March: Trout Fishing-
While Minnesota’s smallmouth fishing remained closed I took advantage of the mild early spring weather to do some trout fishing. Drifting tiny size 16 nymphs is certainly different than working bigger flies for hefty smallies, but on a 4-wt even the 10 and 12 inch browns still put up a good tussle. Southeast Minnesota streams stayed low, so trout catch rates were excellent during March and early April. Thirty and 40 fish days happened several times.
May: Ontario Trips-
Later in May I hosted two back-to-back group trips to Slippery Winds Lodge Ontario. This was 16 years in a row I and my partner Dan Johnson have hosted these multi-species trips. A total of 15 guests went on the trips this spring and some of the guys have been going on the trips for a decade. And once again Ontario didn’t disappoint. We caught some dandy smallmouth, had tremendous largemouth fishing, got a few shallow water lake trout and lots of northern pike. For example, one day I recall 21 year old Nat Sacks hooking and landing three heavyweight 19 inch largemouth in quick succession from the same log. With the various species spread across six different lakes, these trips really are consistent winners. If one species doesn’t want to cooperate there are invariably some other species ready to rumble.
The lodge accommodations and camp life is also part of the allure of this trip. Slippery Winds is a small lodge and our fly fishing party has the entire camp during our 5 ½ day stay. Food is great, the lodge staff will know your name, the other guests are friendly and helpful (and I always have some funny stories to tell). If you haven’t made one of these trips yet, why not in 2018? There will only be one trip next year, so booking early is a good idea to assure a spot. And of course, you can go to the trip page on the website to get much more information on the Ontario trips.
June: Giant Pike Trip-
Not long after the Ontario trips, Dan and I headed even farther north to huge Wollaston Lake in northern Saskatchewan. Wollaston Lake is huge, at several hundred thousand acres and Minor Bay Lodge is located in the most pike rich part of the lake. And “pike rich” really understates this lake’s fishing. Over my life, I had caught thousands of pike, but Wollaston Lake was unlike any other fishing I’d ever encountered. So many Pike, so Big, so Powerful ! For both Dan and I, it was a tremendous experience. Two days out of the 4 we caught over 50 pike a day, with many of them over 30 inches. It was literally big fish all day long. Wollaston pike are of amazing girth due to plentiful forage and they also grow very long. Forty inch, 20 pound bruisers are caught everyday of the season and gigantic 50 inchers are possible.
Dan and I absolutely wore ourselves out each of the 4 days we fished. Our 9-wt fly rods were strained to the maximum almost the entire time and one of Dan’s fish pushed 43 inches and I got ones over 40. This was in addition to many 3 footers. The fish are shallow, the near surface strikes are explosive and their blazing runs are finger burning. Adding to the great experience is the fact that Minor Bay is really a five star lodge and the guides are experts at putting you on fish after fish (and unhooking your toothy catches). I really believe a Wollaston Lake Giant Pike trip should be on everyone’s bucket list. And to assist in that I will be offering a special hosted trip to Wollaston next June for six guests. You can find much more about the trips at: http://smallmouthangler.com/trips/
July: Upper Peninsula Fishing-
For several weeks, I was at one of my favorite summer hangouts– the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Heavy rains last summer meant high water and some of the streams I normally fish over there were off limits. However, we still caught smallies up to 18 inches in the streams low enough to float and I also had the opportunity to explore a new river. The Middle Ontanagon flows though National Forest lands and is very wild and remote. It gets too low to easily traverse during late summer, but last July it was still kayakable. A friend and I floated a 7 mile stretch and picked up mid-sized smallmouth and a few pike in many of the streams shallow pools.
