Bronze Treasure: How Indiana Stream Smallmouth Preserved One Man’s Sanity

Posted on September 7, 2008

by: Mike Haars

It was as depressing as it had been exhilarating three years prior. The Alaska Highway, gateway to more wilderness than most people experience during the course of a lifetime, seemed gloomy and macabre. Thirty-six months had passed since my wife and I had packed up our stuff, dog and cat and headed “North to Alaska.” All of the anticipation and giddiness only an outdoor fanatic can appreciate was replaced by the stunning realization that this time I was headed south. South to………..h*ll? No, Indiana. As far as I was concerned it might as well be h*ll. What else could Anywhere, USA be after three years of euphoric angling, hunting, and backpacking in paradise?

Hoosiers need not be offended. I’ve lived all but those three years of my life in the Midwest. It’s a fine place to live filled with wonderful people and some outstanding outdoor opportunities. But I love the mountains, cool dry air, and all of the possibilities beyond the first peak. The mountain paradise that is Alaska had lived up to its reputation. Despite the fact that work got in the way a lot, I managed to sample some of the best fishing, hunting, and backpacking on the planet.

The hangover from living in utopia lasted over a year. Initially I just couldn’t get motivated to fish or hunt with the memory of Alaska fresh in my mind. When I did the results were disastrous. My mother-in-law Phyllis Tucker, a well known hunter (that’s right I said my mother-in-law), obtained permission to deer hunt several private tracks. Despite written permission we were harassed by an adjacent landowner who effectively ruined the short season for us. The fact that his activity was illegal and he eventually apologized could not erase the damage. A turkey hunt produced similar results. Every fishing trip I took seemingly required a huge amount of energy and nearly all ended in a skunk or near skunk.

Dejected and feeling sorry for myself, there were two choices. Sit around and bemoan not being in Alaska or persevere and embrace the opportunities that were available. I decided to get a grip. After all, how many people even get to visit Alaska let alone live there? Ultimately a seemingly elusive quarry kept my interest piqued just enough to continue flogging the local waters. I’m a river rat at heart and although I love to fish for trout and steelhead, smallmouth bass are the warm-water equivalent. Haunting rumors of 20 inch bass kept me up at night. How difficult are smallmouth to catch? I’d caught some nice fish but nothing extraordinary and certainly not numbers of fish to write home about. This is where the story takes a dramatic turn.

The advice of a few knowledgeable friends and some tips from those willing anglers I’d run into on the river turned my fortunes. I expanded my repertoire of techniques, but most importantly kept the faith and continued to cover river miles. The net result was good catch numbers, nice fish on a relatively routine basis, and even one lunker smallmouth. The moral of my story is simple: there are almost always quality outdoor opportunities within reach no matter where you live. Sometimes we have to look for them in unexpected places and pay our dues in the form of time and effort. Surprisingly good small-stream smallmouth fishing exists in Indiana (and most of the Midwest), and there are some outlier big fish to be had for the angler willing to make the investment in time and energy. A simple Google search will turn up a lot of information on Indiana smallmouth, plus a good option is to contact the Indiana Department of Natural Resources. The regional fisheries biologist will be able to tell you where to go in your target area. Lastly, remember that any decent sized creek or stream will likely hold smallmouth in Indiana; some will hold unexpected numbers or individual specimens which size might surprise you.

There are literally a multitude of techniques that can be effective for smallies at any given time. I’ll cover the predominant techniques used by most successful anglers and expound on my personal favorites. Remember, whichever techniques you have confidence in are the ones you should stick to the most, but don’t put yourself in a box either. If the fish seem close-mouthed expand your options. At times the smallmouth hone in on particular offerings and presentations. If you can figure out why they prefer certain lures and presentations on any particular day, you are way ahead of the other 99.9% of us.

Top Water Action
There aren’t too many things better in fishing than seeing a fish explode on a surface lure. Several surface lures are effective for river smallmouth. Small to mid-sized buzz baits, jerk baits, and stick baits all work well. My personal favorite is the floating stick/minnow bait such as the classic floating Rapala. I like to toss it into the holding water and employ a twitch and reel technique, alternating with a steady retrieve. On the twitch and reel, the fish will often drill the minnow plug when it is paused, making it a necessity to prevent slack from forming in the line after twitching the bait. Continuously reel up line to prevent significant slack from forming. It’s a disgusting sight to see a bass flash after the lure only to spit it out due to a poor hook set caused by slack line. I occasionally will allow the minnow to nearly surface or even break the surface and the smallies will sometimes blow it up near to or on top of the water. Obviously when using this method a lot of the strikes are visual and exciting, but be careful not to catch the fishing equivalent of buck fever. If you set the hook too soon you may pull it away from the fish. Try to wait until you feel the weight of the fish and then set the hook.

