Photo by Ted Peck.
Clients sharing my boat and folks at fishing seminars often ask, “What’s your favorite fish?” My honest answer: “the critter on the other end of the line.” Yet a little voice inside my head always adds: But I hope it’s a great big smallmouth!
For my nickel, the best place to dance with this fish of dreams is somewhere along our eastern border in the Mississippi River. Sure, there’s much to be said for canoeing down the Wapsipinicon or Upper Iowa and watching a nice bronzeback garwoofle a clear Heddon Tiny Torpedo following a little rod twitch after a perfectly crafted cast.
An 18-inch smallmouth is a finned ticket to a thrill wherever you find her. A fish of these dimensions would likely be the highlight of your summer on an inland river or lake; on the Mississippi, however, the odds are high that such a fish would only make your mental-highlights reel for the day. And the chance is always there to tangle with an even bigger fish — especially up on Pool 9.
The biggest smallmouth I’ve ever landed weighed pretty close to 8 pounds, 2 ounces. She was reverently released after photos and dimensions were noted on a dressmaker’s tape. Her weight was calculated by using the In-Fisherman formula of girth times girth times length divided by 800, which in my experience works pretty well for most game-fish species.
My 24 1/4-inch Pool 9 fish was on an extremely limited perimeter patrol in shallow water near the gnarly old roots of a fallen tree next to railbed riprap on the Wisconsin side of the channel in May 2003. After watching minnows explode out of the water in this general vicinity several times, I tossed a Chompers skirted hula grub towards this cover.
The line started to move before the spinning reel’s bail could be engaged, and a powerful whiffing hookset followed; about 10 casts later this drama was repeated. Several casts after that I was just a little quicker than she was, and she came 3 feet out of the water, probably 20 feet from the boat, to get an eyeball-to-eyeball look at the source of her torment.
My knees were knocking a few minutes later, when the fish was finally subdued enough to be coaxed towards the boat. A graphite replica now on my den wall commemorates the second-biggest smallmouth I’ve ever seen in Pool 9.
Riprapped areas upstream from islands just off the main channel are good places to look for smallmouths when the river is at lower pool levels. Current is always a factor in this type of habitat. Just a couple of inches difference in river level at low pool can change the direction of water flowing over the riprap, causing flow counter to the main force of current headed downstream. Baitfish and other forage get caught up in this counter-current, with smallmouths and other predators waiting eagerly to take advantage of the situation.
Presentation is a major key to success under virtually all circumstances when you’re fishing a river. This is especially true when probing a counter-current situation.
Herein is found one of the most exciting facets of fishing on the Mississippi: Your best species-specific efforts may not reap the desired reward — but some piscine combatant will almost always swim forward to stretch your string.
Of course, the odds on tangling with your desired species are usually greater if you’re actually fishin’ for it. You can be a serious player for Mississippi River smallmouths with just a $25 investment in tackle.
A couple of topwater baits like a Chug Bug or Devil’s Toothpick, pre-rigged on a rod and set aside until the time is right, should be part of your armory. Topwater lures are low-percentage “locator” baits, but nothing’s more fun once you find the fish, which are quickly gone if preparedness is not ready to meet opportunity.
With the river at low pool levels, a favorite predator tactic is herding baitfish up on the top of rocks in shallow water found on wing dams and similar rocky structures close to the main channel with some current.
Observation is the major key in taking advantage of this situation. From a half-mile away, gulls dive-bombing in for the wounded dregs left behind by finned predators can provide a clue that a banquet’s being served.
Fish tend to congregate in incredible numbers in a river system. You may travel for a mile or more to find that point of harmonic convergence where bait is just piled up and the feast is on.
A number of parameters define this phenomenon, which — just like the river — is ever-changing. Consistently cashing in requires a formula that includes time on the water and a good “search” bait like a crankbait or spinner.
Crankbaits that run down 6 to 8 feet can be deadly for Mississippi River smallmouths. The DC-8 Timber Tiger, Wiggle Wart and Bandit cranks are personal favorites.
