|Sondra Gray with her football-shaped smallmouth|
Catching big smallmouth in northwest Ontario is no big deal. Small Canadian lakes are full of them.
Sometimes fishermen think the month of May is too early to fish in Canada. There are lakes in northwest Ontario that still have a lot of ice earlier in the month. But several years ago some friends and I went there the last week of May and discovered that it is one of the best times to catch the biggest of those football shaped smallmouth bass…. on topwater lures and buzz-baits.
I can’t say for sure about the spawning of smallmouth and largemouth bass in those lakes, but it is obvious that they move to shallow water pretty quickly. And the number one bait for us has been big white or yellow buzz-baits. Other topwater lures may be just as good… Zara spooks, Rapalas and big popping lures of all kinds, but you can fish a buzz-bait much faster and that allows you to get in more casts.
There are a lot of misses. You’ll see smallmouth you are convinced weigh five pounds just roll at the lures and never get hooked. But you will catch a few too, not many in that five-pound category but lots of them above four pounds. As much as I like to fish buzz-baits in the late summer and early fall here in the Ozarks, that kind of fishing here has never given the results you see in Canada.
I can’t wait to get there, back in the wilderness where the only motors you might hear is from a pontoon plane passing overhead on occasion. In late May, we leave the boat to find morel mushrooms the size of jumbo ice cream cones, amongst pine cones and moose tracks.
As you fish you hear the sound of old-time farm tractors starting on a cold Ozark day, except there in the Canadian bush country, it is the sound of drumming ruffed grouse along the shores. You will see a few pine martens and occasionally a fisher; mink and otter and beaver are plentiful. And there are the loons, and the haunting but melodious calls they send out throughout the morning as you fish.
It is rare to see moose and bear, but over the years that has happened too. And when you return worn out from a long day of fishing, you sleep like a baby. You occasionally marvel at northern lights when you step out on the porch at three or four in the morning to answer nature’s call. Sometimes you will hear a wolf howl at night, but that too is rare. And it is difficult to figure why there are so many more stars in the sky than you have ever seen before.
Whatever drastic news comes from the political problems and the terrorists back in the rest of the world, you do not know a thing about, because cell phones don’t work on those little Ontario lakes. Who gives a hoot?
But back to the fishing, which is the best reason to go there in late May. You’ll find that not only smallmouth bass like those big noisy buzz-baits. The good thing about buzz-bait fishing is the fact that they work fairly well with an eight-inch steel leader. That steel leader is necessary because every now and then a northern pike that weighs three or four pounds will intercept that lure take your lure by biting through the strongest of monofilament line. And occasionally, when you get a ten or fifteen pound northern, you’ll want to land him, and you probably won’t without the steel leader.
While that casting gear is the choice for bass fishermen, you also will want to have a light-tackle spinning outfit with you and some small jigs. Because several times we have found big fat crappie from one to two pounds, schooling just outside of weed beds. We seldom eat a smallmouth, because there are crappies for supper and they are absolutely delicious. I love Canadian crappie but I don’t filet the skin off, I scale them. They are so, so much better to eat with that skin intact.
And if you filet a five- or six-pound northern, and know how to take out those Y bones in the upper part of the filet, you will not believe how good they are, hot from the skillet. Anyone who fishes in Canada needs to learn the simple procedure for removing Y bones from a northern pike. It is simple. But no matter how good they are to eat, they are repulsive to some fishermen because they are so slimy. Indians of the region, including today’s Cree and Ojibway guides, called them ‘snakes’ and avoided them completely. But why not, they had so many walleye to eat.
So as you read this, I hope I am taking a picture of a great big smallmouth before releasing it, somewhere on a little lake where there are no other fishermen. They come here mostly in the summer, to the easy access waters and fly-in lakes and I have very often heard fisherman brag about catching a hundred smallmouth a day. I have never counted the brownies caught and released in a day; it seems a silly, and downright impossible thing to do. When you are having so much fun on such fantastic waters, who wants to count fish?
There are many lakes up there where you can catch smallmouth of a pound or so one right after another. If you fish four hours you should easily boat a hundred of them. But most are not to be boasted about unless you are taken with fish under two pounds in weight. You need to catch smallmouth above three pounds in order to count up your accomplishments. I think that a few years ago a friend of mine caught 20 or so smallmouth above four pounds in one morning of fishing but we never kept track. That was something to see.
If you want to catch a six- to seven-pound bass, you can do that… in one of the remote lakes that holds largemouth. How strange it seems to me that those largemouth lakes have no smallmouth, and smallmouth lakes have no largemouths. One late August night in the darkness on an unnamed lake, I caught a largemouth close to seven pounds on a jitterbug, and we landed quite a few six pounders. I have never seen largemouth bass that heavy and fat and that short and that color, nothing like Ozark largemouth.
Perhaps this is a good place to say that if you fish our streams here in the Ozarks on opening day of the “bass season” you should release all the smallmouth you catch. They are hard pressed here, as our streams increasingly become more polluted and fill in more each year, deep holes becoming scarcer as fishing pressure intensifies. Keep the largemouth and Kentucky bass, even the green sunfish, if you want to eat fish, but release all the smallmouth and goggle-eye you catch, or figure on a day in the future when there won’t be any for a future generation to catch.
Yeah, I kept the brownies and goggle-eye too when I was younger, but I kept my last one forty years ago when it became apparent they were being overharvested and I began to see the decline in habitat. I plead with fishermen to release those two species from our rivers, as I do not know of a greater move a fisherman can do for conservation of a species. More to say about this in another column.
Thanks to the 52 people who came to our Panther Creek Youth Retreat last Saturday for our fish fry and tour of the place. No one enjoyed it more than I. It is so good to meet people like that, when you are someone who pretty much lives a solitary life outdoors. Often as I write this column up here on this secluded ridgetop, I wonder if there are really people out there who read it.
I hope I get to see all of you again. Special thanks to a couple of our youth counselors, Dennis Whiteside and Rich Abdoler, who fried almost three hundred fish fillets, and neighbor Pam Myers and my daughters Christy and Leah. It was a great day!