The Big Appeal of Smallmouth Bass
Abundant, aggressive, and acrobatic fighters, these bronze-backed fish are attracting more and more angling attention.
By Tom Dickson
California business owner Marshall Bissett fishes all over the world: steelhead in Oregon, Atlantic salmon in Scotland, bonefish in the Florida Keys. But in June and September, you'll find him on Minnesota's St. Croix and Mississippi rivers, casting for smallmouth bass. "What I like about Minnesota smallmouth fishing," says Bissett, "is you have this wonderful combination of majestic rivers, very little boat traffic, and the opportunity to catch 20-inch fish on a fly."
He's not the only one singing the praises of Minnesota smallmouth fishing. Though Lake Erie and southern-state reservoirs may produce bigger fish, and mid-Atlantic states such as West Virginia may have more miles of smallmouth waters, no smallmouth state can compare to Minnesota for variety and solitude.
"I have clients from all over the country," says Tim Holschlag, a Minneapolis fly-fishing guide and co-founder of the conservation group Smallmouth Alliance. "They come out here and start hooking smallmouth and ask me, 'Where are all the local anglers?' "
The lack of local interest may be changing. As walleye waters become increasingly crowded, and many anglers--especially fly-fishers--become more interested in catching fish for the fight rather than the frying pan, the appeal of catching smallmouth has grown.
"We're definitely seeing more Minnesotans focusing on smallmouth," says Vern Wagner, conservation director for Minnesota's chapter of the Bass Anglers Sportsmans Society, the nation's largest bass-fishing organization. And there appears to be plenty of room for more participants. Found from nationally renowned Rainy Lake to the secret limestone streams lacing the state's southeastern corner, smallmouth bass may be one of Minnesota's last great untapped angling opportunities.
Smallmouth bass have been thrilling sport anglers with their aggressiveness and strength for more than a century. In a 1909 magazine story, Zane Grey wrote of his repeated but unsuccessful efforts as a young man to land a "wolf-jawed, red-eyed bronze-back."
Early French explorers who came to North America called the newly discovered species "the fish that struggles." The name is apt. Smallmouth are good to eat, though not as good as walleyes or panfish. Their appeal to anglers is primarily in the fight. When hooked, the smallmouth often heads skyward, breaking the water's surface and somersaulting in the air as it attempts to throw the hook.
Smallmouth will strike a range of offerings, including Huck Finn worm-and-bobber combinations, crayfish-imitating crankbaits, and hand-tied popper flies made of dyed deer hair. Another bonus: Smallmouth often inhale surface lures and flies, affording anglers the opportunity to see their take--one of angling's greatest thrills.
The 18th-century voyageurs who paddled the lakes and rivers along today's Minnesota-Ontario border never encountered smallmouth bass. That may surprise those who today consider these fish to be as much a part of canoe country as loons and Duluth packs. In Minnesota, smallmouth are native only to the Mississippi River and its tributaries, Lake Superior, and the St. Louis River drainage.
Stocking by the federal government in the early 1900s, as well as more recent stocking by the DNR, and bait-bucket introductions by anglers in the mid-1900s have created self-sustaining populations throughout the state.
Today, this fish is found in 300 lakes and 45 streams and rivers. In addition to the Canadian Shield lakes--such as Rainy, Kabetogama, Vermilion, and those in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness--smallmouth live in many large central-Minnesota lakes, such as Mille Lacs and Minnetonka. Both the Mississippi and St. Croix rivers are nationally famed smallmouth fisheries, and in southeastern Minnesota, the Cannon, Zumbro, and Root rivers, along with more than a dozen smaller streams, all contain smallmouth.
Clear, Rocky Waters
Healthy smallmouth populations require rocky-bottomed, clean-water habitat. That's not difficult to find on smallmouth lakes in the northern third of the state, where water remains relatively unpolluted. But the story is different farther south. There lakeshore development has meant more fertilizer and grass clippings washing off lawns. That runoff, along with excess nutrients from surrounding farm fields, creates algal blooms that often make lake water too murky for smallmouth to survive.
