A river smallmouth like they use to be…
This happens a lot in the spring, but not so much in February… a little white bass tries to take the topwater lure away from a smallmouth
Some of the readers say they enjoy trying to answer these nature questions I have been throwing out there for the ‘master naturalists’ in the Ozarks. I am not one of them; I haven’t been given my certificate. But you should be able to answer any of these questions off the top of your head. So far, I haven’t missed a one!!!
This week’s question is an easy one. Among the black bass, the largemouth and spotted bass are very similar, but there is one way to tell one from the other which has nothing to do with color or lines or spots on the body. How can you distinguish them? What family do they belong to… the bass family, the perch family the sunfish family or the bluegill family. Answers at end of column.
That 80-degree day a week or so ago in late February helped me do something I have never done before. I caught smallmouth bass on a topwater lure in February. I caught a couple of the Kentucky bass and a couple of largemouth and 20 or 30 white bass on that topwater lure too.
I was amazed. I hadn’t expected anything like that. Is this world going crazy, fish hitting a topwater Rebel lure in February? What is going to happen next? Will morels start coming up in January? Will snow geese migrate south in July? Strange things are happening on this earth.
Old Bolt, my Labrador, and I like to get away in the middle of the week, away from the day-to-day goings on and the weirdness you encounter in town. Out where I am a part of the natural world, where it is a little bit like it use to be when only native Americans lived here, there is stability to go along with the peace and ambience that makes a man feel like something somewhere is normal. When May is about to become June and I can camp on a river gravel bar somewhere and wade out at the lower end of a shoal and catch smallmouth on a topwater lure that imitates a dying minnow, I am in seventh heaven. But I don’t expect to see that in February, I expect to see it spitting snow and catching bass in ten or twelve feet of water on some hairy jig with a rubber crawdad.
And so I am rightfully troubled, and so is old Bolt. Still you forget there might be a problem when you wiggle that topwater lure a time or two and there’s a swirl where it use to be and you lean back on a bent-over rod. The good-sized bass often don’t make much of a splash at all. Of course these bass weren’t big old slab-sided frog-eaters. The biggest brownie that afternoon was only sixteen inches long and I landed one seventeen inch largemouth. Most were anywhere from thirteen to fifteen inches long. But that is okay when you are using an ultra-lite spinning outfit and four pound line.
On that little outfit a fifteen-inch bass can make your drag sing. When you fish as long as I have, you get to where you know if the surface lure attack comes from a black bass or a white. I don’t know how to explain the difference but there is one. Smallmouth take that lure and go down deep quickly, while white bass stay closer to the surface as they fight against the pressure of the rod. But they do fight!
And while there were plenty of whites, ninety percent of them males, there were no really big ones. In that spot twenty years ago I caught a lot of two-pound white bass, but it doesn’t happen now. Fishing pressure for those white bass in that river which feeds the lake is likely ten times what it was just ten or fifteen years ago, an increasing. While you can’t hurt white bass populations, those prolific fish are the easiest of all fish to catch, and the big ones never get thrown back. Nowadays, the twelve-inchers aren’t thrown back either. I kept my limit of those smallish-sized whites, took them home and filleted them, skimming the red meat off each, ending up with two nice sized little hunks of white meat off each fish that fry up perfect. Everyone else does the same thing, and that might be the reason that few bigger whites show up there in the spring. You may hurt the number of three or four year old whites, but there will always be a million of the younger ones.
Smallmouth aren’t like that. You can see the affect of heavier fishing pressure on the smallmouth. Brownies up in that stream are easy to catch in the spring, and too many fishermen keep them. Where those three- to four-pound smallmouth I caught each March in that river were fairly plentiful ten years ago, they are declining rapidly today. We just cannot convince certain kinds of fishermen that the smallmouth should be released. The day I fished, there were six kayaks up the river, something never seen twenty years ago. Most are young people who just do not have much of a conservation ethic or much knowledge of those species. Some I have talked with do not know about river season or the length limit. Too many of them keep all the smallmouth they catch
That day I saw about twelve boats with two to four Mennonite anglers in each, from another county. They had grouped together on a stretch of the river about only a few hundred yards in length, and they were there to catch fish to eat. That is fine, but we need to get across to everyone who fishes that stretch, keep all the fish you want, but turn the smallmouth back. Keeping largemouth and Kentucky bass is no big deal, in fact the Kentuckies hybridize with smallmouth and that dilutes the genetics of the river smallmouth over time so I encourage fishermen to keep all of those. But darn it, you have to know which is which!
It is long past time for a few years of a “no smallmouth” policy on our rivers. One of my friends attended a meeting that MDC biologists conducted concerning smallmouth in Ozark rivers and when he came back he was very discouraged. “They have no clue,” he said, “young guys who know all they know from ‘studies’ they have conducted on one or two rivers. As fishermen, they have little experience.”
Those of us who have fished for river smallmouth for fifty or more years know how susceptible the big ones are in the summer, on the small to medium rivers like the Niangua and the Big Piney. We learned long ago that there are ways to catch every smallmouth above fourteen inches out of one river eddy in short order, at certain times of the summer. In many rivers, that is what has happened. My friend has often said, and I agree, that smallmouth in our Ozark streams should be treated as an endangered species, as should rock bass, which now are probably at 20 percent of the number seen in the 1960’s.
You could allow anglers to keep smallmouth under 13-inches and be okay, but no one should ever keep one bigger. Smallmouth are a poor table fare, commonly filled with the little yellow grubs in most Ozark streams, and likely the poorest eating of any fish. Kentuckies, which are not a native Ozark fish, could be kept in any number, if modern day fishermen can learn the difference in the two.
Our stream habitat is deteriorating badly and fishing pressure keeps increasing. Thinking there might be an answer to making the kind of smallmouth fishing I once saw in younger days where three-pounders could be commonly expected on any float trip is likely just a dream.
Answer to quiz… The Kentuckies or ‘spotted bass’ have a very rough, raspy patch on their tongues like tiny teeth, while the largemouth’s tongue is smooth. They are all members of the sunfish family.