching the Rap over that spot quickly put two 18-inchers in the creel and back to camp I went. To this day, those are the only smallmouths I’ve ever tasted. And they were excruciatingly delicious.
During that same trip to Canada, Ted Fenlon’s native guides made bannock and disappeared into the forest—something they did once a year—leaving him undermanned. So he asked me to guide a party of anglers from Tennessee. Somewhere in the backwaters of a huge North Ontario reservoir I made a wrong turn. We were hopelessly lost. I kept that to myself, but spotted some reeds surrounding a rockpile. I handed my “clients” weedless hooks, told them to nose a big shiner and pitch it into the reeds. Some doberman-sized smallmouths came into the boat, I found a way out of there without raising suspicions, got them home for supper, and a love affair with reeds and rocks began.
Places to Remember
With college in the rear-view mirror, my smallmouth classroom began to expand. After becoming an editor for In-Fisherman in 1991 it encompassed the entire continent. My quest for the Holy Grail of Bass Tail took me from lakes atop the high plateau of Nova Scotia’s Cape Breton Island overlooking the Atlantic to the Columbia River near the Pacific. From the northern edge of their range in Ontario, Manitoba, and Quebec to Pickwick and Wilson in the South, lessons were delivered by guides, locals, and pros on the best methods for taking Them Ol’ Brown Fish in their neck of the woods.
Professor Westmorland had his Hoss Flies—hair jigs he tied and tipped with pork rind. “You don’t do anything except cast this lure and let it fall on a tight line,” he wrote. “This lets the jig and rind ‘swim’ deeper on an angle toward your boat.”
Most methods for smallmouths are universal and all but timeless. Westmorland also wrote about twitching floating Rapalas and poppers on top, and gurgling Arbogast Jitterbugs across the surface at night. He liked to bang Bomber crankbaits off rocks. Some things never change. At least until pressure rears its ugly head.
I’ve lived on the Mississippi River since moving to Minnesota in 1991, when I immediately introduced myself to the river’s smallmouth population. The first day out, my wrist ached from hauling on a bevy of bass averaging over 3 pounds. For more than a decade, the best thing to do all summer on the Mississippi was twitch a Rapala or popper on top. And the thing to do in September and October was to bang a Bomber 6A or Storm Short Wart off rocks, then go back through productive spots with a hair jig tipped with pork or a plastic craw, ala Westmorland. But in the past decade, it has become increasingly difficult to get a good bite going with cranks in the Mississippi. And those hair jigs I once used haven’t been bit at all for years.
Pressure came home to roost as the popularity of smallmouths began to soar. By 1998, the year Tim Dawidiuk and I won the Sturgeon Bay Open pitching clown-pattern Rapala Husky Jerks, we were using fluorocarbon leaders for everything. In the ensuing decade, finishing in the top ten several times, we dropped to 4-pound line and 8-foot rods to rifle jigworms and jig-grub combos a half mile from the boat in the spectacularly clear-blue waters of Lake Michigan. Because if we didn’t do that, we couldn’t even see the winner’s circle. Suspending baits remained a staple, but a clown pattern became all but worthless. Natural colors rule.
In those years, the Great Lakes became the epicenter of the smallmouth world. In 1994, Lake Erie produced a 9.98-pounder for Kevin VanDam’s brother, Randy—the biggest bronze bass seen anywhere in many years. The Husky Jerk, destined to become one of the great smallmouth lures of all time, was introduced the following year. But, at the time, dragging tubes was the thing to do on Erie. My friend Joe Balog won more money on Erie than any other pro dragging tubes, drop-shotting, cranking with deep-divers, twitching jerkbaits, and other tactics we wrote about together. Naturally, I liked to visit him whenever possible, and he reintroduced me to Lake St. Clair—one of the hottest smallmouth fisheries on earth.
The Great Lakes are simply smallmouth factories. From atop the Sleeping Bear Dunes, looking out over Lake Michigan, every shade of blue known to man can be seen on sunny days. How many smallmouths are down there? Thousands? Millions? Turn 180 degrees and you’re looking at Kevin VanDam country—his favorite smallmouth haunts extending all the way to Alpena on Lake Huron, where he won the Major League Fishing General Tire Summit Cup in 2014 with 39 bass weighing over 81 pounds. Between the Dunes and Alpena lies the Indian River, where the state-record smallmouth was taken in 2016—another 9.98-pound behemoth. If any place on earth can be called premier smallmouth real estate, this is it.
