My favorite fish has always been the one on the other end of the line. But if the conversation is over a cup of coffee away from the water, the answer is usually smallmouth bass.
Even tiny smallmouths have a big-fish attitude. They simply don't give up. Ever. At times these bronzebacked bass are more finicky than a wary brook trout. Other times they go downright nuclear on anything close enough to swat at.
Smallmouth are always fun to dance with. But by far the most exciting way to catch them is on a small topwater lure.
Late last week, smallies were downright suicidal on topwater lures at the Dells from the riffle downstream from the cable below River's Edge Resort clear up to rocks below the dam.
River's Edge has been a Wisconsin River base camp for me for more than 40 years. When I first started fishing there, owner “Botch” Leonhardt was still in high school. The resort only had six cabins—and Botch's bait shop was an 18-foot trailer where he could sell minnows and make jigs.
Today, River's Edge is a multi-million dollar operation offering everything but helicopter rides. Botch has aged faster than the Wisconsin River, but other than a couple of new wrinkles, neither this timeless water nor the charming wiseacre have changed all that much.
Several new faces are working this water as fishing guides. Nick Olson is one of them. It is his fourth season as a licensed Wisconsin guide. I hadn't fished with Olson since his rookie season. In the interim he has made great strides at perfecting his craft. Working on any river is challenging to a guide. There are many more variables in flowing water than must be interpreted to successfully fish a lake.
It helps that a pile of smallmouths, walleyes and, in recent years, muskies call this water home. Lake sturgeon have been living here almost since the Dells were formed. The short, highly restrictive season opens for these primordial fish in a couple of weeks.
Since last week, water temperatures on the Wisconsin tumbled a dozen degrees. Warm weather the past couple days has warmed water up just a little bit. But the big temperature drop was a wake-up call to fish all across southern Wisconsin.
When fish are in summer pattern, they are usually most aggressive within an hour of sunrise. This pattern is more consistent in very clear water than in stained water like the Wisconsin River where a little light penetration makes feeding easier.
But ever since June, Olson has found fish most aggressive at first light. Our first major cold front of autumn moved the bass activity clock back several hours since last week to about 10 a.m. on this fishery.
Fish would bite on a slower presentation like the old reliable nightcrawler fished on a jig before 10 a.m., but before the sun warmed the water a half-degree, throwing a topwater at them was merely an exercise in washing lures.
When our next major cold front blows through in a couple of weeks, topwater lures like the Pop-R and Chug Bug will catch just as many fish resting in the tackle box as they will in the water until about 2 p.m.
Olson is fully aware of this pattern, which is likely two to three weeks away. Even though experience and common sense scream otherwise, it is hard not to fish a topwater bait when you know the smallies are cruising within a foot or two of where the lure lands.
Eventually one of those red-eyed monsters will come blasting out of nowhere and smash the lure. Fishing is always fun. Catching is even more fun. A tussle with a broad-shouldered bronzeback that strikes a topwater lure is about as good as fishing gets.
Ted Peck, a certified Merchant Marine captain, is an outdoors columnist for The Gazette. Email him at [email protected].