The Boom In Smallmouth Bass
November 08, 2014
Spray from the leap creates a lens effect, magnifying the amber-brown aura around this flying bundle of muscle. Hang on tight. Get ready to cushion the shock of a 180-degree power turn. Pound-for-pound, few fish pull so hard for so long as the smallmouth bass, a fact that indelibly cauterizes those leaps and spins into memory.
And perhaps at no time in history has fishing for smallmouth bass been so productive. Certainly, never before in modern times have so many lakes, rivers, and reservoirs teemed with so many smallmouths over 4 pounds. It's a bronze-age renaissance. And if you're not planning to take advantage of it this year, as Humphrey Bogart would say, you'll be sorry, maybe not today or tomorrow, but soon, and for the rest of your life.
"I love catching smallmouths," says In-Fisherman president, Al Lindner. "Smallmouths have always been special for me. That's one reason we have one on our logo. They like to chew, they adapt well to a variety of environments, and they're intense fighters.
"But in the past, catching one smallmouth over 5 pounds in a season would have made a great year. Last year I caught more 5-pound smallies than during all those past seasons combined," Al emphasized. "Something fantastic's happened to smallmouth fisheries all over the country. What's amazing to me is hearing the same from New York to Oregon—more and bigger smallmouths than ever before."
In small lakes, big lakes, Great Lakes, rivers, and reservoirs from coast to coast, smallmouth bass fisheries are in a remarkable upward trend. In some cases, smallmouths are expanding their range into new areas, even taking over niches once occupied by other species, which creates a whole new game. Prepare for "tradition shock," as In-Fisherman Director Al Lindner and In-Fisherman television producer Jim Lindner toss out some of the old rules, describe heretical new approaches, and in the process, drop names of the finest smallmouth fisheries in the world.
Explaining The Bronzeback Boom
In some waters, determining why smallmouth fisheries are in a boom phase is easy. In others it seems almost mysterious, like some kind of bronzeback conspiracy. But the primary factors are habitat improvement, better fishing regulations, and highly successful stocking programs.
"In most cases, it hinges on one simple factor," Al explained. "The water is clearing, and smallmouths are sight feeders. In Great Lakes fisheries like Sturgeon Bay (Wisconsin) and Lake Erie, I don't know if smallmouths are more plentiful than ever, but they're bigger. They've always been in the Great Lakes, but populations were dominated by 1- to 2-pounders. Now lots of fish between 3 1/2 and 4 1/2 pounds are caught, with more over 5 than ever before. Zebra mussels and environmental controls have improved water clarity dramatically in most cases, which allows smallies to pack in alewives and smelt better than preceding generations could."
Tim Rasman, a limnologist and diver for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR), has seen "a phenomenal increase in water clarity over the past 20 years" in the Sturgeon Bay area. And Carey Knight, biologist for the Ohio Division of Wildlife, says, "the photo zone reached the bottom of Lake Erie, in 80 feet of water, last year and this year, which never before happened, in my experience." Both experts cite environmental cleanups and zebra mussels as the main reasons.
What does this mean for smallmouths in those arenas? Faster growth. "A smallmouth tournament is held in Sturgeon Bay every May," Al said, "and the catches keep getting bigger, and bigger, and bigger. Numbers were always there, but 3-pounders are now 5s and 6s."
"I fished that tournament last year," Jim said. "The top teams, for three straight days, averaged over 3 pounds per fish. And in another recent tournament, five 5-pounders were needed to win. That's unheard of."
Veteran guides on the Great Lakes, like Jim Fofrich of Lake Erie, acknowledge that size has indeed grown. "Twenty years ago, landing a few 4-pounders in a season was tough," Fofrich says. "Now, some guides boat at least one over 7 pounds every summer. Fives can be a daily occurrence. And when Randy Van Dam popped that 9-pounder, well, that was just impossible in the past."
