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Why We Bass
Going for bronze in Wisconsin’s Northwoods.
By Dave Karczynski

My fishing interests tend toward the masochistic. My idea of a perfect night on the river is one that sends me, face red and ears steaming, straight from the water to the vise to plot the following night’s revenge. Blind casting for muskies till my hands turn to hamburger is very much my idea of a good time. I love to fish steelhead, but only after there’s a few feet of snow on the banks and a few inches of ice in my beard. As I write these words I’m preparing to spend the month of August bow-and-arrow casting Tricos on a creek so brushed in you’d need a divining rod to find it.

Thank god I also love bass fishing.

Bass fishing—more specifically smallmouth bass fishing—is where I allow myself to bask in the pure pleasure of the angling enterprise, to kick back, relax and finally do that one thing that for most anglers is the only thing: have fun. And I was certainly due. Because of the pandemic it had been about two years since I’d gone bass fishing in my favorite place to do so: the freestone rivers of northern Wisconsin. And so I plotted a spring trip, one that would also give my wife, Amber, a tour of all those rivers I fished before we met. My old stomping grounds.

“It’ll be fun,” I assured Amber, though I immediately regretted my word choice. That word—“fun”—had not been in good standing ever since I’d recently used it to describe her first fly casting lesson . . . and the hatch-masking spinnerfall that happened alongside it.

“What’s so fun about bass fishing?” she asked, suspicious.

I paused. It was a good question. There are pain indices galore, but how does one measure its opposite? How does one quantify pleasure? And how does one describe, to the uninitiated, the rare and unique experience of fishing smallmouth bass in the cradle of smallmouth civilization?

Boulders provide great vantage points for anglers to spot bass cruising through the shallows.

You know you’re in Wisconsin when the gas station has six kinds of cheese curds and the woman behind you is carrying a haul of summer sausage like an armful of firewood.

“What’s that blue thing?” she asked from behind the mountain of meat.

“It’s a raft,” I said. Then I clarified: “For fishing smallmouth.”

“Smallmouth are the most fun,” she said, her head nodding in approval behind the top log.

“You got that right.”

And she did. But how right? During the long drive through the Upper Peninsula with my wife, I thought long and hard about fishing and joy and a certain philosopher from my student days—the English utilitarian Jeremy Bentham—who had invented an algorithm for quantifying pleasure. He called it the felicific calculus, and while I am generally skeptical of any academic’s ability to experience pleasure, I was curious enough to see if it might help me summon a description of smallmouth fishing that was richer than “flippin’ awesome.”

The smallmouth bass’s camouflage makes them almost impossible to see, until they make a bee-line for your fly.

The timing of our trip was deliberate. I wanted Amber to see Wisconsin in its most splendid regalia, and a northern freestoner in the month of May is a spectacular sight in the truest sense of the word, with biomass that gives even coastal Alaska a run for its money. Whereas the Final Frontier has every make and model of Pacific salmon, the Dairy State boasts the full spectrum of suckers . . . and Packerland may even hold the trump card in the form of migratory sturgeon. I’d told Amber we were guaranteed to see a few, if not a few hundred, of these dinosaurs swimming in shallow, clear water right under our kayaks. But there was another reason I wanted a spring trip, and that’s because it’s my favorite time of year to fish smallmouth bass. Those first few days of hot bass action after a long winter are like eating a slice of pork belly the minute it comes out of the smoker.

It wasn’t long into our first float before the glut of finned flesh made a full display. The launch of our kayaks sent suckers blasting through riffles and spraying our sunglasses, and before we turned the first bend two sturgeon gracefully cleared a sandbar and disappeared into the depths. And while it couldn’t be seen as easily, I knew that there was another key migration underway—that of Micropterus dolomieu. Many smallmouth bass rivers across the United States are heavily impounded, limiting bass movement, but on undammed freestone rivers smallmouth flex their migratory instincts, traveling upwards of 120 miles annually between deep downriver wintering areas to spring and summer holding water. Not for naught does Larry Dahlberg refer to smallmouth as warmwater salmon.

