Gary Engberg: Wisconsin River becoming great place to land smallmouth bass
I’ve lived on the Wisconsin River going on 40 years and the fishing in the Wisconsin has seen its ups and downs.
Walleyes have been my favorite fish mainly because they are so unpredictable — here one day and miles away the next. They are hard to pattern and can travel miles over night. I find them very challenging besides being one of the best eating fish.
I learned how to fish from my grandfather, John Chellman, who taught me how to jig and live bait fish (Lindy Rigging) for these golden beauties. But, in the late 1980s and into the 2000s trolling on the Great Lakes, big rivers, and waters that produced big walleyes was the way to go.
But I’ve also found another gamefish that is thriving in most Midwestern and Northern lakes; the smallmouth bass.
I’ve fished all over the United States for walleyes, but have also developed a passion for one of the best fighting fish in the smallmouth. I’m not sure why the smallmouth population has increased so much in the Upper Midwest, but their numbers are increasing by leaps and bounds.
All the Great Lakes have great smallmouth fishing. The Sturgeon Bay area of Lake Michigan is now producing smallmouths close to nine pounds. Not that many years ago, a five-pound smallie was considered a big fish and it still is one for your wall or better yet have a reproduction made of it and release the fish to be caught again.
My walleye fishing on the Wisconsin River has not been that great this spring and summer. I’ve been trolling crankbaits which usually produces some “keeper” walleyes for the dinner table. I‘ve been catching plenty of walleyes , but very few that are at least the 18-inch minimum size limit. The river is dominated with 2- and 3-year-old walleyes that are between 14 and 17 inches.
Being frustrated, I decided to go back to some “old school” fishing, the kind my grandfather taught me many years ago. No matter what species of fish you’re pursuing river fish will use any type of structure to break the rivers current. Fish stay out of the rivers current to conserve their energy. They don’t have to be eating all the time to just maintain their weight.
Ideally, fish such as walleyes and smallmouth like to hide behind some structure or cover which breaks the current and when something that appeals to them floats by they’ll swim out and grab it and return to their holding location.
My friend, Mike Booth, decided to try a location only a half mile up river where he had good success with both walleye and smallmouth a few days ago.
We pulled our Jon boat parallel to a fallen tree and brush pile. Part of the boat was on the river’s sand and the rest of the boat in the water. The fallen tree and brush created a back eddy where the water was moving very slowly along the river’s faster current.
Mike and I were using one of the simplest rigs an angler can use. We were casting with open-face spinning reels with 8- to 10-pound monofilament line. The little stronger line let’s you pull out of snags or rocks. Next, put a “Lindy” weight or split shot in front of the swivel, then I tie a barrel swivel to the main line, then a 4 foot section of fluorocarbon line (it’s invisible) to the swivel, and on the fluorocarbon live a quality No. 6 hook.
Bait the hook with a lively night crawler, remember just hook and bury the hook point in the crawlers head. Some fishermen might put a colored bead in front of the hook as an attractor.
Cast the rig along the river current and the slack water and slowly reel it in stopping now and then. The slow current will take the rig along the bottom and this is how I’ve been fishing.
Last time out, Mike and I caught 14 fish from 16 to 19 inches and they all were smallmouths. These bass were caught in an hour and fifteen minutes.
In a location such as this, the walleyes come and go, but the smallmouth doesn’t seem to travel and disappear like the walleye.
Who would have thought that a nightcrawler and plain hook would produce smallmouth bass like this? Going back to the basics and simple ways is definitely producing on the Wisconsin River. Another thing, try using circle hooks because they save many fish. Start reeling as soon as you feel the fish and they will be hooked in the side of the mouth and not gut-hooked to die. Live bait should also be kept on ice to keep your crawlers firm and healthy.
Give these waters or any medium size river near you and I bet you’ll find smallmouth bass.