Clearing water provides a three-fold advantage for smallmouths, according to Knight. "Because smallmouths are sight feeders, clearer water certainly enhances size profile. But it also allows them to spawn deeper in areas they weren't able to use in the past. And it enhances the survival of fry."
Tim Kroeff, a diver and biologist with the Wisconsin DNR, has studied smallmouth spawning habits in Sturgeon Bay. "I think they're spawning deeper," Kroeff says. "And because of the larger numbers of fish, I think they're also being pushed deeper to spawn. Interestingly, we've witnessed them spawning among the zebra mussels, which carpet vast tracts of bottom in the Bay."
Lake St. Clair on the Michigan-Ontario border is another prime case, where some guides who previously chartered only for walleyes are now working for smallmouths full time. Zebes (zebra mussels) have been working overtime in St. Clair, producing clearer water, resulting in more and deeper weedbeds and more and bigger smallmouths. Professional angler Kevin Van Dam calls St. Clair, "the best smallmouth lake in the world. When fish are visible, it's possible to catch 100 four-pounders a day."
Al rubbed his chin when I mentioned that one. "There's another spot I'm trying to remember—oh, yeah. Southern Lake Michigan, near Chicago, suddenly has rogue schools of smallmouths pushing up the shoreline. Again, the water's clearing, and every year the hot spot seems to move farther north as those smallies claim more habitat along the way.
"But, for me, Lake Mille Lacs (Minnesota) is the most startling example," Al continued. "It's right around the corner from us, and I've been fishing smallmouths there for 25 years. Until recently, getting two or three fish over 4 pounds in a season was tough. A 5 was a once-in-a-lifetime fish. Suddenly, entire schools of 4-pounders are roaming there, even in parts of the lake that never held smallies before. Last year, Mille Lacs produced a fish just under 8 pounds, which boggles my mind. What happened? State and local governments instituted new sewage-system laws, and Mille Lacs cleared dramatically. Now we can see bottom in 15 feet of water, compared to 2 or 3 feet in those early days.
"In most cases, the smallmouth boom correlates directly with clearer water," Al continued. "The zebra-mussel invasion combined with the influence exerted by local governments and the Environmental Protection Agency for cleaner water have created a wonderfully unforeseen effect—huge schools of giant smallmouths roaming the continent like wolf packs."
But clearing waters can only explain the biggest slice of the smallie-boom pie. A rash of smallmouth stockings that took place around the country between 10 and 15 years ago suddenly took off in the 1990s, creating a bronzeback expansion that includes several fisheries on the Missouri River System, such as Fort Peck, Lake Sakakawea, and Lake Oahe.
"Missouri River reservoirs always had clear water and smelt," Al pointed out, "but they didn't always have smallmouths. Suddenly, those plantings have exploded into magnificent fisheries."
"We introduced smallmouths into Lake Oahe in 1983," says Dennis Unkenholz, chief of fisheries for the South Dakota Game and Fish Department. "We experienced natural reproduction early on and stopped stocking by 1989. By the early 1990s, smallies were moving into areas where we hadn't stocked them, and now they're found throughout the reservoir.
More people are targeting them, to the point where smallmouths have become the second most-abundant fish caught in Oahe, right behind walleyes. Lake Sharpe and Francis Case reservoirs, downstream of Oahe, also were stocked in the 1980s, and Francis Case produced the state record in 1995. Most anglers here practice voluntary release for smallmouths, too."
"The Columbia River is similar," Al continued. Ten years ago, an occasional smallmouth was caught in Banks and Roosevelt reservoirs. Now 100-fish days are happening right on the outskirts of Portland, Oregon. Incredible."
Paul Wagner, fisheries biologist for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, says no one really knows where the Columbia's smallmouth population came from. "They might have drifted down from Canada or were possibly planted by bucket biologists," he says. "They might have been here for a long time without anyone being aware of them. Suddenly, far more pressure is being exerted on them, and they're being looked for in places never thought of before."
