Smallmouth bass are members of the sunfish family, and that is an apt designation, because there is no fish more co-operative in the dog days of summer than Micropterus dolomieu. They bite readily on a variety of baits, give a fight that always makes you think you have a big one regardless of the actual size, and they love the warm days of our summer vacations, becoming very active when August weather arrives.
Kawartha Lakes is blessed with incredible opportunities to catch smallmouth. Lakes like Balsam and Sturgeon are known across the province as destinations for both their large numbers of fish, and the chance of getting a trophy-sized catch. In a normal year, numerous professional tournaments are staged on these lakes with literally millions of dollars in boats, motors, electronics, gear and tackle hitting the water in search of bass. Luckily for most of us, largemouth and smallmouth don’t care what kind of boat you are fishing from. And while a larger boat is safer on big lakes, there are bass in smaller lakes and ponds perfectly suited for canoes or kayaks, and they should not be overlooked.
For years, an ancient mounted fish hung in a Kinmount convenience store. It was dusty, and cracking like aging skin mounts will do. It also was the largest smallmouth bass ever caught in Ontario, and, it came from a small lake just a good cast away from Kinmount. Caught in 1954, it weighed 4.46 kg (9.84 pounds), and had a girth of nearly 46 cm (18 inches.) Yes, girth. That is the length of a nice smallmouth. The length was whopping 61 cm (24 inches.) (The average size smallmouth bass is 15-18 inches.)
Inspired by this history-making catch, a group of friends and I did a long-weekend canoe trip with the goal of finding a small local lake rumoured to be loaded with fish weighing well over five pounds. At the end of the last portage we confirmed our one rule governing camp life: if you complained about how someone did a job, you took over that responsibility. Then we shoved off.
Bass eat all kinds of lures, but crankbaits (a lure with a plastic lip that causes a bait to dive underwater) and tube jigs (a hollow soft plastic lure with tentacle-looking appendages) are good choices when you are travelling light. Crankbaits act like minnows flitting around near the surface and tube jigs act like crayfish roaming among the rocks — so you’re covered from top of the lake to bottom, as bass could be in either place.
But knowing this was a rocky lake and knowing that once smallmouth reach a catchable size 90 per cent of their diet will be crayfish if they are available, we went with brown and blue-green tube jigs, and did pretty well. There were no nine-pounders, but we got enough fish for a supper.
Sitting around the fire after eating, with the same stars that inspired Gord Downie coming into view, one of the guys took issue with the meal, which was odd since he himself had no cooking skills at all.
“That fish was basically bad sushi, the potatoes went beyond baked to burned, and the coffee tasted like something drained from a Mack truck.”
A hush fell over the rest of us as we all silently recalled our one rule. But before the silence could be broken, he added, “And that’s just the way I like it.”
Despite our meal, most bass don’t end up on the table. They are not as tasty as walleye, perch or crappie, but bass provide a healthy, slightly sweet-flavoured flesh. Bass continue to thrive in our lakes, withstanding fishing pressure from pros and weekenders alike thanks to catch and release fishing, and there is no sportfish easier to release than a bass.
Because bass don’t typically live in deep water there is no concern that they will get the fish equivalent of “the bends” when brought to the surface. They are hardy fish, tolerating a wide range of water temperatures and oxygen levels so they can put up with any accidental rough handling. And best of all, gripping them by the lower lip immobilizes them, making it easy to remove the hook and set them free. And that’s just the way they like it.