by Bill Marchel
When I was a kid, my first real job was stocking shelves at a Brainerd grocery store. Several nights a week, I worked the graveyard shift. Oftentimes, when I got off work at 5 a.m., I'd head for the woods or water in search of game or fish. One of my favorite pursuits was wade-fishing for largemouth bass.
My friends and I couldn't afford boats, so we would slip on our hip boots and ply the shallows of any local lake we thought would offer up a bass. I remember one bass opener when the bite was particularly hot. After a morning of wade-fishing, three of my friends and I waltzed into Koep's bait shop in Nisswa, each of us toting a stringer of six bass. The fish were big, averaging nearly 3 pounds each. Bait shop patrons gathered around as we posed for a photograph taken by owner Marv Koep himself.
Now, almost four decades later, I still have the picture. I have a boat too, yet I continue to wade-fish for largemouth bass. I find it comforting to know that fishing success and expensive, high-tech equipment don't necessarily go hand in hand. For Minnesota anglers willing to don chest waders or hip boots, good fishing for largemouth bass is readily available.
Wading Advantage. Because a minimum of gear is needed, wade-fishing is an affordable option. And in shallow, hard-to-reach areas, the wading angler actually has an advantage over those fishing from a boat. Most trolling motors bog down in thick vegetation, and boats make noise. A wading angler can move quietly.
There's something special about sneaking among the reeds of an overlooked bay, placing accurate casts to bass-holding haunts, such as a point of bulrushes or an opening in a thick patch of cattails, in an attempt to entice a hungry bass into striking. When belly-deep in secluded waters, I become acutely aware of my surroundings; all of my senses work in unison.
I often encounter wildlife while engaging in this stealthy style of fishing. While wading a remote shoreline a few years ago, I nearly stepped on a white-tailed deer fawn curled up in grass near the water's edge. The fawn, I guessed, was probably only a few hours old. It was not moving a muscle.
A couple of hundred yards further along, another fawn—a few days older and more capable—leaped from the shoreline cattails. It ran off with the speed and grace of an adult deer, its miniature white tail flying high. I watched as the fawn bounded full-tilt into a downed tree hidden in the tall grass. The little deer bounced off like only a youngster could and continued on, apparently unscathed.
I share the shorelines with other wildlife as well. Red-winged blackbirds are my constant companions. The males flash their scarlet wing patches as they sing their territorial songs from bulrush perches. I regularly encounter herons, loons, several species of ducks, and noisy red-necked grebes.
Get in Gear. When choosing equipment, a wade angler will want to keep several factors in mind. Since most shallow-water largemouth will be found in or near vegetation, heavy tackle is required to land a fish. Remember, when you're standing belly-deep in the water you don't have the advantage of being above the fish as you would in a boat, so you need a long rod with a stiff backbone to get the fish's head up. A largemouth that is allowed to burrow into dense vegetation will wrap up and escape. Fill your bait-casting or oversized spinning reel with at least 30-pound-test line. The latest fine-diameter braided lines work well.
As for lures, an assortment of spinner baits, buzzbaits, weedless spoons, and soft plastic baits, such as worms, lizards, and frogs, will all take shallow-feeding bass. If a shoreline has stretches of open water, injured minnow imitations can be effective.
To carry your tackle, a trout fisherman's vest works well. Polarized glasses will aid you in spotting fish and bassy-looking underwater locales.
Cast to Commotion. Since bass are usually in the shallows to feed, watch for signs of active fish. Minnows or small panfish hurtling through the air like miniature marlin are usually being chased by a predator. Listen for largemouth as they break the water surface in pursuit of dragonflies or to slurp down a frog. Cast to any commotion. Disturbances can be as subtle as a twitch of a reed or as obvious as a huge boil; both may indicate a largemouth feeding below.
Attention to detail paid off for me last summer with a 21-inch largemouth. On that warm, calm evening, I had caught and released several nice bass by random casting to clumps of bulrushes. No pattern to the bass's location was apparent. I had just finished a retrieve when I noticed the twitch of a reed being bumped by something underwater.
On my next cast, I landed a floating frog imitation a few feet beyond the reed, and just as I began my retrieve, the big bass inhaled it. I reared back and set the hook. The largemouth reacted by leaping skyward in a tail-shaking jump as it attempted to throw my lure—a bass ploy that never ceases to excite me.
I kept the fish coming my way by pumping and reeling, using the long rod and heavy line to my advantage. Eventually, with the fishing rod in my right hand, I grasped the bass's thick jaw with my left hand and hoisted it out of the water. Alone among the bulrushes, I admired the big bass for a few moments, took a quick measurement, then released the 5-pound-plus fish.
Timing. Wading anglers usually find early morning and late afternoon provide the most bass fishing action. Timing can be critical. Placid shoreline waters can suddenly become dotted with swirls, as feeding bass move into shallows. But just as suddenly, the fish can turn off.
You can increase your odds of success by choosing to fish during stable weather, rather than just after a cold front passes. Remember, without the hassles of launching a boat, a wading angler can spot-check several lakes in a short time.
Finding a lake to fish is usually not a problem, since most of Minnesota's lakes contain largemouth bass. Wading anglers should concentrate on small, less-popular lakes. Not only do these waters receive less fishing pressure, but they also often contain weedy, undeveloped shorelines and bays—ideal fishing spots for someone on foot.
For a back-to-nature fishing excursion, try wading for bass. When the sun sinks low and the water goes flat, your only company will be the loons, herons, and ducks—and maybe the biggest bass of your life.