When Wagner heard the thrust of this article, he said, "That's funny. Last year was a big-fish year on the Columbia. I've always been a smallmouth nut, and I've pursued them since I moved out here, but I never saw a 6 until last year when a tournament contestant turned in a 6-pound 15-ounce bruiser. And one over 7 has been verified since. All over the river, people were reporting bigger fish than ever before. What's a good day? Let me put it this way: During a draw tourney last year, we found a big gravel bar and saw fish rolling on top. Turned out to be 2- to 4-pound smallmouths, and we boated 30 in a short time."
"Lake Texoma is another classic example of recently stocked lakes going ballistic," Al continued. "It's not a clear lake, but smallies have a long growing season, and 6-pounders are showing up all over the place."
Smallmouths were first planted in Texoma in 1981, according to John Moczygemba, fisheries biologist for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. "We stocked it for only three years, and smallmouths are now naturally reproducing and spreading into different areas of the lake," he says. "The lake record is 7-pounds 8-ounces (also the Oklahoma state record), but that was set only two years ago. We don't really know the size potential yet."
In addition to these other factors, fishing regulations have created remarkable improvements in smallmouth fisheries in the North and South. "Chequamegon Bay (Lake Superior, Wisconsin) established a one-fish limit about four years ago," Al said. "And that one smallmouth must measure 22 inches or better. The results are obvious to anyone who fishes there. Smallies over 5 pounds are practically a daily occurrence, and I've spotted fish over 7 pounds. If that isn't enough to send fishermen running in that direction, this should. Catching 50 in a day is a cakewalk.
"But the strongest case favoring better regulations is in Tennessee. Dale Hollow is on the comeback trail since the advent of 18-inch minimum size and two-fish creel limits several years ago. Fish over 5 pounds are becoming common again." (Dale Hollow, known for producing mammoth bronzebacks, as evidenced by a 10-pound 8-ouncer in 1986, suffered from overharvest in the late 1980s. Regulations have created a rebound.)
So clearing water, successful stocking programs, and better regulations account for most of our smallie-boom pie, but a couple slices remain. "In some lakes, smallmouths are taking over niches once occupied by other fish," Al points out. "Smallmouths are notoriously tough to net, so when commercial trawlers decimated the walleye fishery on the Canadian side of Rainy Lake (Minnesota-Ontario), smallmouths began taking over habitat vacated by walleyes. Biologists are even finding them 40 to 60 feet deep in late summer, and nobody is targeting these fish."
This situation isn't unique. In those clearing waterways on the Great Lakes and in other changing environs, smallies are suspending, moving onto deep structure, and in some cases are taking over areas once belonging to other fish.
"Smallmouths are much more aggressive than often suspected," Al surmised. "Watch them in a tank with largemouths to see what I mean. They sometimes herd other fish—even bigger fish—into corners and occasionally bump 'em just to show who's boss. They follow and sometimes strike huge muskie baits. Smallmouths are obviously capable of moving in on largemouths or walleyes under the right conditions, making for some interesting presentation choices." This brings us to some of Al and Jim's observations on smallmouth behavior in their favorite waters.
"Smallmouth populations in these big lakes and reservoirs we're talking about are volatile," Al observed. "They move radically faster than most people suppose. Smallie schools roam more than largemouths, faster from one area to another and from one forage type to another. They're like roaming wolf packs, devouring forage on a piece of structure and then moving on."
"On Lake Of The Woods," Jim remarked, "we've found spots where we caught smallies on every cast, only to return every day for three days to find nada. I'm convinced the fish moved."
"They move through areas quickly there," Al agreed. "And in other lakes we've mentioned, too. But Lake Of The Woods is amazing."
"The Woods is probably my favorite smallmouth lake," Jim continued. "I like the varied habitat. Some areas or bays are stained, some are gin clear, and some are muddy. I've found shallow fish, deep fish, slop fish, crayfish eaters, and cisco eaters. No matter the conditions, it's possible to find biting fish."