Bait profile trumps color when you’re looking for smallmouths this time of year. On northern river pools natural colors tend to work better. Down on Pool 13, near Sabula, where I grew up, and points south, fluorescent hues often have an edge, because the water there is more stained.
On those waters north of McGregor, bluegill pattern and chrome/blue are both deadly right now, because these colors are close to the forage base of bluegills and shad.
From mid-September to mid-October, bluegills hold a regular convention on the rocks in some areas of the Mississippi, usually close to current, and their activity draws predators. Although the term “sure thing” can never be used when you’re talking about fishing success on the Mississippi River, the results can sometimes border on amazing if you know when and where to take advantage of this pattern.
Before and after this circus comes to town, shad are favored fare for smallies. One rod is always locked and loaded with a chrome/blue or chrome/black Rat-L-Trap to take advantage of this situation.
A spinnerbait is another handy weapon. On northern pools, blue/ white or purple spinnerbaits are usually most effective; from Dubuque south, chartreuse and chartreuse/orange baits tend to work better.
In exceptionally off-colored water, a big single blade has more “whump” and fish-attracting potential, but a tandem spinnerbait is generally the best w
ay to go on northern River pools — especially those lures with a willow-leaf or Colorado blade.
Many Hawkeye anglers have forgotten about in-line spinners — a deadly tool for Mississippi River smallmouths between now and late October. My favorite in-lines are a No. 5 copper Blue Fox Super Vibrax and the Mepps Black Fury with white dots.
The Black Fury with white dots has only been on the market for a few years. But in this timeframe, anglers from Pool 11 north have come to realize this bait’s true “killer” status.
My nephew, Darrin Marcure, is one such believer. Several years ago we were testing this lure before it became available to the general fishing public. Darrin was just a kid then, and nothing is more fun than watching a kid wail away on white bass — the bacon-saver for many Mississippi River fishing guides.
When you find white bass herding shad on the rocks in August, it’s a fish-on-every-cast scenario. But other predators are in the mix as well: Darrin’s fourth cast of the day was intercepted by a 6-pound 14-ounce smallie.
He killed this bass, which now hangs on the wall. As a farm kid, Darrin didn’t draw an allowance from his parents. This cost of mounting this fish was essentially a month’s chores and the entire proceeds of second-crop hay labor — and to him, it was worth every drop of sweat.
Once active smallmouths are located, plastics will catch more fish, simply because they can be presented with more finesse to tempt those fish which aren’t aggressively feeding.
Plastics are available in a number of configurations, some of the more productive of which look like nothing that has ever swum the Mississippi. My favorite plastic is the Chompers skirted hula grub, but there are days that see tubes, Senko variations, flukes and other plastics catch more fish.
As is the case with other lures, color is secondary to bait profile. On northern river pools, camo, blue/fleck and motor/oil fleck are popular choices; downstream, green pumpkin and chartreuse pumpkin/pepper has an edge.
When smallmouths are in the mood for plastics, and clients are in the boat, heated competition between anglers throwing a green pumpkin Chomper behind a Mert Wolf “Brush Bug” and somebody else pitching a chartreuse pumpkin-pepper Senko-style bait rigged wacky-worm style usually develops.
Downstream from Dubuque — according to veteran local guide Rudy Morgan — smallmouth bass are considered a bonus species, although fishing can be “predictably good” around the rocks below the dam at Bellevue on Pool 13 and tailwaters of the Pool 14 dam at Clinton early in the summer.
“Fishing for smallies should continue to improve over the next few years,” he said, “especially on Pool 13. The key is hard-bottomed areas and clean water. Considerable habitat improvement in the form of riprapping on Pool 13 and the growing menace of zebra mussels are combining to grow the smallmouth population beyond bonus status . . . but it will still be a few years before this neck of the river can be considered a good smallmouth fishery.”
Wing dams and closing dams from the old Savanna Army Depot north on pool 13 hold some nice smallmouth bass.
