As I type this we’re hunkering down here in southern Wisconsin for a late season snowstorm, a last vengeful gasp of winter to punish us for believing we could pull the sandals out from the back of the closet. We’ll make it through our first winter in the house without the need of a snowblower (though not necessarily without want). And I hope this is indeed that last gasp, because the mild winter has coddled me far too much, and while I might have been willing to hit the water on any day just above freezing two months ago, the very thought of having to fish in freezing rain this weekend during Cozad’s 1Fly is currently sitting one step above hooking myself in the back with a muskie fly.
But fear not, because in little more than a month the regular fishing season starts. And while for some folks that heralds the opportunity to cook up a few trout, for me it means I can stop killing time in trout streams and begin chasing smallmouth again. That, truly, is the start of the fishing season.
The story goes that in the late 19th Century two fish were imported from Europe for the purposes of American angling: one, the German brown trout, was a the true sportman’s fish, already renowned for centuries in its native Europe; and the other was the common carp, an everyman fish that could find its way to the plates of the common-folk’s dinner. One of these is still true today, and the other has become a story of begrudging acceptance and respect for a fish whose only crime is being quite capable of surviving any body of water it enters. This always leaves me with the question: did early Americans find native fisheries so lacking that they needed to import other peoples’ fish? At the very least they were lacking in the gentleman’s trout.
The 1881 publication of the Book of Black Bass, a full two years before von Behr’s German browns made it to the United States, indicates that more than a few anglers already knew back then that smallmouth were special. Around the same time J.S. Owner of Maryland was experimenting with smallmouth bass fly patterns on the Potomac River. Considering we’ve now had about a hundred-and-fifty years to figure it out, isn’t it at least a bit surprising that American fly fishing is so closely tied to trout? Because dammit, smallmouth bass are so much more fun.
Maybe I shouldn’t be discussing this out loud. Maybe it’s better that most folks want to throw dries to trout from spring through fall. Maybe I shouldn’t describe the feeling of your line hitting the wall on a streamer retrieve, only to have the rod come alive in your hand as a fish turns furious in the water. Or the violent explosion at the stream’s surface after you’ve just pushed that big fish one strip too far on a pencil popper. Or the nervous boil of water that erupts on the calm surface of the Wisconsin River when smallies start crashing bait, like a trout rise Hulk-ified.
Yeah, none of that happened. Just forget it.
I still remember a float trip on the upper Wisconsin River around Memorial Day, watching my 9-weight—a rod, mind you, I bought for muskies—doubled over from the pain of a 18-inch smallmouth. Or watching a 15-incher tax my 5-weight as it ran downstream on the Galena. Or throwing a popper into an unlikely lie only to see it swallowed whole by a crafty bass.
Or hearing Tom’s story of being chased from a pasture by a raging bull. Actually, he should tell that one more often: just stay away from the bass water, kids, you’ll get hurt. Let the professionals handle this.
Trout may kick off my fishing season, but smallmouth sustain it.