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Sunday, May 6, 2018

catching a big un

So I'm questioned a lot on my thoughts on smallmouth bass and spring. A lot. Anyways, here is I guess an overview of my thoughts on smallmouth bass this time of year. A few disclaimers first. I smallmouth fish mostly in rivers and streams in southern Ohio, mostly southwest Ohio, I do feel that some of this may not apply to rivers in places that are not farmed as extensively as around here. A hundred years of agriculture has completely changed our rivers. The pools of my rivers are now quite often filled with mostly a mucky bottom caused by runoff. When we have a period of rain nowadays the river jumps up and gets very muddy very fast. The earliest explorers to this region told a very different story. They spoke of periods of high water where the rivers would be up out of their banks but still clear! All caused by our rivers being at that time surrounded by the greatest virgin forest on earth. With a hard bottom to the pools to provide habitat for things like crawfish, madtoms, darters etc, it must have been astounding how productive our rivers were back then. That simply isn't the case now, the areas of hard bottom are all concentrated around riffle/fast water reaches. I think in rivers, or stretches of rivers, that do not have this soft mucky bottom to their pools, the quality of fishing in the pools is vastly superior to the that of the rivers I fish. I find it more productive the vast majority of the time to simply concentrate my smallmouth fishing on areas of moderate to strong current which will eliminate wasting time on the ninety percent of the river where this isn't the case. A lot of the time the fish aren't in the current directly but instead in small pockets of calmer water adjoining the heavier flow. It's as simple as that really when you boil it down to it's most basic. I don't target spawning areas for smallmouth bass, I feel like that bass in a river or stream have a rough enough go at life without me catching them while spawning. I'm not a fanatic on this if you want to I'm not going to preach at you, I simply don't, it's my choice and nothing more. Luckily for me a very high percentage of smallmouth bass in rivers do not spawn every year. It seems to vary wildly every year, I'm guessing by fish condition and food supply the previous year but no one seems to know for sure, even the biologists who study them, but it's roughly in the range from 10 to 50 percent. And here's an exciting tidbit, I find it's quite often that the very biggest fish, the giants approaching 20 inches, that don't spawn. My guess, and it's just a guess, is that a 20 inch fish is a very old fish, a senior citizen and not in the prime of it's life like it was when it was say 18 inches long and that's why it doesn't spawn. My other theory is that a fish might be more likely to reach 20 inches because it wasn't predisposed not to spawn often in the first place. The spawn seems to be very very stressful on smallmouth bass and several individuals die from the stress every year. A fish that doesn't spawn or doesn't spawn often thus avoids this stress and grows bigger. There are a whole of 18's for every 19 and a lot of 19's for every 20, a fish needs every break it can get plus good genetics to do so. And something else...
A bass needs a whole bunch of time. A whole whole bunch of time. The time needed to become a trophy smallmouth varies wildly from 10 or 12 years in productive systems to 20 years in cold unproductive systems. Let's just average it all out and say it probably takes 12 or 14 years to become a true trophy. Now I'm not a catch and release fanatic, one of my greatest joys in life is to bake a nice channelcat fillet in foil over a campfire by the river on a summers night. But I'm a realist, you cannot harvest smallmouth bass like you can crappie and expect to have good trophy smallmouth fishing. 19 and 20 inch smallmouth are less than 1 percent of the population of southern Ohio streams and it takes over a decade to replace each one. If you think you are not hurting the smallmouth fishing in your stretch of river by keeping fish over 14/15 inches long you are simply wrong, there is no arguing that point. A river will support only so much biomass whether it's four 5 inch fish or one 17 incher is kinda up to you as fishermen.
Okay back on topic. So a fish needs time to become a trophy. And small to medium sized rivers and streams have smallmouth wired differently than smallmouth in lakes and giant river systems. In small rivers and streams smallmouth bass stay in one stretch of river their entire lives except when migrating to and from their wintering holes. This can be both a blessing and a curse, a blessing if you fish a section of river where smallmouth are left alone or released and a curse if you fish a section where fish are harvested regularly. Your job as a guy after a trophy is to find waters where a fish has a chance to live a dozen years without being harvested. Or simply settle for catching smaller bass. Now it is fishing after all and there are exceptions to every rule but by and large this is simply the case. It doesn't have to be a big river either, I have for three years in a row now released a 20 incher from a little stream that nowhere on it can you not cast all the way across it and up into the woods on the other side or no where can you not wade across it. But it receives zero pressure and the fish have that luxury of time to get big.
It's that simple really. Fish for smallmouth in the same habitat you would in July and instead spend the majority of your time finding a better spot to fish. There is a great example in one of my favorite places. You have to yak a ways then get out and leave a whole bunch of actually very good water and walk another half mile or so downstream to this gorgeous hole and the riffles around it. You can't float right down to it unless you want to float another hour downstream thru unproductive water to take out. So you yak halfway then walk. So no one fishes it. They yak down to the first section of pretty water and fish it, sure they have gotten away from everyone else. Twice now I've ran into someone there who has told me, "I know I'm in the right place seeing you here". I told one very likeable guy, yeah but if you really want to catch a good one you gotta go at least a half mile downstream. The next day he commented online, I had a great trip and knew I was in a good spot when I saw you there. He settled. My advice to anyone after a trophy smallmouth... most people do not fish water fast enough,and in summer no water is too fast, and you can always find somewhere with less fishing pressure than where you are fishing now, no matter how good it might seem.

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