September 01, 2012
By Matt Straw
Every year it's the same quest: Find the errant, wandering tribes of river smallmouths in the Mississippi River. And, after finding them in different places every year for many years, I've come to the conclusion that a quarter inch difference in water level creates a whole new ballgame.
This year we had flood warnings almost every day in June. Our community garden in Brainerd, Minnesota, flooded out for only the second time in over half a century. A 50-year flood keeps the backwaters, oxbows, and connecting wetlands and marshes full of water and they drain faster, coloring the river. And that's another feature of location: Water color.
Smallmouths utilize feeding areas in high, stained water that are too shallow and exposed in low, clear conditions.
Then you add time to the equation. How long was the water high and what was the average flow in cfs over time? So, the water level divided by the visibility factor times ph squared...
No. You just go find them. Try to remember "where they were when," yes. But if they're not home and the water's high you stick tight to the banks, fish the inside bends, and generally follow the path of least resistance. If the water's low, fish the mid-river "push" areas in front of objects and islands, cover those sharp breaks on the outside bend, and cover all mid-river humps, reefs, rock piles, and oblique breaks facing the current.
Tonight we found them on mid-river breaks along the edge of large, shallow flats. Water's come down a bit, but remains stained and smallmouths were feeding on top of rock piles and humps along the breaks in 4 to 6 feet of water. So Live Target crankbaits worked really well to find the fish. Then we worked them over with 3/32-ounce Gopher Tackle Mushroom Head Jigs and 5-inch Kalin's Grubs, swimming the package up off the snaggy bottom.
We had the river to ourselves on a Friday night under Armstrong's blue moon while all the "mupp ears" were piling north on the distant highways, towing all manner of craft, camping gear, and belongings, heading for the popular lakes up state. (John Oravec once told me the people in northern New York called people from Pennsylvania and points south mupp ears, "because they comeup 'ere.") What a beautiful way to start a holiday weekend — in the company of owls, swans, eagles, coyotes, and some feisty smallmouth bass.