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Smallmouth Bass - Indiana's Undiscovered Country
Looking for undiscovered country that nobody fishes? Indiana has over 35,000 miles of rivers and streams with laydowns, riprap, bluffs, rapids, riffles, sloughs, grass beds, and eddies that hold smallmouth bass, spotted bass, and occasionally largemouth bass. Don’t forget the white and yellow bass that are just as fun to catch.
I have fished in many of Indiana’s rivers and streams, and I rarely see another person. It is highly likely I am the first person to ever catch and release many of the bass I hook.
DNR Fisheries Biologist Rhett Wisener grew up fishing on small rivers. “Small streams are often overlooked,” Rhett told me. “As long as you have good water quality, woody debris, and rocky substrate, you would be amazed at the fish quality. You can catch a fish that weighs three to four pounds!”
Generally, smallmouth bass are a lean predator and built to live in moving water. They are a competitive fish that aggressively go after prey, including stealing a meal another smallmouth already has. It is not unusual to catch two smallmouth at a time on the same lure!
Smallmouth also travel in packs, like wolves, and work together to herd prey fish against an obstacle for easier pickings. They are an opportunistic fish that follows carp around as they scour the bottom. Any hapless creature that escapes the carp is quickly nabbed by the waiting smallmouth.
While they generally do not grow as large as the largemouth, smallmouth make up for it in fighting ability, with many anglers swearing the fish lost weight as they pulled it from the water.
Retired ICO Dean Shadley knows Indiana's streams hold excitement for those willing to go looking for it. Photo provided by Dean Shadley.
Smallmouth and their cousins are found in many waterways across North America. Basically, if the stream has deep holes for the bass to winter over in, it can hold smallmouth. Even if the stream doesn’t have deep holes, it can have smallmouth in the spring and early summer as they travel up tributaries to spawn.
Smallmouth bass want rock, gravel, or sandy bottoms. One of the creeks I fish is a typical silt-laden farmland stream that meanders through corn and soybeans, but there are spots of gravel. A few years ago, I left the catfish poles in the truck and danced a small crayfish-colored jig along the steeper cuts, in the log jams, and across the gravel beds. To my amazement and joy I caught and released more bass than many people catch in a day on Indiana’s crowded lakes.
Fishing small creeks is what outdoor writer and retired Indiana Conservation Officer, Dean Shadley, loves. Dean is an avid fly fisherman and his favorite species is…you guessed it, smallies. Ask Dean what he loves about smallmouth and he minces no words. “They’re smarter than trout, fight better than trout, and are harder to catch than trout.”
Many Indiana streams are rock bottomed. “In those streams you’re fishing the edges,” Dean said. “You’re fishing the drop offs, the contours and the rubble of the limestone.”
Other rivers are sand and gravel. They can be more challenging as the spring floods actually change the river bed. “Where I was catching fish last year might only have six inches of water this year.” Dean said. “Places that I used to stand might now be five to six feet deep!” Dean loves the challenge. “Just because you catch fish there one year doesn’t mean you’re going to find them there the next,” he explained. “You always have to explore and look for new water.” Casting is targeted. “I’m looking for deep, flowing water, about two to six feet deep.” Cover like logs add to the appeal.
As an experienced fisherman, Dean has learned what works and doesn’t work. He always wears light-weight stocking-foot chest waders, even in summer. “Since a lot of the steams I fish are small, I may have to get out and walk the bank and there are lots of stinging nettles.” The waders protect against the stinging nettles, poison ivy and countless other things that sting, stick, and bite. The rocks and mud of the streams can be slick, so Dean wears fly-fishing wading boots.
Don’t forget the small streams. Creeks that are as small as four to five feet wide can be great fishing. “I caught a twenty-inch smallmouth in a stream that you could step across in places.” The key is to walk enough of the creek to find the holes where smallmouth can live. Those same holes are also home to chubs, crawfish, and minnows, all of which are on the smallmouth’s dinner menu. Dean matches the hatch using black wooly buggers, crayfish imitations, and Clouser minnows in white or white/chartreuse.
Another smallmouth hunter is Chad Miller, from www.wildcatcreekoutfitters.com. Most of the streams that Chad fishes run clear, making for exciting site fishing. Fisherman associate smallmouth with rocky bottoms or around woody structure, but Chad has found clients often overlook the sandy areas. This can cost anglers great opportunities for big smallmouth, especially when sand covers the bottom of deep holes. Smallmouth like the security of cover. This can be logs, rock, and deep water. Not only does cover protect fish from predators like eagles, herons, and osprey, it provides them with an ambush point to hunt.
Monster smallmouth bass can be found within sight of the Indianapolis skyline. Photo provided by Chris Walker.
While deep holes are a good resting place, food seldom drifts in. “Smallmouth live in deep holes,” Chad explained, “but they make their living in shallower water.” Much of a smallmouth’s diet, like Caddis flies, damsel flies, hellgrammites, crayfish, and minnows, all need gravel, rock, or weeds for habitat, and that’s where smallmouth go to feed. Drifting a bait that matches one of them past a smallmouth feeding station can mean an instant hookup. Notice I said drift the bait, not crank it or burn it. Smallmouth are looking for morsels that are drifting naturally with the current.
So the next time you wistfully dream of fishing for un-pressured bass look no further than your local stream. The bass of a lifetime might be waiting.
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