At one time, recreational bass fishermen across the North regarded a 5-pound smallmouth as a true trophy. As time went on, fishing equipment advanced, previously secret fisheries were discovered and fishermen got better, as a whole. The results have been larger and larger catches, and an overall increase in what’s considered a trophy bronzeback.
Six- and 7-pound fish are no longer the product of exaggerated stories, and fish eclipsing 8 pounds occasionally pop up across the Great Lakes region.
As I touched on in a previous piece, most of the acclaim for the boom in trophy numbers has been given to a new, prolific forage specie across the region – the round goby. For the past several years, it seems as though there’s no limit to the maximum size of smallmouth in waters filled with this spineless bass delicacy.
Therefore, it didn’t shock me when I received a link in my e-mail to a video of an angler catching a smallmouth approaching 9 pounds. Probably another pre-spawn, goby-stuffed balloon, I thought.
When I watched the video, I was immediately amused to find that the featured anglers were good friends and co-workers of mine. Ben Royce, who many of us know from his role in the marketing department of industry giant Plano Synergy, was being guided by friend and pro-staffer Eric Hataaja. Just about anyone who’s a fan of big-water adventures across the North has heard of Hataaja – he’s been featured on a bunch of television shows and formerly hosted North American Fisherman TV. His pursuits of really big, angry fish in the hardcore environments of the Great Lakes are world-renowned.
So it came as no surprise to see Hataaja behind the scenes of another mega-fish. I called him for a quick interview and, when he described where the fish in question was caught, I nearly dropped the phone.
Eric and Ben had been fishing a body of water that was a mere 4,000 acres and was not connected to the Great Lakes. Primary forage there, as Hataaja described, are perch and bluegill; the same as it’s always been. No shad, no blueback herring, and no gobies.
Hataaja had been keeping a close eye on this particular lake. He mentioned that it was once a premier tournament destination that kind of faded from popularity, and that last year some big fish were weighed in at local events. What really intrigued him were several 7-pound, post-spawn smallmouth.
Hataaja put a bunch of time in this spring with Humminbird Side Imaging and an Aqua Vu to really dissect the lake. The results are history. A week prior to Royce’s mammoth catch, Hataaja himself wrangled a 7-01 from the same location.
In the wake of such an enormous catch (though not certified, a 9-pound smallmouth places in the all-time Top 25), I needed to digest what had happened. For years, we’d been taught that such a monumental increase in size of smallmouth could only be attributed to a total forage overhaul. But this fish proves otherwise. Just what’s going on here?
For scientific answers to my questions, I called Gene Gilliland, the conservation director of B.A.S.S. and a man who’s been involved in fisheries research, most often on bass, for over 25 years.
Gilliland presented several theories as to why we are seeing such a parade of hawgs as of late.
“First off, whether you buy into climate change or not, the average temperature of lakes is going up” he mentioned. While we won’t take the time here to discuss reasons, it’s scientific fact based on hard data that the average surface temperature of lakes across the country, most notably in the North, are higher today than just a half-century ago.
Such an overall increase adds to the growing season of the fish within. Sure, a little increase in the metabolism of bass may not make a huge difference in their overall size, but Gilliland pointed out that it may make a big difference to forage. Based on this slight change, the food of the bass may be more abundant, or overall larger.
Also, Gilliland clued me in to a recent discussion he had with other members of the fisheries community across the North, where researchers are finding numerous strains of smallmouth within a major body of water. It’s not out of the realm of possibility, Gilliland believes, that one strain may simply grow much larger than the others.
“Like Florida largemouth or Alabama spotted bass,” Gilliland said, “it’s very likely that there are strains of smallmouth bass that have genetic disposition to grow larger than others."
Now he had my attention. Could this be the key factor, the Holy Grail possessed by fisheries that seem to grow the titans of the species: places like Sturgeon Bay, Simcoe, Erie and others? Perhaps this explains the overall difference in size structure that many smallmouth veterans have come to notice in places that are often connected by water, but seem to harbor an entirely different strain of fish. Maybe this explains why certain regions of a massive lake seem to consistently crank out all of the trophy fish.
Very little is known, overall, about smallmouth bass within the fisheries community, compared to their more-popular largemouth cousins. Many state agencies are just now beginning tagging and research studies, and they have little or no historic data on the fish. Compare this to the extensive breeding and radio-tracking surveys done on Florida vs. northern strain largemouth, and it’s easy to see that we may be just beginning to view the tip of the iceberg.
The world record smallmouth bass stands at just under 12 pounds. Perhaps a time will come when the big waters of the North will claim the prize with a genetically superior specimen. From the looks of things recently, such a catch may be on the horizon.
To watch the video of Ben Royce’s incredible catch, click here.
(Joe Balog is the often outspoken owner of Millennium Promotions, Inc., an agency operating in the fishing and hunting industries. A former Bassmaster Open and EverStart Championship winner, he's best known for his big-water innovations and hardcore fishing style. He's a popular seminar speaker, product designer and author, and is considered one of the most influential smallmouth fishermen of modern times.)