As much as I enjoy fly casting for native brook trout and landlocked salmon, over the last few years smallmouth bass fishing with ultralight gear has become a rewarding portion of my summer angling. Bronzebacks, as those glistening amber gamefish are nicknamed, are very acrobatic, leaping and cavorting above and along the water’s surface when hooked. And I’ve yet to battle a smallie whose attitude didn’t belay the idea it was two or three times as tough as its actual size might indicate. Best of all, when warm weather and tepid water conditions turn trout and salmon logy, bass become even more active and aggressive, making August prime time for bass busters.
Fortunately, several of my fishing partners have also been smitten with “smallie fever,” so it’s seldom a problem to find a bass buddy or two willing and ready to fill a boat seat. In fact, weather and yard work permitting, over the last two years it’s become sort of a tradition to make one day of each August weekend a ritual of feasting, fishing and friendly frivolity. We travel to various regional lakes, ponds and rivers, stop over coming and going to try out new restaurants, revisit favorite entrees at old haunts and we cast, catch and release until our arms ache, dusk drives us from the water and we have to load the boat on the trailer by flashlight.
Last Sunday my boat mates were superintendent of schools in SAD 42, Roger Shaw, and a local farmer and potato shipper, Trent Lundeen, both of Mars Hill. Our itinerary for the outing included lunch at the Brookside Inn Restaurant in Smyrna Mills, renowned for home-cooked specials and tantalizing desserts; an investigatory stop at Two Rivers Canoe, a cast-and-blast merchandise emporium in Medway with something for every outdoorsman; and then several fun-filled hours whipping the Penobscot River to a froth with our bass rods.
Despite our trio carrying enough gear and equipment to support half a dozen bass casters, one or more of us always seems to find something we can’t live without at Two Rivers. Proprietor Barry Davis has a wide selection, a little bit of everything and a lot of some things, and truth be told I get a bit weak willed upon entering any rod and gun shop. During four trips last summer, I bought a 61/2-foot spinning rod and an ultralight spinning reel, Trent purchased a lightweight rod and reel combo and Roger chipped in for a rod and spin cast reel.
Every visit we seemed to be in need of plastic worms, bullet weights, red hooks, a spool of mono, a new topwater plug or some such paraphernalia. Since we were on a smallmouth fishing foray, all of these tackle needs can be explained away. But the visit when I ended up with a new Taurus .41-caliber revolver and Roger succumbed and bought a Model 94 Winchester .30-30 and a 28-gauge partridge gun, things got a bit out of hand. No wonder Barry grins every time we stop by his shop.
Last weekend we decided that we were all stocked up and didn’t need a thing, so we only stopped to be cordial and say hello to Barry. Ten minutes later we had a river update, current fishing report and a small bag of new, improved or backup tackle each – did I mention about sporting goods stores and our weak wills?
A quarter hour after leaving Two Rivers Tackle, my roomy 20-foot Lund Alaskan was loaded with gear and fishing equipment and launched, and we began casting baits along the shoreline directly opposite the boat ramp. I teased a taker with my very first cast of a brown soft plastic crayfish, but after a couple of leaps and tumbles, a smallie of just over a pound spit the bait. Trent had a strike but no hookup, and then splashing from behind the boat alerted us that Roger had either fallen overboard or had a nice fish on. It turned out to be a twin to the one I’d lost, but this one actually made it to the boat and was intentionally released. In less than five minutes we had all gotten strikes and this wasn’t even one of the hot spots. Things looked promising.
By the time we had floated and fished 500 yards downriver to the Route 157 bridge, we accounted for six strikes and four more bass to the boat, and each of us was on the tally board. Next stop was the inlet of the West Branch where it’s common to straighten a line on at least a couple of 2- or 3-pound bronzebacks. Steady current makes it tough to control the boat and my 55-pound thrust electric motor just barely makes headway upstream, but smallies line the rocky shoreline.
This stream is where I took my first certified 5-pound Penobscot smallmouth last August, and last weekend in an hour we caught 11 fish and missed hookups on just as many. Four of those acrobatic beauties were legitimate 21/2- to 3-pounders.
Despite rearing back on the rod like he was trying to set the hook onto a passing freight train, Trent, who only got started bass fishing last summer, was missing five out of every six strikes. I helped him change over to a Carolina-rigged 5-inch Yamamoto Senko worm and the tide changed immediately to more hits than misses. Of course last year on his very first outing, Trent caught two fish at once on a topwater plug, so I’m skeptical about helping him too much!
Roger is the proverbial quick-change artist and has the tackle box inventory to support his obsession. After releasing two bragging-size bass, to my amazement he sat down, rummaged around in his traveling tackle shop and tied on a new and different bait. To my quizzical look he just grinned, shrugged and said, “This is my new secret weapon.” I figured sooner or later at the rate he changes baits he’s bound to find a sure thing, and I’d bet money within half an hour Roger will still try something new.
