By Nick Simonson
There’s no fish more welcoming to me than a smallmouth bass. Having grown up with them during my formative fishing years on the Sheyenne River in southeastern North Dakota, they made up the bulk of my pursuits as I learned the ways of flowing water. When I married and relocated to the far northeastern corner of Minnesota, there they were as well, tucked into the chunk rock and tannin-stained waters of Lake Vermilion, or down in the clear depths of lakes too small to be named in print. Even when I moved to southwestern Minnesota, a small prairie lake held a stash of these bass to remind me that I was once again “home.”
Over the past two weeks, I have had the opportunity to visit the places I’ve called home at one point or another in my journeys and to squeeze in some fishing trips and connect with the fish that first tied me to the outdoors. In a strange coincidence, each spot gave up one sizable smallmouth, that when taken in comparison across the map of my angling travels, made for a trio of bass that could have easily passed as triplets.
The first came on a night of fishing with friends near Marshall, Minn., in the clear spring waters of the small prairie lake that had always provided fast fishing. After a series of hops of my tube along a rocky break didn’t produce a take, I began cranking the lure back toward the boat and within a few turns of the handle, my rod shuddered violently with a mighty strike as a brown bomb streaked just under the surface with my lure in tow. With a pair of flips, the fish cartwheeled back to the boat and I unhooked it and handed it to the young angler fishing with me, as I spitballed an 18-inch length. Placed on the bump board of the boat with his father, the fish taped out exactly at my estimate, before the duo released the bass back into the water on my behalf.
After meetings the following day, I sped back up the interstate to meet my mom and brother for dinner in Valley City, N.D. With fifteen minutes left in their workday, and a block or two from my childhood home, I took the left fork in the road and went over the orange-trimmed bridge by the hospital and parked along the grassy rise in hopes of filling the wait with a few fish. With the distant roll of thunder in the west, I knew my time would be limited around the bridge that had produced so many unforgettable fishing moments. With the same setup on my rod as the night before I began casting at those memories.
Unworn by time, the nearby cement-and-metal culvert dripped a steady stream of recent rainwater. As I crept carefully into the muddy fill under the bridge I noted that the wood and timber around it had slowly receded over the nearly ten seasons since I regularly visited the structure. Without a bite I worked the shade and recalled a large cement circle that appeared only in the lowest of low flows when the Corps of Engineers would work on the dam fifteen river miles north. Sliding out to the edge of the shadow, I cast upstream toward the place where the hidden structure lay, and within a few seconds my rod shuddered with a mighty bump.
I set the hook and the fish wheeled in the slow flow, muddying the water and plowing away from shore with each run. The power of the old river resident brought back the excitement of younger years and it was quite a while before she tired and came to hand. I held her up as lightning filled the sky, pegging her length around eighteen inches as well, before quickly turning her back to the waters of my first home flow and closing my fifteen-minute rest stop with another solid fish and a memory from the Sheyenne River.
Finally, before a Memorial Day weekend cruise with my wife’s family, I stood on shore at the marina where they store their boat each openwater season. I had hopefully packed my rod but knew full well that their penchant for just cruising far outweighed (and outnumbered) my love of angling, and my fishing opportunities for the day would be limited on the family pontoon. After loading coolers, bags and other necessities, I recalled a conversation I had with the previous owner of the operation on a similar hurry-up-and-wait kind of morning. Each spring, he recounted that a large smallmouth would set up on the far point of the property, just beyond the area where the forklift loaded boats into the bog-stained waters of Lake Vermilion. Buoyed by the hope of getting my fix before floating about for six hours, I unhooked my tube and waded into the cool water of the gravelly launching shallows and sent a cast out to the end of the point.
On cue, my rod doubled over as I clicked the bail of my spinning reel shut and I swept back with a surprised hookset to match the sudden rush of the fish on the other end. Feeling a firm connection, I cranked down and horsed the bass toward my spot on shore and away from the waiting boat at the dock. All eyes in the operation and in other waiting boats turned to the battle as I wrestled the fish away from the jagged rocks and metal all around me, along with Jack, the new owner’s springer spaniel who chased after the wake in the water made by the thrashing smallmouth. In a perfect moment, the fish came in open-mouthed and I lipped it, lifting it just out of the jumping dog’s range. I popped the hook loose and, after a photo, released the big bass back into the water as Jack looked on, bewildered.
Smiling at getting my fishing fix on a favorite water taken care of in just one cast, I reclined on the lounger in the boat as the last of our cruising party came aboard. The fish served as the third in a series of smallmouth bass reminding me that home is wherever there are willing bronzebacks on the bite for an entire evening, a fifteen minute respite from the road, or just a single cast…in our outdoors.
(Featured Photo: First Cast Fighter. The author wrestled this nice smallmouth from the waters of Lake Vermilion in northeastern Minnesota over the Memorial Day weekend. Simonson Photo.)