By Richard T Grost

I was beginning to worry. We’d been paddling around the lakeshore nearly 10 minutes now without a sign of bass. Maybe they’d become lethargic with the drought; the lake was easily a foot low, maybe more. Too, my last fond memories of the water were exactly 10 years ago and a lot can happen in 10 years, even in a remote Upper Peninsula lake, what with the creeping impacts of acid rain, the greenhouse effect and now drought. Weeds ringed the lake out to the five-foot contour, where the tannin waters choke them off. They were thick enough at the surface to make the paddling a chore. Maybe it was all too much for the bass. Or maybe people had handled this delicate lake just a little too often in the interceding decade.

Working south and east away from the outlet, we escaped the weeds and passed a shoreline spring. Still no bass. Around the corner was a series of equally spaced points, all reaching north with trees first, then willows and sand and sometimes a beaver dam and finally fading into the water was a dotted line of bulrushes. It was straight off that first point, I remembered, just outside the bulrushes, where a five-pounder rolled its endless brown back underneath my tiny Rapala 10 years ago and made today’s trip inevitable.

I fancied this was the same Rapala, though I seldom retain any lure for 10 years, and I cast it towards the inside bend of the point. Exposed iron ore-colored rubble lined the shore just three feet behind it. Almost silently, my balsa minnow disappeared in less than a foot of swirling water, and I fought back against the will of a chunky bass. Just as suddenly, the 10-year span disappeared, and the long canoe carry was forgotten. 

Few fish are as aggressive as the smallmouth bass, and few patterns are as strong and consistent as bronze backs and rocks. Even a fatalistic “fish-where-you-are-‘cause-the-fish-could-be-anywhere” angler like me can figure this one out. And if you look deeper into the diet of most smallmouths, the apparent reason is clear. Smallmouths like crayfish. A lot. Crayfish often constitute a major portion of the smallmouth’s diet even when other prey is vastly more abundant. Not that they don’t exploit the occasional bait fish or leech – in fact, both are excellent baits along with the common night crawler.

In the course of our U.P.  canoe trip, my partner acquired a new nickname from his affection for fishing the leech-bobber combination to the near exclusion of the remainder of his tackle box. I called him Bob, but since he was in the process of catching 30 or so bass up to five-and-a-half pounds, Janos didn’t care.

But which is cause and which effect? Do smallmouths key on rocks because they crave crayfish or do they key on rocks and eat crayfish only because they are so available among the rock? I don’t know. I do know that smallies don’t always hang on the rocks, though. They can be found along weedy shorelines, in thick beds, besides logs and other nonrock cover and even on open, sandy shores. Just enough habitat variety to make you think twice before running straight to the rocks. In fact, the largest smallmouth I ever saw captured was wrestled from a clog of weeds on a Johnson Silver Minnow.

Voracious and explosive are modifiers often and aptly associated with smallmouth bass. But early French settlers in the Great Lakes region had a better word for the smallmouth-ouchigan, an Algonquin derivative for “ferocious,” The Indians, I submit, had it right. Ferocious conjures images of a fish haunting our northern waters like a piranha on the Amazon, which is pretty much what smallmouth do. The difference in tooth wear is something for which we cannot be too grateful. But, I suppose a fish needs to be ferocious to go head on with a decent-sized crayfish.

This ferocity, to the glee of us anglers, keeps the smallmouth from getting too finicky. In fact, it’s a nearly endless list that documents the baits, lures and flies capable of fooling smallmouths. Bait wise, this list includes crayfish, crawlers, minnows and leeches, often fished on jigs or bobbers to keep the bait from snagging in rocks.

Jigs are one of my personal favorite smallmouth lures, partly because they are easy to fish in rocks, easy to make and cheap. Used with or without bait, marabou jigs in leechy colors like black and purple or bait-fish colors like white and yellow are standard smallmouth equipment. Floating balsa minnows in medium sizes can be deadly in midsummer. Other standard lures are medium-sized spinners, crayfish colored crankbaits, beetlespins and jigs and rubber grub combinations like Mr. Twisters or Skinheads. But don’t forget the potential of weedless spoons and classic Midwestern lures like Flatfish.

