By Nick Simonson
In the gin clear water of spring, it was a slow troll for the usually fast-biting walleyes on the small lake under the warm and sunny evening skies. A combination of flooded gravel pits connected to two large sloughs on its north and south end created in the wet 1990s, the water body featured a good population of smallmouth bass that had always provided me a fix for my favorite fish in the middle of prairie lakes stocked with the more popular pike, walleyes and perch. Meeting up at the launch with my friends Tim and Carole and their son Decker, a six-year-old who knows more about fishing than most sixty-year-olds, we rolled out from the dock toward the north end of the lake and one of its warm muddy bays.
Not seeing anything on Tim’s newly-installed depthfinder, we continued exploring the stretch between the old gravel pit bottom and the muddy bay without success, trolling spinners and crawlers until I could see the wear of a fishless outing setting in on Decker. Grinding our slow-trolled snells over the chunk rock on the north side to no avail, I posed a search for smallies in hopes of saving the day, and we set the spot-lock on Tim’s new motor and removed the weights and walleye offerings from our rods. Rigged up for an entirely different species, we set our sights on the east side of the lake where I had often found success in all openwater seasons for bronzebacks along the rock shelves and piled timber.
Taking the helm, I accused Tim of changing jobs to a trolling motor sales representative, as the unit installed on his boat this spring smoothly and silently responded to not only the slightest pressure of my foot, but also offered a touch-screen remote for navigation. Cruising just into casting range I fired my first offering up into the vee of a pair of large sunken branches and hopped the tube back to the boat. At the halfway point, on the edge of a small rocky hump, I felt a tap and leaned back into the rod a second too late. Aloud, I debated with my boatmates whether it was a smaller bass, or perhaps one of the larger bluegills that had started to build up in the lake in the past few seasons. The next cast answered my question as the rod bumped and bent with a take.
I set the hook hard and a smaller brown bass rocketed up through the clear shallows and broke the surface. In mid-flip, I could see the orange eye of the feisty male fish that had been staking out his spawning site just a few moments before attacking my tube. Coming to the boat, Decker lowered the net and scooped the smallmouth up and into the craft. After a quick unhooking and a photo, Decker was next to connect with a fat 16.5-inch female that plowed and splashed across the surface. He expertly battled the bass to boatside and his mom deftly netted the deeply-barred bronzeback with a single lift and after unhooking it he paused, grinning ear-to-ear for his victory photos with the bass.
Following that fish, the night was a blur of brown bass and shredded green tubes piling up all around the boat. Soon his dad joined in and the three of us set to the slew of fish stacked up in the shallows. The smaller males were staging in just a couple of feet of water, while the bigger female smallies hung out on the edge of the rock and gravel flats, relating to small chunks of rock or timber that required a slow hop and a patient eye to watch the line for the slightest twitch or jump to signal a bite. As evening wore on even quicker retrieves of baits that were just about to pass out of the designated strike zone and get cranked in for the next cast got slammed, including one by an 18-incher that marked my personal best for the lake.
With a couple dozen of the prespawn bass under our belts, we wrapped the evening under a gorgeous sunset and Decker fired one last cast into the approaching darkness of nightfall. His rod ticked twice and he set the hook on the final fish, a feisty and colorful male that bookended the evening perfectly with the one I had hooked to start off the run and the experience reminded us all that when one species of fish doesn’t cooperate on an outing, another always awaits…in our outdoors.
(Featured Photo: Decker Kerkaert of Marshall, Minn. with a 16.5-inch smallmouth bass caught on a watermelon tube and released back into the clear waters of a small prairie lake. Simonson Photo)