Every one of these rocky structures has a “sweet spot” that tends to draw more fish. Some wing dams have a gap of several feet at some point along their span, which is essentially at a 90-degree angle to the main channel. This gap creates a mini-habitat, which funnels forage, providing a great ambush point for smallmouths.
Riprap is never placed with NASA precision. Some wing dams have what local anglers call a “Friday rockpile,” where a load of rocks is dropped slightly off-kilter, resulting in a “knob” on the face of the wing dam. This habitat anomaly has the potential for holding smallies all around the structure, with exact location driven by both current and forage base. One such wing dam exists across from the tall sandbank on the old Depot grounds on Pool 13.
Before I pulled my knee-shaking 8-pounder from Pool 9 a couple of years ago, my previous personal best had been a Pool 13 fish that I tempted from this wing dam while I was fishing with veteran Sherrill guide Jimmie Oberfoell.
Jimmie, who held the boat perfectly in current out from the end of this wing dam, told me to pitch my chartreuse Luhr-Jensen Hot Lips crankbait toward a boiling swirl a short cast in from the end of the wing dam.
The 21 1/2-incher jumped what seemed like 5 feet straight up when a rod twitch caused the bait to dive; it followed this with an aerobatic display that you’d expect more from a bird rather than from a fish before Jimmie was finally able to net it that sultry August day.
Although places like this rocky knob on a wing dam are high-percentage spots, riverine smallmouths don’t have the “homebody” tendencies found among those in inland lakes. This is especially true along the vast, complex Mississippi River.
The more important key to smallmouth location on the Mississippi is having an understanding of the predator-prey relationship and of how smallies plug into nature’s grand scheme. Smallies will congregate wherever it takes the least energy to catch food.
By early April, these fish start to migrate in from deep-water wintering holes into shallow backwaters, relating to rocks and wood. Water temperature is a major driver of both predator and prey location at this time.
By the arrival of serious summer, smallies tend to spread out. You’ll find them in deeper running sloughs where there’s current, on side channels and on the river proper — with location driven by food.
From late summer into early fall, river levels tend to be low, concentrating smallmouths primarily near the main river channel and in running sloughs with plenty of current like the east channel of the River above the Highway 82 bridge to Lansing.
Smallmouth fishing is at its very best on the Mississippi between now and the end of October, because the fish tend to concentrate more.
When winter is at hand, it’s time to probe deeper holes with blade baits and jigs. Smallies may hold in the same habitat preferred by walleyes and saugers.
One virtually overlooked bass pattern is probing deeper holes close to confluence with tributaries. Recent research by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources indicates that substantial numbers of smallmouths migrate many miles downstream into the Mississippi from tributaries like the Maquoketa, Wapsipinicon and Upper Iowa rivers to overwinter.
“The fall walleye migration has been common knowledge for years,” IDNR fisheries biologist Bill Kalishek said, “and recent radio-tracking studies on inland rivers indicate significant migration of smallmouth bass and channel catfish as w
ell. In some instances we’re talking travel of many miles…right past habitat which should be well suited for holding these fish thru the colder months.”
Although recent weeks have been almost enough to make us yearn for the thigh-deep snowdrifts of last February, plenty of scrappy smallmouths are available to dance with before northeast Iowa begins to cool down.
Images of a smallmouth more than 2 feet long and a foot tall frequently haunt my thoughts. She has either become food for turtles or is still swimming somewhere in Pool 9 — and if she’s still out there, her weight is certainly far greater than that of Iowa’s 7-pound, 12-ounce record, which Rick Gray pulled out of Spirit Lake 17 years ago. The odds that this fish will eat a crankbait, spinner or some kind of plastic creature on the very next cast are astronomical…but there’s always a chance.
You can’t win the lottery if you don’t buy a ticket, and you can’t break the record with your line out of the water. I don’t know which outlet will sell the next mega-lottery winning ticket, but I do know what place Iowa’s next bronzeback record calls home!