The “Bronzebacks” of the Canoe Country
This may come as a surprise to many of you anglers, but the smallmouth bass is not originally native to the Boundary Waters or Quetico. They are native to the Mississippi River, but not until the late 1800s were they introduced to the Boundary Waters lakes (www.dnr.state.mn.us). Could you imagine a trip into the canoe country without the joy of catching a smallmouth? I know I can’t and I’m sure glad we don’t have to thanks to those who transplanted the smallmouth into our lakes over 100 years ago.
Certainly many of you have had the experience of catching these boundary waters beauties before. And you’ll agree that pound for pound they are the best fighting fish in not only the canoe country but possibly in all of fresh water. You will get your money’s worth when you hook into one of these bronzebacks. You may even swear that you’ve hooked into a trophy by the way it fights at first until you get it to the canoe and see with your own eyes that it’s only two pounds. It’s okay to be fooled, we all have been before.
So where do you find these fighters? Actually you’d be hard pressed to find a lake in the canoe country that doesn’t hold a population of smallmouth bass. The bass favor rocky structure, which we have plenty of in the BWCA and Quetico. The marriage between the bass and boundary waters lakes is almost too perfect that it’s almost confusing as to why they weren’t originally native to these waters. But in the short time they’ve been a part of the area they certainly have solidified their species. And they’ll be a large part of the experiences we will enjoy in the canoe country for years and years to come.
The smallmouth bass prefer rocks and pebbles roughly the size of bowling balls to make their habitat. In the spring, in late May and early June, the bass will start their spawn in shallow bays that have a gravely bottom. They will become more active when the water temperatures reach into the low 50s and will spawn in temps of 58-62 degrees. Depths of only a couple feet or more is all the deeper that they tend to build their beds in. The females will lay the eggs on the beds and shortly after the males will come in and watch over the eggs until they hatch. While the males are on watch, they become very aggressive and territorial. They will strike any intruder that comes into their area, your fishing lures included. So this time of the season holds some of the most fantastic top-water smallmouth action to be had in the canoe country.
The smally will feed on most things actually, but prefer baitfish, crawfish and leeches. Live bait is a can’t miss option but often not needed as the bass will hit any artificial lure that imitates any of their natural prey. Walleye anglers will almost get disgusted with the amount of smallmouth they’ll catch during the summer months. Walleye and bass inhabit the same waters for the most part of the summer. As the summer progresses on, the bass will drop deeper to 20 and sometimes 30 feet. You’ll be able to catch all of the 8-12 inch bass you could ever want in the shallows in the hot summer months, but only until you drop your lure to 20 feet or so will you start catching fish with any size. You will be able to catch some nicer sized bass in the shallows during the summer evenings as the sun is retreating. Look for the shady shorelines as well during the summer. As fall approaches, live bait is the best option. You’ll want to stay deeper for the big fish just like you would in the summer.
But honestly, smallmouth bass are the easiest fish to catch in the canoe country; and they’re the most exciting fish to catch. This combination makes the smallmouth action unbeatable and the reason why so many anglers come back year after year. The average size smally is between 2 and 3 pounds. The Minnesota state record smallmouth is 8 pounds. While that may be a stretch to find, 5 and 6 pounders are not uncommon. And when you hook one, you’ll swear you have a 10 pounder. The way they jump out of the water is a sight to behold. Diving and darting the whole way, they’ll put your fishing tackle to the test.
Those of you who have experienced the canoe country’s smallmouth can attest, and we invite those of you who have yet to paddle the area to come and try your angling skills. Bass are found on 75 percent or more of the lakes up in this area, so it really makes no difference as to what route you’re on. You won’t be able to stay away from these powerful fighters. Some trips are better than others naturally, but there is one thing that you can almost always bet the farm on. The smallmouth are always game and almost dare you to drag a lure in front of their mouths. You’ve probably heard about the bass fishing in the canoe country and how paddlers rave about it. They’re telling the truth, so we invite you to come and experience it for yourself.
Article copyright Johnse Bushlack; all rights reserved. May not be reproduced without permission.