Great Lakes smallmouth country extends all the way to Lake Superior, where my friend Chris Beeksma guides for bass on Chequamegon Bay. Only one bass can be kept per angler per day, and it has to be 22 inches or bigger. Al Lindner once told me he spotted the biggest smallmouth he’d ever seen in his life on the Bay, and 7-pound fish just might be more common there than anywhere else.
After touring the continent, I prefer going back home for smallmouths. When asked where to go for bass, I always recommend the clear water, gorgeous scenery, and massive smallmouth schools of the Great Lakes first—but fond memories and great fishing extend coast-to-coast.
After moving to north Grand Rapids, Michigan, in 1979, I discovered the Rogue River, which empties into the Grand River less than 5 minutes from my apartment. The DNR mistakenly stocked this tributary—8 miles long from the dam in Rockford to the Grand—twice with steelhead the year I moved there—a total of 1 million fish. For years to come, it was like Little Alaska. Naturally, the Rogue became a favorite playground, and it was there I began to piece together how river smallmouths operate.
Never caught a smallmouth in the Rogue during a steelhead run, which ends in April. But by mid-June, smallmouths were thick in the little river every year, flocking in from the Grand. Every summer, smallmouth fishing was spectacular. It seemed, even in that densely-populated county, the Rogue’s migrant bass swam entirely under everyone’s radar. And by October, when steelhead began to arrive, the bronze bass were back in the mother ship, hugging bottom in the Grand’s 20-foot holes through the winter. Things that make you say hmmm.
Being an inveterate river rat, I followed migrations of trout, salmon, and steelhead for years. The need for river fish to migrate to and from seasonal habitats is another universal, applying to everything from panfish to carp to pike to catfish to muskies and smallmouth bass. Smallmouths up north need about 20 feet of water overhead and vastly reduced current to survive the winter. Down south, not so much—though seasonal movements still might apply.
Smallmouths in migration on the Upper Mississippi were found by applying what steelhead teach us: Bass migrate upstream on the inside of a bend, and migrate downstream in the middle of the river or on the outside of a bend, wherever the best current breaks with the most abundant forage exist. Migrating fish find the path of least resistance and all use it. If you find smallmouths holding on a spot, every group that comes down after that will use that spot. Those spots change year-to-year, depending on forage abundance, substrate changes caused by floods, fallen trees, river levels, and several other factors.
Smallmouths were just becoming popular with a lot of anglers, and many had yet to consider movement between seasonal habitats. The John Day River flows through high arid country in northern Oregon. It is ridiculously thick with bronze bass. Not many top 4 pounds, but the action is constant. I shared what I learned about smallmouth migrations with Steve Fleming of Mah-Hah Outfitters, and light bulbs went off. An excellent angler and guide, Fleming was happy to know just a little bit more about finding smallmouths in migration.
Big smallmouths were a relatively new phenomenon for Tetu Lodge on the Winnipeg River in Manitoba when I visited there in the 1990s. Guides were hungry for information about how bass responded to changing seasons, and what methods might produce as well or better than a jig tipped with a minnow. Similar experiences punctuated the Bass Tail Grail quest all across the country. Suddenly, people were anxious to learn more about smallmouth movements and tactics.
Today, most bass anglers know smallmouths move between seasonal habitats in every environment. Guides on the Niagara River certainly don’t need any help, but anyone interested in smallmouths should simply go there. Two springs past, fishing with Mark Davis of BigWater Adventures and Allan Ranson of Strike King, we put 86 smallmouths in the boat in one afternoon, dragging Strike King Rage Swimmers on football heads and jigging with bladebaits. We only fished a 200-yard stretch of river Davis had worked over every day for 12 days prior. The number of smallmouths under the gorgeous aqua-blue, turquoise water of the Niagara on that spot was incalculable, but one thing is certain—they migrated up river from Lake Ontario where, near the mouth, one angler in our group boated two smallies over 7 pounds as they staged before moving up.
River bass haunt my dreams. Asleep, I occasionally visit familiar pools in a river I dreamed up long ago. I’ve been there in all the seasons. I know where the fish hold, where to cast, which lure to pitch, how to work it, and the techniques are always something learned from someone somewhere along the way on real waters loaded with smallmouth bass.
A half century of classes taught by some of the best guides, pros, and anglers in the country. With open-air classrooms surrounded by forests, deserts, and mountains no less. It’s been a long, memorable journey from that sun-dappled bank on the Muskegon. And it’s not over yet.
*Matt Straw was an In-Fisherman staff editor for over 20 years and now serves as a Field Editor. He’s an outstanding writer and multispecies angler with specialties in smallmouths, steelhead, and panfish.