I’ve gone pretty deep into this blog without mentioning it (I think… I dunno, I’m not going to bother rummaging through the archives), so I might as well say it: I really don’t like water.
It’s not that I hate it, nor would I say I have a fear or phobia of it; and its improved with time and experience. But I’ve never been very comfortable around big open bodies of water.
And I hate wind.
“It looks really windy,” I told Tim, watching the waves crest along the boat launch. I admitted my water reluctance, we talked about options, and for a brief moment I considered bailing. No, lets do it, I decided. Tim nodded and drove down to the launch to drop off his canoe.
His setup is an interesting one, using a 15 foot (-ish) canoe stabilized with a homemade outrigger and powered by a trolling motor. It makes for a very stable platform that still provided quite a bit of maneuverability. Tim refers to the parts of the outrigger by their traditional (read: Asian Pacific) terms, which I responded by pointing to the piece and asking, “The green one?”
Fully rigged and loaded we puttered upstream under the silent working of the trolling motor. Tim talked, and I turned my head back toward the stern and nodded, but I kept my preoccupation to both shorelines, looking for the telltale signs of smallmouth crashing baitfish.
I don’t know who coined the term crash, though I usually give Kyle Zempel credit. He certainly has done more than anyone to promote it. The Crash refers to smallmouth bass behavior that begins soon after spawning ends and the waters warm into the summer months. Smallmouth work in tandem in (and this is my term now) wolfpacks to corral baitfish into structural traps before feeding. When the smallmouth spring their trap the river explodes into a flurry of activity: baitfish leap from the water, bronzebacks emerge to the surface and wide mouths erupt in geysers of water.
Kyle has posted a good video showing crashing behavior, and it’s something that must be seen to be believed. It’s a distinct disturbance that is easy to spot once you’ve witnessed it. And it almost always guarantees fish. Throw a white-colored streamer in the boiling mess and you’re chances of finding a fish are pretty damn good. Fishing with such consistency should be illegal outside of Alaska.
Tim stops talking and shouts, pointing. The southern bank was boiling. As Tim nosed the boat closer, I grabbed my 7-weight Clearwater and threw a backcast a foot from the bank. I didn’t get more than two strips in before the line stops and the game begins.
I tell my Fly Fishing 101 students that I really like trout fishing (clarification: I like brown trout fishing and really like brook trout fishing) but I love smallmouth on the fly. There is no subtlety about the take: the line stops dead in the water and the rod doubles over and the fight begins. A fish that is “only” 12-inches will tax a 7-weight rod; anything over 15 inches will put any trout to shame. These fish are well earned. Finding them is easy; landing them is something else entirely.
We beach the canoe and take to wading the shallow shoreline. I hop above the bank and make my way through the world’s greatest living collection of poison ivy to get below the crashing fish, while Tim tackles them from above. We landed about a dozen smallies. I get a nice 14-incher and lose a bigger fish when it takes off downstream and snaps my tippet at the fly. After a half hour the crash ends, the fish leaving for parts elsewhere, and we depart further upstream.
I recently came across a description of the Wisconsin River written by Jacques Marquette. His words could still mostly apply to the river day (wide, sandy, shallow, islands covered in vegetation) but he ends his observations by stating, “…we saw there neither feathered game nor fish…”
Now, far be from me to play armchair historian, but according to the history books Marquette entered the Wisconsin River system near modern-day Portage on June 14, 1673. That would be prime-time fishing for the smallmouth crash. And, granted, Marquette and his entourage did not include any Native guides who might have been able to decipher any fish activity to the naive Frenchmen (their previous guides, a pair of Miami, left them after leading them through the Fox-Wisconsin portage). But his group spent a full week floating the river down to the mouth of the Mississippi, and at no point did they witness a crash and think, What the Hell is that? Has smallmouth behavior changed over the centuries?
Or was Marquette’s journey actually a conspiracy on behalf of the French crown to establish first rights to the interior of the North American continent by faking a trip to the Missisippi, a conspiracy Marquette ultimately challenged, leading to his sudden “death” in Illinois territory, and the loss of his original journal (the evidence) in a boat wreck in which the only survivor was– gasp!– Joliet himself, the likely ringleader for the conspiracy, creating a French stronghold on the fur trade that persisted until a young British colonist named Washington decided to start a little war called that lasted seven years…
…oops, sorry. Let me remove this tinfoil hat here…
Marquette might have been a great explorer. But a naturalist, much less an angler, he was not.
We spent the next two hours searching for smallmouth, casting flies into tight tangles of vines at the banks and losing a fly or two in the process. It was about a hour until sunset, right as Tim snapped the tip off his 8-weight Sage, that he hollered out. Just downstream the water was boiling in a slow-moving pool off the main current. We took our time in the float down as Tim re-rigged, and as we reached within fifteen yards of the pool the fish exploded from the water.
I barely had time to get the fly in the water and the line went taught. As I was reeling in a nice white bass Tim put his line on the water and immediately hooked up. In the commotion we didn’t do the proper job of anchoring the boat, and as Tim struggled to land the fish we floated directly above the frenzy of bass. Tim cursed. I figured we blew it and might have better luck to continue on downstream. But we decided to swing back around and anchor just above the pool–properly, this time– and wait.
If our movement did anything to the fish, it didn’t last long. The crash began again, we threw more casts, catching feisty white bass and fat smallmouth. At one point an issue with my leader lead to a switch to my 9-weight Clearwater with a sinking tip. A couple of casts in and I landed my biggest fish of the evening, a hefty smallmouth that I was probably north of 16 inches.
The fish just never seemed to stop. We anchored there for an hour as the sun went down, riding out the waves of activity; minutes of inaction followed by a feeding frenzy and a mad dash to get a fly into the middle of the action before they settled down again. Later Tim asked if I had ever seen such a crash; neither of us could say we have witnessed anything with more intensity and sustainability.
In the end, I gave up. At some point fishing is too easy, and muscles are too weak. The bass were still crashing as we hauled anchor and began drifting back toward the launch.
The water was calm now. The wind had stopped. The water reflected the purple-stained sky as the sun retreated. And out there in the coming darkness the fish kept going.
Sometimes I’m alright out on the water.
(Additional photos courtesy “Spoonbill”)