The advantage to using buzz baits or torpedo type stick baits is that you can cover a lot of water. There is little chance the fish can miss the clickity-clack of a buzz bait anywhere in the vicinity. Again, when using buzz baits wait until you feel the resistance before setting the hook or you’ll pull it away from the fish.

In the Middle
The number of effective offerings in the middle 80% of the water column is certainly too many to list. A few choice and popular artificial baits include French blade spinners such as Mepps, Vibrax or Blue Foxx (or you can order parts and build your own); crank baits in crawfish or shad imitation patterns; and suspending jerk baits. Any of these lure selections can be extremely effective depending on what the bass are keying to on any given day. Spinners are a great choice for getting into difficult to reach spots or for fishing in and around logs and brush. They are also perfect for sweeping through riffles and chops when other lures are either digging the bottom too much or continually breaking the surface due to too much current. In-line spinners are great for faster currents. Jerk and crank baits can produce violent strikes when fished through holes and runs with slower and modest current. Fish suspending jerk baits in the same manner as similar floating baits when the fish don’t want to surface.

On the Bottom
Many river smallmouth anglers swear to fishing tube and curly-tail jigs, plastic worms, salamanders, crawfish, etc bounced along the bottom. This technique can be extremely effective but be prepared to lose a lot of gear. You need to be on or near the bottom in and around rocks, logs, etc and this approach means a lot of hang-ups. As you probably have guessed this is not my favorite technique but don’t be swayed by my opinion. Many anglers catch a lot of bass bouncing the bottom. Look for riffles and runs with rocks and boulders and enough depth, or chop on the surface, to provide cover for the fish. You can also drift these offerings through deeper holes and runs with ample current to move the bait just enough to give it a life-like appearance.

Natural Bait
Few will argue that live bait is usually the most effective offering for river smallmouth. Crawfish, shiners, chubs, and night crawlers drifted through prime holding water will almost always produce strikes if the fish are feeding, and sometimes even when they are not. When possible keep the bait alive on the river. Hook it through the mouth or tail and drift it with appropriate sized weight, or even better if the bait is heavy enough let it free swim. Big bass will eat large live bait. I’ve heard one account (from a reliable source) of a nineteen inch smallie taking a seven inch chub.

I don’t fish live bait for two reasons. One I’m too lazy to collect, carry, and try to keep it alive on the river. I primarily wade fish and cover a lot of water; live bait in this situation is simply too big of a hassle for me. Secondly, there is no doubt fish mortality goes up significantly when using live bait. The fish simply has a much better chance of taking the bait deep in its throat as compared with artificial lures. There’s nothing wrong with keeping a bass or two as regulations allow, but there is great benefit in practicing catch and release as well. Let’s face it: smallmouth aren’t the best eating fish available, and releasing them will result in a much improved fishery especially in small streams that receive moderate to high fishing pressure.

Final Tips
Current and Rocks: When reading the water look for current. River smallmouth love moderate current because it brings the food to them. Wherever current and rocks and boulders meet, you are sure to find smallmouth. Big rocks and boulders as well as logs provide both cover and a current break, and the fish don’t have to move far from their layer to snatch food. In my experience in small to mid-sized Indiana streams deep, slow moving sections of water will hold the occasional fish, but they will be fewer and further between. These stretches more closely resemble lakes than rivers. My fishing buddies and I call them frog water. You are more likely to find catfish and carp in these stretches than smallies.

In the Shallows: Don’t overlook relatively shallow water. It is amazing how fish can blend in to the bottom and smallmouth are not afraid to hold in the shallows, especially when boulders or a good surface chop are present.

Vary the Presentation: Whenever you are not getting strikes, along with changing baits, vary the presentation. A change of depth, speed of retrieve, or amount of action you impart to the lure can make a big difference.

Color Selection: It is always a good idea to mimic the appearance of food or baitfish available to the smallmouth. Beyond that smallmouth seem to be partial to orange and green chartreuse. Definitely include orange in your color spectrum, especially in jerk baits.

If you are looking for an off-the-beaten-path angling experience and are willing to invest the time and effort required to learn a river well, the smallmouth are waiting. Here in Indiana we are blessed with a lot of awesome smallmouth water and some of it might be right under your nose. Check out the bronze treasure in your area, it just might add some serious zest to your fishing repertoire. It did mine.


Published on with permission.

Mike Haars resides with Nikki, his wife of thirteen years, and their dog and two cats. In addition to his love of the outdoors he enjoys Christian spirituality, sports and motorcycling. Haars has worked most of his adult life as a mental health therapist; he recently published a book entitled “Life is Not a Sound Bite: Cultural Crisis in America” through Tate Publishing and Enterprises.

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