We spent the first hour slaloming through riffles and boulder fields in the kayaks, and as I looked for a suitable spot to start wade fishing, I considered the first vector in Bentham’s calculous: propinquity, or how soon the pleasure will occur. I had to admit as I dipped my fingers in the water—which was cold and barely on its way to cool—that I wasn’t entirely sure of how close we were. What had started as a very warm spring had become in the week prior to our trip a very cold one. I knew we’d have excellent fishing by week’s end—the forecast called for steadily rising temps—but I was not sure how long we’d have to wait. An hour? A day? Two?

The smallmouth boasts a physique that is both long and strong.

After an interval of pleasure paddling we pulled ashore on a midstream island that overlooked a long, slow feeding flat—the very sort of space where early season smallmouth would be soaking up some solar heat. I lost two flies to pike before tying on a wire leader, and then fished for a half hour before catching my first bass of the trip, a healthy 15 incher that oozed slowly out of a deadfall and ate my fly on a long, strategic pause. A voracious attack this was not. I knew the cold water meant that the bass’s metabolism would be in low gear, which meant, in terms of Bentham’s propinquity, that the pleasure of these spring bass on any given cast was not as close as it would be on an August afternoon. Instead of taking advantage of the bite window and immediately catching another fish—instead of doubling down on my fun, in other words—I first removed my waterproof notebook and pen and made a few notes. Did I mention I’m an academic?

The next vector of happiness to interrogate was the purity of the experience, which Bentham defines as the probability that the pleasure will not be followed by sensations of the opposite kind. I wondered: what on earth was the opposite of smallmouth bass fishing? Smallmouth floats, or at least the smallmouth floats I insist on, are beautiful things, full of sparkling rapids, lazy boulder gardens, towering hardwoods, and circling eagles. In short, they are beautiful environs no matter where you look. So I tried to think of the ugliest places that I knew and eventually landed on the steelworks on the outskirts of Chicago, which I used to see as a kid while riding the Amtrak. Next I tasked myself with finding the opposite of a smallmouth’s fight on a fly rod, which is all electricity, and settled on the numbing act of grading two dozen student papers. I switched to a leech pattern and caught two fish from a deep slot, one of which was almost revved up enough to jump. After releasing the second fish I scanned the horizon: no smokestacks. I checked my calendar: no grading for four months. I removed my notebook and after the word purity wrote the words exceedingly high.

This slow, shallow boulder-field screams to be fished with a topwater.

“Stop working!” Amber yelled when she saw me scribbling. She was curving her kayak in a wide circle, trying to herd in a murder of sturgeon. She had, as usual, the right idea.

That evening some cloud cover settled in, which led to relatively high night-time temperatures, which led to me waking up with a serious itch to get back on the water. “That’s the thing about pre-spawn smallmouth,” I said to Bentham in the imaginary dialogue going on in my head. “The fishing only gets better.” As Amber and I had breakfast, I was riding high on what the philosopher identified as the vector of certainty: how likely or unlikely it is that the pleasure will occur. With the first 80-degree day in two weeks about to make landfall, I was certain of good fishing no matter which river we floated. This attitude was in great contradistinction to my typical spring trout trip, where my uncertainty about how to approach what stretch of river is so great I use a defunct rotary phone as a crystal ball, dialing 1-800-BIG-TROUT and listening to the cosmic murmurs coming through the ether to set my plan for the day. This is not a joke.

Smallmouth bass don’t fear the sun, nor should anglers pursuing them. The heat of the day is primetime for spring specimens.

The next day my brother joined us, with he and I fishing from the raft and Amber trailing behind in the kayak on what she was now calling a “sturgeon safari.” With my brother on the oars, it was time to interrogate the part of the felicific calculous that Bentham calls the intensity of the pleasure. I decided for purposes of measurement that one of the biggest sources of fishing pleasure, for me at least, comes from the drama of the eat. Now, plenty of fish have exciting eats, it’s true, but few boast as great a range of attacks as does the bronze bass. Brown trout and pike come quickly and slashingly to a streamer, and while bass certainly do that, they also leisurely trail a stripped fly, like a steelhead behind a slowly swung offering, creating an unbearable sense of anticipation. Then there is the opposite kind of smallmouth eat, when a fly lands a good 10 yards form a logjam and a sharp wake springs up to connect wood to fly like an arrow of water… . . . and the fight is on.

