The gamest of game fish

Inch for inch, pound for pound, most knowledgeable fishermen consider the smallmouth bass to be the gamest fish that swims. Some might argue the pint-sized bluegill has more fight in it than the smallie (they may have a point), but the bluegill seldom grows larger than one’s hand, and one weighing a pound is worthy of a prize in any big fish contest. The late Jason Lucas, legendary expert on bass fishing, and former fishing editor of Sports Afield magazine, describes the small-mouth thusly: “He is plucky, game, brave, and unyielding when hooked. He has the arrowy rush of the trout, the untiring strength and leap of the salmon while he has a system of fighting tactics peculiarly his own.”

Until I moved to Illinois some years ago, my bass fishing was limited to the small mouth’s cousin, the largemouth bass which prefers a warmer environment. The large-mouth is a great game fish and will strike almost any type of artificial lure if it is properly presented and will put up a sustained fight while performing a dazzling display of aerial acrobatics. It is not, however, equal to the smallie in its strength and fighting ability. The smallmouth does not grow to such a gargantuan size as a largemouth (for years the record was 22 pounds from a lake in Georgia), and a 3 pound smallie is considered to be a prize specimen, but a few weighing 6 pounds are on record.

The easiest way to differentiate between a smallmouth and a largemouth bass is to examine the upper jaw. In the smallmouth the upper jaw does not reach backwards to the eye, whereas in the largemouth the jaw extends beyond the eye.

My first experience with a smallmouth bass occurred in the Kankakee River, near Wilmington shortly after I moved to Illinois. I knew I had caught a bass, but it looked and fought differently than any largemouth I had previously hooked. It then dawned on me that I had caught my first smallmouth bass.

I really fell in love with the smallie a few years later when my son Mike and I joined a group to canoe the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in northern Minnesota and southern Ontario. We were nearing the end of a five-day trip into the wilderness and camped the last night near the roaring falls on Basswood Lake. After dinner, Mike and I decided to fish a nearby cove for an hour or so. On the first cast, he caught a 2-pound smallmouth on a Heddon Tiny Torpedo surface lure. In the cold water of Basswood Lake, the fish fought with demonic fury, and, within an hour’s time, we had caught and released appromiximately 20 smallmouths in the 1 to 2 pound range, all taken on surface lures. I have had many memorable and exhilarating fishing experiences in both fresh and salt water in this country and abroad, but that evening in a small cove on Basswood Lake in Quetico Provincial Park will never be surpassed.

Until recent years, smallmouth bass were not too common in Illinois because of the unhealthy conditions of our waterways. Where largemouth bass tolerate weed-choked lakes and streams laden with silt, the small-mouth must have clear, clean waterways, preferably with a rocky or gravel bottom. In many areas our streams, rivers, and lakes have been rehabilitated and now provide fine habitats for the smallmouth. The Kiswaukee, Sugar, Fox, and Apple rivers, and Franklin Creek in a state natural area provide excellent smallmouth angling in our immediate area.

Fish biologists tell us that one of the worst enemies of smallmouth bodies of water is siltation. Soil washing into a stream muddies the water so fish experience difficulty seeing items of food, and it smothers the streambed and interferes with reproduction. Much of the silt entering our rivers and streams comes from construction sites that permit dirt and other debris to wash into the watershed. Each construction site along a waterway must have a Storm Water Pollution Prevention Plan that describes the steps the developer will take to prevent soil from leaving the construction site. They do not always abide by this plan.

Recently, it was very disturbing to learn of a development on the pristine Kishwaukee that was responsible for the silting up of a large section of the river. Apparently, the developer had been made aware of the violation but had chosen to ignore the warning. It was heartening, therefore, to learn the Illinois Attorney General had instigated a lawsuit against the firm responsible, prescribing severe penalties if the situation was not corrected.

The smallmouth bass is so popular in Illinois that there is an organization, The Illinois Small-mouth Alliance, devoted to the enhancement of the species. The ISA publishes a bimonthly, informative bulletin and offers for sale a new book entitled Strategies for Stream Smallmouths. The cost is $10 plus $2 postage and may be ordered from ISA, 2304 Wild Timothy Rd., Naperville, IL 60564.

Dr. Robert Hedeen is a former resident of Maryland’s eastern shore and resided in the Chicago area from 1960-1971. He is a retired professor emeritus of biological sciences in the University of Maryland system. He has published more than 30 scientific papers, has written numerous magazine articles, and is the author of two books on the natural history of the Chesapeake Bay.

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