For miles it is 100% wilderness forest shorelines, with not a single sign of human activity. And the last 2 miles of the float was laced with rapids, not impossible or the very dangerous kind, but tricky enough to require careful maneuvering to get through them. And about a mile from the take-out we hit the trickiest rapids with several feet of drop and protruding boulders. I was first and while I did bang a few rocks I shot down the chute safely. But my pal chose a different route and tried to turn in mid rapids and over went his ‘yak. It followed me down the chute upside down and Brian followed floating feet first. He lost his rod, but otherwise I managed to find his other gear. And we then made it safely to the landing. The take away from this adventure is to always slow up and scout when paddling through challenging water. Brian had made a mile of rapids and was getting tired and careless and didn’t pay attention to the better route I had chosen and paid for it.
August: The Mountain West-
Cutting our UP time short my wife, Lyn and I headed west, far west. Driving across the Dakotas and then thru the huge (and smoky) state of Montana we got to Idaho. Lots of western fires also made Idaho a little hazy, but conditions otherwise was great. A guide service on the Salmon River wanted me to come out and try the smallmouth fishing in that big beautiful river. Lyn and I hadn’t been west for awhile, so this was an opportunity not to pass up. And I’m really happy we did. The rapids filled Salmon River is over 200 miles long, undamed and flows through the spectacular country of central Idaho. Warm and almost always sunny all summer it’s perfect whitewater rafting country (and there are many rafting companies on the river). But smallmouth have also become well established over the past 30 years in the river and they are largely overlooked by western anglers.
However, I definitely appreciated them and floating by driftboat, the local guide showed me great water and high numbers of smallies. Using 6 and 7 weight rods I battled dozens of smallmouth a day up to 18 inches. The river’s rapids are easy in a larger drift boat and the boulder lined bank eddies almost all held a lot of fish. And even 12 inchers pulled like lunkers in the river’s substantial currents. I was very impressed with the Salmon and the small river town of Riggins was the perfect headquarters for fishing or whitewater rafting fun. And as you can see from the website trip page, I am going to book some smallmouth trips for the company, H2O Rafting and Guide Service. This western river is dramatically different than any eastern smallmouth river with beautiful scenery and overlooked fishing.
The Salmon River wasn’t the only western river I fished last summer. I also fished the Snake River and the Grand Ronde River in eastern Washington. The Snake is a huge river with various watercraft using it and the Grand Ronde is much smaller, only large enough for kayaks and small pontoon boats in late summer. I had brought my kayak along and used it on the Grand Ronde. Water was very low and clear from the drought, but if you got a bait down near the bottom smallies bit. I caught a good number of fish in the Grand Ronde surrounded by breathtaking mountain scenery.
September and October: Minnesota Rivers-
Getting back home for some fall fishing I fished various streams when the weather allowed. One September day Dan and I floated a local stream where the smallmouth hadn’t yet migrated downstream into their wintering pools. The stream had warmed to 58 or 59 degrees by late afternoon and I encouraged Dan to try a topwater. The bite was slow, but towards the end of the float there was a huge wake when the fly landed near the bank. It struck like a big pike, but when a massive bronzeback shot out of the water we knew what it was. A full 21 inches, it was Dan’s best fish of the year and a smallie anyone would be excited to hook.
I also fished some Minnesota streams after the fish had migrated into their hibernaculums, in this case small downstream reservoirs. One day two friends and I slid my jonboat into a small impoundment that doesn’t have a boat landing. A bit of work getting the 190 pound boat in and out, but well worth it. We caught 62 smallies, including one that broke 20 inches and quite a number of 16 and 17 inchers. It warmed up that day into the 60s and not a breath of wind. Ducks were flying, leaves were turning and fish striking one after another. Sometimes fall is the very best time of year and I often wonder why more fellas don’t fish then.
There were other good fall days and the “float n fly” technique of suspending a fly vertically for cold water fish really paid off. Especially when water temps fell into the 40s in late October. Just yesterday on a Mississippi reservoir three of us used the “float n fly” technique to work the 13 to 15 foot depths. The bite was slow, but it was all big fish. A dozen extra stout fish from 17 to 19 ½ inches was a good way to send the month.
Overall, a very interesting and productive year with new waters explored and many fine fish caught.