Broken water concentrates smallmouth bass later in the season when water temperatures soar across the bass’s native range.

We had an early lunch under shade to escape the soaring heat, which created an uptick in dragonfly activity and an upswing in water temps. As I fished a few curds out of a wet bag of whey, a line of thought was worming its way through my brain. Fact: over the next few miles, the river will widen and slow down. Fact: there will be plenty of vegetation growing up between the cobble. Fact: a dragonfly just landed on your last cheese curd. Finally the thought burst through.

You should be throwing a topwater.

A surface sipper returns to warm flows after a hearty battle.

I had never fished a topwater for smallmouth so early in the year and had not even mentioned the possibility of surface fishing to Amber. Had you asked me, I would have said there was a greater likelihood of fishing in a snowstorm than fishing a surface bug in early May in Northern Wisconsin. And yet here we were. I looked around the raft. The only presentation outfit I had, a 6-weight with floating line, was still in its tube. But it was time. With shaking hands I unscrewed the cap and started fitting the ferrules together.

Bass on shallow feeding flats often give themselves away in slow-moving wakes. Pay attention to any surface disturbances, and approach observe fish with extreme stealth.

“You’re about to witness one of the most beautiful takes in the fishing kingdom,” I told Amber. I tied on my most trusted bug, an iridescent foam wiggly pattern developed by a friend of mine. This particular fly was chafed and frayed from battle, and had even lost a leg or two, but it had the most important thing when it comes to conjuring your first surface eat of the year: mojo. I made a long cast onto a feeding flat with a single boulder for cover.

“The take will be beyond subtle,” I said to Amber as we both watched my fly land.

Correction: we tried to watch it land.

“Where is it?” Amber asked.

My fly was nowhere to be seen. I looked behind me, thinking a frayed tippet had released my fly on the back cast. But it wasn’t there, either. Then I noticed that my fly line was moving . . . in the opposite direction of the current.

The author’s go-to surface bug: Charlie Piette’s “Ol Mr. Wiggly” in dragonfly green.

While a good bass can take you for a run on an 8-weight, and will keep you very honest with a 7-weight, it takes care, finesse and bit of luck to land a good fish on a 6-weight in skinny water, where the only direction for escape is the sky. How long, I could hear Bentham murmuring into my ear as the fish jumped once, twice, three times, how long will the pleasure last? Had we been in heavier flows we might have had to take up anchor, but instead my brother netted the fish after a glorious five-minute battle that left my forearm aching sweetly.

“And that,” he said, “is why we bass.”

I rowed the rest of the day. Or rather, I simply steered. There was topwater eat afterglow to be relished. With a cold beer. Summer sausage. Squeaky fresh curds. The pleasure, I critiqued Bentham between bites, in certain situations compounds even after the cessation of the stimulus.

Low flows call for quiet presentations. Jack Gartside’s classic soft hackle is a perfect fly for that approach.

The hours somehow flew up and away, lost among the raptors, and before I knew it the evening sun was in my eyes, along with the only sight that could have saddened me: the bridge that was our take out.

I wasn’t ready. Not at all. I wanted more river, more hours, without rest or reset. Spring bassing absolutely owned Bentham’s final vector, his fecundity: the probability that the action will be followed by sensations of the same kind. Perhaps there is no better expression of the joy of bassing that, had a genie popped out of my empty beer bottle, I would have asked for only more of the same. I’d tell him to throw the sun back up and roll the river back out. And this time I’d put away the notebook. I’d stash the pen. When it comes to bassin’, there’s more joy than even the best philosophers can count.

Dave Karczynski
Dave Karczynski is FFI’s social media manager and an editor at large. He is the author of From Lure to Fly: Fly Fishing for Spinning and Baitcast Anglers and co-author of Smallmouth: Modern Fly-Fishing Methods, Tactics and Techniques. Dave lives in Michigan, where he splits his time between teaching at the University of Michigan and chasing the bugs up north.