|With the 2008 turkey season behind us and waters down to manageable levels in most rivers and streams, it’s time to do some serious fishing. When it comes down to it, I much prefer to spend the day in search of smallmouth bass, which are fast becoming the species of choice among Maine anglers.
A generation ago bass were considered trash fish of the highest order, no more important than chubs or suckers, but reality has slowly overtaken tradition. Sometime back in the 1970s the heyday of trout fishing in Maine came to a screeching halt. The sizes and numbers of fish that were available dwindled, previously great trout waters failed to produce and reactive regulations made fishing just for trout a frustrating endeavor. Limits went from 15 fish per day down to one or two (and now none in some waters!) and many waters went from all-tackle destinations to catch-and-release, fly-fishing only. The state’s salmon fishery also lagged, and our once-famous Atlantic salmon run dried up and blew away despite millions of dollars being poured into an ill-fated “restoration” program.
Meanwhile, Maine’s bass population, long ignored and disdained by salmonid purists, suddenly became the new focal point. I remember writing about the state’s great bass fishing in the Maine Sportsman magazine back in the late 70s and not seeing one other word published about the sport. Now, bass are mentioned in every issue and they even have a tournament pro writing for them.
Perhaps the best news of all is that the smallmouth’s (and, in some waters, such as Stetson Pond, the largemouth’s) newfound popularity will not be short-lived because along with the new interest in bass fishing is a new ethic formerly unheard of among trout anglers: They throw them back! That’s right, most bass anglers love catching Maine’s big bass, but when the battle is over they carefully release them so that another angler can enjoy the same experience.
Unfortunately, part of the reason our trout fishery suffered its astounding collapse is that most anglers kept every trout they caught and those big, breeding 5-pounders we all hear about were quickly tossed into a cooler and taken to the nearest grill or taxidermist. In the mid-70s, I saw boatloads of anglers coming into the Moose River launches with coolers full of 3- to 5-pound brookies, but as time went on the catches (and the fish) grew smaller. You can’t remove that many adult trout from any fishery and have it continue to produce huge numbers of fish. Poaching was also rampant in those days, and the reward for all that greed is the severely limited trout regulations that are now in place.
Will our trout fishery recover? Who knows, but in the meantime, some of the best bass fishing in the U.S. awaits anyone with the time and inclination to toss a lure (just about any lure!) at a rock, log or overhanging tree along the shore. And, best of all, our area of Maine is one of the best regions in the state for bass fishing. In fact, other than the impossibly great bass fishing in Lake Erie (where 6-pound fish are considered common), we have a corner on the market.
I have fished all over the eastern U.S. from the Mississippi River to the coast and can say with honesty that central Maine’s bass fishing is second to none. In fact, many places promote their bass fishing as “world class” base their boasting on the huge numbers of small (under 10-inch) fish in their fishery. In most of our bass waters, a 10-inch smallmouth is a “minnow.” And, as long as anglers continue to release most of the smallmouths they catch, we will never have to look back on these years as “the good old days.”
The annual spawn is still going strong which means you will find plenty of bass in the shallows of lakes and ponds in our area. Our rivers, too, will be full of fish. There are plenty of great places to fish for bass, many of them within walking distance of bridge crossings, boat launches and wherever you can make a decent cast from shore, but I think the best place I ever went was in Medford at the trestle. The riverbed is littered with boulders and there is just enough current and flow to keep bass happy all summer long. This stretch is easily fished from shore and, at dawn or dusk, bass well over 16 inches are the norm. Even at midday, it’s not unusual to catch dozens of fish over 12 inches.
My favorite lures have always been the gold Mepps bucktail spinner, a 3-inch silver Rebel or the 1/8-ounce yellow Mr. Twister jig. Near dark, I’ll start tossing out a small Jitterbug and start catching much bigger bass, but it’s not easy to fish a river in the dark! You have to listen to the steady gurgle of the lure as it comes across the river, and then strike hard when you hear the sudden splash of a striking fish.
Bass are active throughout the night, so it’s tempting to stay out there and hope that a really big one will cruise by. I have lost some of my best lures during these after-dark forays, but the risk is worth it when a bass weighing 4 or 5 pounds could decide to take the bait. If you think such fish don’t exist in Maine, spend a night on a proven bass water and see what happens! I have caught some tremendous Maine bass after dark on rivers, lakes and ponds throughout our area, and, having fished these same waters during the day I was surprised and amazed to find that such fish existed! It’s nothing to catch scads of smaller bass during the day on most waters, but after dark the serious lunkers come out to feed on crayfish, shiners and leeches, and anything that swims and wiggles is going to be devoured with gusto.
Find the opportunity, night or day, to spend some quality time on the bass water nearest you this summer. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised at what you may find!