With rivers, says Al Stevens, DNR Lake and Stream Survey Program consultant, the smallmouth management challenge is both water quality and water quantity. Stevens explains that during the spawning season, river smallmouth need low, stable water levels so eggs can hatch and fry can survive their first vulnerable weeks. But increasingly, storm water is rushing off into rivers, smothering eggs with silt and washing away eggs and fry.
One cause of excess runoff is the chronic loss of wetlands, which would otherwise absorb silt, fertilizers, and other runoff. Another is the more than 18,000 miles of new underground tiling that crop growers have installed in their fields annually in recent years. The tile systems funnel runoff from fields directly into ditches and then to streams and rivers, creating what scientists call "flashing."
"We're seeing more and more localized flash floods these past few decades," says Stevens, "and we're concerned they could be wiping out entire generations of smallmouth."
Global warming could add to the problem, according to Brian Shuter, an ecology professor at the University of Toronto. "The rise in temperature is causing an increase in evaporation rates, which could lead to a significant increase in thunderstorm frequency and severity," he says. "That would lead to more flash flooding."
The DNR can't do anything about weather or the federal policies that drive most agricultural land-use activities. But it can modify waters to make them more amenable to smallmouth. A recent example is on the Otter Tail River, which the DNR stocked in 1992 and '93. The agency then modified three dams to allow fish to migrate, stabilized sloughing banks, and added underwater logs as spawning habitat. To protect bass from overharvest, the DNR instituted a catch-and-release regulation on the Otter Tail in 1997.
The project has been a great success, according to Arlin Schalekamp, DNR area fisheries supervisor at Fergus Falls. "We now have a self-sustaining smallmouth population where anglers are catching a lot of 14- to 16-inch fish and a good number of 20-inchers," he says. "We're seeing anglers from as far away as Montana coming out here to fish the Otter Tail."
The DNR has had other successes regulating smallmouth bass harvest during the past 15 years. It has created experimental regulations at the urging of the Fishing Roundtable, a consortium of various angling interests convened by the DNR each year since 1991 to guide the agency in management decisions. The DNR has placed the regulations--usually total catch and release--on more than a dozen lakes and streams since the mid-1990s. Most have helped increase the number of smallmouth, the average size of smallmouth, or both. For example, on the Mississippi River from St. Cloud 45 miles south to Dayton, the number of smallmouth bass from 12 to 20 inches has more than doubled since a harvest regulation took effect there in 1990.
The bass population also increased at Green Lake, near Spicer, where the DNR has restricted smallmouth bass harvest since 1996. However, many local walleye anglers have not been happy with the results. While smallmouth grew bigger and more abundant, walleye numbers declined below their long-term average. Many anglers believed that the smallmouth were eating young walleyes and pushing adult walleyes from prime habitat.
DNR fisheries managers say anglers aren't catching as many walleyes due to Green Lake's clearer water, created by improved municipal septic lines and a lack of rainfall in recent years that reduced runoff from surrounding farm fields. That caused the light-shy walleyes to shun the shallows where they previously roamed and head to deeper water, making them harder for anglers to find. Meanwhile, the increasing numbers of smallmouth bass began using the shallow-water habitat.
At the same time, walleye natural reproduction and stocked fry survival were declining, a slide that had started before the smallmouth increase. One factor might have been the clear water, which allows all other fish species in a lake to more easily find and prey on tiny young walleyes. "With the warmer, clearer water in Green Lake, we've also seen an increase in rock bass, bluegill, largemouth bass, and other warm-water species," says Bruce Gilbertson, DNR area fisheries manager at Spicer.
DNR managers believe it's a coincidence that Green Lake walleye numbers have declined while smallmouth numbers and size have increased. "We can see how anglers might think that the two are related," says Ron Payer, DNR Fisheries section chief, "but there has been no documented case in Minnesota or any other state where smallmouth have harmed walleye abundance."
The Green Lake controversy underscores the fact that the walleye is still king in the Land of 10,000 Lakes. That may cause some smallmouth fans to feel like second-class citizens, but most don't seem bothered by the lack of attention.
"Minnesota anglers seem obsessed with walleyes," says Bissett, the California businessman. "As a smallmouth angler who loves to fish in your state, that's certainly fine by me."
Tom Dickson is a frequent contributor to Minnesota Conservation Volunteer.