Manitoba Bassin' Basics
I'm not writing about what you might think the title of this article suggests. Much has got be said for angling smallmouth in their most northerly haunts, but I wanted to do an end around by reflecting on a particular bassin' experience and reflecting upon its revelations in order to ferret out what are some of the basics. The bassin' adventure in question came as a result of an invitation from a good friend who was going to take me into one of Manitoba's best new bass lakes: Horsehoe Lake. The lake is in the process of developing for itself a remarkable reputation for kicking out bass in numbers and size. The reason this lake has become so prolific for producing bass is as a result of a management decision to put a 0 bass creel on this lake. The results have been remarkable. From a lake that was populated for a large part by pike and perch, Bass have arisen as a predominant predator, growing to larger proportions than many other local lakes where bass swim. As a result of the latter you have an excellent backdrop for establishing patterns of all sorts for bass. The other interesting thing with such a lake is that we can go back to it time and time again and we'll have a population to hypothesize with….
Getting into the lake can be accomplished via three routes. Some folks will take the path in from Big Whiteshell Lake (BWL) and renting equipment from BWL. The other route that guests at BWL lodge will take will be to be flown in via a ten minute flight from BWL. Finally a third route exists, the one we took. The route starts by going in as far as possible on the Meditation Lake road. From there, we would dolly in our 14 ft. boat to Meditation Lake (about 1.25 km), boat across the lake (approx. a mile), then make another short 800 yd portage into Horseshoe. Both portages are marked by the Whiteshell's yellow triangle portage symbol – ok they aren't totally visible, but if you look hard enough they are there! Is it a bit of work getting in, yeah, but if you ask anyone who has made this trek in it's well worth the effort. Horseshoe lake bass can be amazing to say the least.
OK, we arrived early enough and even in spite of a couple of challenges, on the short portage where we had to take our boat off the dolly, and drag it under a fallen tree and reload it on our dolly (the next time we go in a saw or an axe would be a good idea) we were able to get in with comfort. With our boat in the water at horseshoe we would navigate around the lakes horseshoe shape to get to our "camping" inland… Having a camp in place is always a good idea when a dry place might be needed later on or when you just need a place to put your head down after a long hard fishing day…. I personally prefer to have all parts of the camp in place, but depending on the clientele your with, that is not always an option. I can't really see anyone having a problem moving around in Horseshoe as its size and general orientation can always offer a safe shore for travel.
But, back to basin' basics. It almost always seems that our best outings are not only those ones set upon trying to find in places where we've caught them before, but more significantly in trying to find out what they are doing at that particular time of the year given water levels, weather patterns, forage availability, etc…. Saying this is one thing but actually doing it is another. But the latter is only a starting point to what is really a conscious decision: to forgo memories and to get out there using knowledge of the lake, species and the time of the year to build a working hypothesis about what fish are doing (some folks call it patterning but its more than just a pattern) it becomes a pursuit that you carry with you from lake to lake. It sure is a good feeling to be able to discover new possibilities or just to see former experiences coming to bare upon a different locale.
With our smaller boats and motor we go out and try to dissect different habitats to at least attract a fish or two. Doing the latter in any area we'll use three general boat positions working through a variety of environments. Firstly we'll cast into shore from 8 –15 ft of water than we'll make an effort to fish the first drop offs or water in the 12-20 foot range. Finally, we will go out to deeper water, but more specifically we'll look for specific structural elements and/or fish on our graph (if we bring a good enough graph in with us).
The old adage of horizontal or vertical is key when working any section of water in a bass lake. Of course different lures will work the water differently and at different depths. I will start with my lure selection to work as many of the levels horizontally. I generally will only work the mid to deeper areas vertically and will hybridize my vertical approach to shallow water by keeping jigs or rigs to the bottom while pulling them through the water horizontally (perhaps the one factor that I haven't mentioned is that I'll generally add in the "sight" factor to this latter approach – seeing a fish makes this horizontal/vertical approach even more effective. To make yourself even more effective with these two concepts it helps to spend a moment and to consider what lures do what and at what depth(even before they hit the water). Having lures put together that have certain similar characteristics is helpful. Another key observation to make when reflecting on this particular "Bass concept" is to actually account for how the bass are following or hitting on any day. I've seen bass following a jig in when worked through intermediate depths of water and not hit the bait, but when a change is made to a deeper diving minnow bait, action has picked up (my thought exactly….., they were responding to deeper minnow forage). I've seen it where bass would follow cranks, bump them, but would not take them. Then all of a sudden when I would change to a jig type presentation (more vertical in orientation) and a lot more bass would be brought to the boat. Of course as with any other concept, to define definitely that it was one way or another would be short sighted. However, eventually there is this or that predominance given a specific lake at this or that time of year.
OK I know I've said this elsewhere, but on some occasions its not only the how and the where – although I haven't put much into this latter component – but there is the consideration of "with what" that counts on some occasions. This latter "simple" consideration I've found over the years can really be focused with bass as with no other fish. I've seen a trip succeed because of our willingness to put away the hardware on some occasions and to turn to the simple "fly". It was a very good friend of mine that proved this point a couple of years ago when he showed me how keyed in the bass were to a caddis hatch that was going on in the lake that day. Rob said to me, Dan you can catch a few bass, or you can catch a lot of ‘em. It's your choice." Well after ceding to what I thought were inferior bait for bass eg. flies I had myself proven wrong. On that particular trip we would catch an inordinate number of bass on the fly while two other boats that would literally surround us would see none…
Having admitted the latter (that some of our foregone conclusions vis a vis bait selection) also applies to the simple leech. I've seen many a slow trip saved by what seemed to be a simpler, more backwards method. But don't ever think that the lowly leech doesn't work its charms on Mr. Bass. Oooh bass just love leeches…. So be open to the possibility that the "with what" can have a positive impact on how well you do.
As for those go to favourites, two means of delivery come to mind: the jig and the simple single bladed spinner. With a jig I find I can work the shallower to intermediate water and with the spinner I can work the intermediate to deeper water (of course and emphasis should be placed on the verb "work" as I'll often employ a more mobile attack even using live bait). Finally I should also mention that there have been "cross-overs" where either lure can be effective in either shallow or deeper applications.
Lastly but now least, I've been pulling out the simple J hook float split shot combo to take many trophy bass lately. What's up with that? Well, I know fish can be caught again and again and many catch and release lakes testify to this fact. However, I feel that on many occasions, a very wary fish can be coaxed into biting on a naturally presented bait. Of course the presupposition here is that you are presenting to fish bait that they have not seen on a regular basis or at least are being presented in such a natural way that they don't know it's a bait made to catch 'em. Of course as with any approach there is one major drawback to this approach, fish tend to be hooked very deeply and you'll often need to cut the line to avoid further hurting a fish. Cut that line and don't be cheap, we're talking about a resource that struggles from day to day for survival in a habitat that is not necessarily the best for smallmouth.
Well, I guess that's enough rambling about bassin' basics. Really there's nothing more basic than just getting gout there and becoming little more thoughtful about what you're doing when your fishing for bass. And I guess that's the point. If you stop and look at how you do it when your out there as I've done here with my reflections on Horseshoe lake your bound to stumble if not clearly recognize things that make your bassin' that much productive.