The fly-fisher should be well stocked with medium-sized poppers for summer surface action. However, smallmouths are not hesitant to consume more traditional trouty ties like Comparaduns and SpentWing Drakes where mayfly hatches occur. I got a big surprise on the Escanaba River when a bulldog three-pound brown I hooked during a Hexagania spinner fall became a one-pound smallmouth by the time I landed it. Rabbit-strip leeches, Muddler Minnows and Matuka streamers are prime choices for subsurface fly-fishing.

In Michigan, smallmouths are found virtually statewide. The publication “Select Fishing Waters” (available from the Department of Natural Resources Fisheries Division) lists 42 counties in the smallmouth bass chapter. And not all are in the north, either. Wayne, Monroe, Berrien and Kalamazoo are listed among the southernmost counties. The diversity of waters used by smallmouths is large, from the bays and points of the Great Lakes to Oakland County’s small inland lakes, and from the Grand, Huron, and St Joe rivers to the clear-flowing Paint and Escanaba to the Hodenpyle backwaters on the Manistee River. He might have my head for mentioning this, but Niles Kevern, a chairman of the Fisheries and Wildlife Department at Michigan State University, has long considered the Grand River his personal smallmouth paradise.  Recent habitat work by MSU has enhanced smallmouth cover on the Red Cedar River in an effort to provide more catchable-sized bass. Summed up, no Michiganian lives very far from decent smallmouth fishing.  

While smallmouths, and good-sized ones, are fairly accessible, the state record is not in much danger. The Michigan mark of nine pounds, four ounces has stood since 1906. Although smallmouths have lived as long as 15 years and attained weights over 11 pounds, fish beyond seven-years-old are rare. And few anglers would fail to casually mention the capture of a five-pound smallmouth several times to just about everyone they know. Such fish, based on personal observation, are quite capable of towing a small canoe and two men short distances while spinning them in circles and causing them to whoop and holler (isn’t there a U.P. bar named after this phenomenon?) 

In fact, slow-growing smallmouths in cold northern waters may be five or six years old before ever spawning. Smallmouths spawn when water temperatures approaching 60 degrees, which may be in Mau, June or July in different parts of Michigan. In lakes, smallmouths generally select gravelly bottoms in one to 10 feet of water; generally, the clearer the water, the deeper they spawn. In streams. They spawn in areas of fairly slow, shallow water.

The male builds the nest, usually near a log, rock or other hideout, by fanning the surface debris away from the lake or stream bottom. Then the hen deposits some 1,000 to 30,000 eggs in a nest, and the male guards them during incubation. Depending on water temperatures, the eggs may hatch in two to 10 days. Hardly resembling a bass, these jet-black sac fry remain on the bottom of the nest absorbing their yolk sacs for several days after hatching. Once the bulky yolk has been absorbed, the fry can swim freely and begin feeding various zooplankton. When the fry disperse from the nest, so does the male. Within a few weeks, the black fry will take on adult-like coloration, and by the end of the year they’ll be about two inches long and starting their adult diet of insects, other fish and crayfish.

Both the egg and sac fry stages are very delicate, and even if the male is successful in protecting the eggs from predaceous insects and other fish, sudden temperature changes may decrease survival of eggs, and strong winds may create waves capable of scouring the nest and eggs from the lake bed.

The smallmouth is a Michigan native that remains true to the Midwest. Unlike most basses and other game fish which have been spread across the country and across continents, the smallmouth is still uncommon outside its native range. While western states and other countries have often stocked the gamey smallmouth, it has rarely survived in these exotic climates.

While some token populations survive overseas and in the West, smallmouths generally refuse to be spread across the globe like so much peanut butter. Of course, this is not a conscious decision by the fish but a result of the smallmouth’s narrower habitat requirements than those of the peanut-butter species. Some researchers suggest that the smallmouth’s range is limited by temperatures of at least 59 degrees to successfully spawn, while temperatures over 90 degrees can be fatal, thus limiting their range to the north and south. To the west, the seasonal turbidity, alkalinity and high fluctuations of prairie streams probably prevent smallmouths from becoming established much beyond the Mississippi.

 There are plenty of reasons to fish Michigan, but the feisty smallmouth is one of the best. It’s a true native that can be found across the state and fished with virtually any tackle. The ferocious smallmouth is also one of our most spectacular fighters, bulldogging one instant and tail walking the next but never giving up. When finally landed, smallmouths are among the tastiest of fish, but they grow slowly in northern waters and may not spawn until quite old. It is a fish worth pursuing and preserving – and it never hurts to release a portion of the catch.