"I would pick Rainy, followed by the Upper Mississippi River," Al admitted, gazing out his office window at the river just mentioned. "The Woods is fun, but Rainy is just explosive. Smallies are growing like horses, and we haven't seen the top end yet. Lots of 4s are caught on The Woods, but Rainy has more 6s."
"The odd thing about Rainy is how the fish feed and how deep they go," Jim added. "By mid-July, most smallmouths dump off shallow structure and pile up on deep rock humps topping off at 25 to 38 feet. They use those humps to whack schools of suspending smelt. Fish the shallow rock-and-gravel bars that were loaded with fish in early June and you draw huge zeros. Lots of Rainy bass are fish eaters. They're looking up to feed, like they do on a lot of lakes—Sturgeon Bay, Lake St. Clair, and Lake Champlain (New York-Vermont), to name a few. Sticking with bottom-oriented presentations because of the reputation smallmouths have as crayfish feeders is a huge mistake on Rainy."
Al concurred. "Swim jigs in Rainy, as opposed to bottom hopping. Even in rivers, smallmouths look up more than their reputation indicates, as evidenced by the success of the Float 'n' Fly technique. We've had huge success with Normark Husky Jerks—suspending minnowbaits—all over the continent. I really think suspended, up-oriented smallmouths are predominating, even more than in the past."
"And they're keying on larger baits," Jim added. "Everywhere we go, we catch peanuts on 6-inch lures. Especially in lakes with shad, smelt, or alewives, smallies are coughing up baitfish fully 1/3 their body lengths. The lures I start throwing for smallmouths most days are bigger than anything most smallmouth fishermen carry."
Al concurred, again. "The old axiom about downsizing for smallmouths isn't true. Spinners with #5 blades, 3/4-ounce spinnerbaits, the largest Zara Spook, and larger Husky Jerks are all smallmouth magnets, even in Canada. And these bigger baits are calling fish from longer distances."
"The zone of awareness for smallmouths in these environments is about the size of this room," Jim said, indicating the breadth of Al's office. "During a recent trip to Lake Of The Woods, it was impossible to catch a fish behind someone working a big topwater. It functioned like a vacuum, sucking up every active fish in the area."
"And in The Woods, we're finding bronzebacks in the slop," Al said, "places traditionally dominated by largemouths."
"They're not everywhere in the slop," Jim added. "They're scattered, but they tend to be big fish. We're catching them with largemouth tactics, in areas that used to be dominated completely by largemouths. And, needless to say, smallmouths in shallow slop bays are completely unfished."
"That's what I mean about smallmouths being so adaptable," Al continued. "As their population grows, they move into new areas and might start feeding in unpredictable ways. In some lakes smallies are in big shallow weed bays at the same time they're in deep habitat. Nobody touches these habitats, either.
"We've hit on another correlation that holds true all over the country," Al continued. "The deeper the main basin of the lake, the less consistent specific feeding stations become. The shallower the basin, the more consistent specific structural elements are, like rock bars and main-lake points."
"In these deeper basins, smallmouths seem more susceptible to wind-related patterns," Jim pointed out. "When wind is blowing in on a point, a reef, a shoreline, or an island, that's the place to be, especially after a steady three-day blow. Smallies seem to ride up out of deep suspension into boulder-strewn shorelines where the wind is blowing in. Wind can turn on a spot that's unrecognizable as a holding area."
"So, Al," I asked, "any other spots you'd like to drop a bomb on?"
He smiled a knowing smile. "Several other lakes right here in Minnesota are going gonzo with bronzo, but," he laughed, "I can't name them yet. Haven't I named enough? All the places we mentioned are exploding with bass, several within a half-day drive of everybody in North America. And dozens of places out West, like in Idaho, we don't know anything about yet.
"All I can say is, smallmouths are happening everywhere right now. If you haven't been out playing tug of war with giant smallies somewhere, you're snoozin'."