Bass on the Salmon
Salmon Stream was our next stop and we worked our way along the bank edges tossing topwater Heddon Torpedoes, poppers, plastic worms, and I even fished a black crayfish with red sparkles. They all caught fish, but most were in the 1- to 11/2-pound class, so about 6 p.m. we motored back to the main river and headed toward Mattaseunk Dam. About half a mile above the dam we drifted into a rocky cove where a small brook inlets. Trent got into a bass on his first cast, Roger rolled one on a topwater chugger plug a few seconds later and soon after a toothy 2-pound pickerel inhaled my plastic worm.
After releasing a few more bass and pickerel, I used the electric motor to propel us out of the small lagoon and along the forested shoreline where we teased a few more fish to our baits. Gliding into a larger cove we spotted a bass boil on the surface near a reedy shoreline, and within 30 seconds yet another smallie erupted to take a surface bug. I got that chills-down-the-spine feeling of excitement, but little did I know then what I was going to catch, nor did I realize that sometimes the best catch of the day isn’t a bragging-size bass.
The sun was slowly settling behind the tree line when Roger got into a heavy fish, and after jumping, tail-walking and splashing around the surface, Trent slid the net under a smallie with green-hued flanks that topped 21/2 pounds. I got a big pickerel, Trent got a hefty smallmouth, I hooked and lost a fish and Roger teased yet another to engulf a frog imitation. Twilight really turned on the bass, and for some reason every taker was between the 2- and 3-pound mark.
Having just rigged a new plastic worm, I was spritzing it with fish scent from my spray bottle of garlic flavoring when Trent reared back on a bite that put a serious rainbow bend in his rod. As he began to play the fish I lobbed a cast toward some lily pads on the opposite side of the boat. I had just enough time to reel the slack from my line when a heavy surge dipped my rod tip toward the water. We had a double, and from the splashing, flailing and line-stripping dives, both bass were corkers.
Roger grabbed the long-handled net and waited port arms, his head going from one fish to the other as if he were watching a tennis match. Mine was a bit more cooperative and with one deft sweep the fat smallie was onboard. As Roger lipped the squirming fish and grabbed long-nose pliers to remove the hook, I laid my rod down against the bow gunnel. I enjoyed Trent’s ongoing tug of war as I moved to the stern to aid with the deeply buried hook.
Finally, Roger dropped the vigorously squirming bass off the back of the boat just as Trent hollered for a net man, so I unceremoniously tossed my plastic bait over the side and grabbed the net. Seconds later Trent’s 3-pound smallie was thrashing in the net covering us with water until we got a lip grip on it.
This fish was also hooked deep, so while Trent held the bass steady, I carefully but quickly worked the large hook free so this finned football could fight again. No more had I disengaged the hook barb when Trent got his horrified look on his face as he stared over my shoulder, and then yelled, “Your rod. Grab your rod!” Too late. I turned swiftly just in time to see my favorite spinning outfit balanced on the gunnel, and as I made my first leaping step it slid forward and splashed into the river. I bent over the side, shoving my arm into the water after the sinking rod and reel but could only watch in dismay as it sank into 10 or 12 feet of brackish liquid.
“My damn hook must have snagged a rock or stump,” I fussed angrily. “I don’t understand it,” Roger mused, “We aren’t drifting that much.” As I continued to gaze into the river, to my amazement I could just make out the shine of my silver reel on the bottom. Grabbing the net and extending the telescoping handle I gently lowered the hoop and attempted to snag the reel. No luck, but I did manage to rile up the muddy stream bottom somewhat. My second sweep at the fast disappearing gleam of my reel not only missed but completely obscured the water with silt and cloudy mud. Heartsick, I sat down and forlornly stared into the river.
“I’ve got an idea,” Roger said while digging around in the side storage compartment. “Try this.” “This” happened to be a lure retrieval tool, a telescoping rod with a giant corkscrew on the end. It would be like trying to catch a white duck in a snowstorm with an 18-foot pole, but I didn’t have a better idea, so I grabbed the lure retriever and began raking the river bottom. I started close and worked my way farther from the boat. After half a dozen passes all I got was several pounds of bottom moss and weeds, and the water was opaque with silt.
After watching the crazy man flail the cove into a mud puddle for awhile, both of my boat buddies took pity on me and went back to casting. Frustrated, I refused to give up and kept extending the lure retriever and blindly but gently raking the bottom. Somewhere between my 20th and 25th try something felt different during a slow lateral sweep, and I gently lifted the 18-foot pole upward. To my utter amazement the first thing to break the river surface was my rod handle, then the reel precariously balanced on only the first twist of the metal corkscrew appeared dripping water.
I gave a victory whoop which sent Trent scurrying to the bow, and ever so slowly I collapsed the long pole. Inch by inch my spinning rod came closer and I expected it to slip free and plummet to the bottom any second, but finally Trent gripped the cork handle and gently disengaged the reel from the spiral hook. And that’s when we all got a real surprise as the rod tip suddenly dipped and line spit from the reel. It was really a bass that had grabbed my unattended bait and pulled my rod overboard and unbelievably it was still hooked! After landing that grabby smallmouth, which proved to be over 31/2 pounds, I actually caught two more bass on my waterlogged outfit and the same worm, and my boatmates pulled in and released five others. It’s a fact, truth really is stranger than fiction, and when I tell tales about big catches, one story won’t be about a fish. Boy, am I glad there were witnesses and photos.