However, some of the best fishing takes place during the early fall for a variety of species, from black bass and catfish to crappie and walleye.
Despite their readiness to bite, the smallmouth is one species that has always evaded me. Part of the problem was that they aren’t extremely common in this part of the state. Up until recent years, they were almost unheard of in most northeast Kansas waters.
As luck would have it, one of the better smallmouth lakes this year has been Lake Shawnee, right here in Topeka.
During the last sampling of the lake, the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism gave Lake Shawnee a “Fair” rating for its smallmouth population, one of only seven lakes to receive such a rating, though the biggest smallmouth measured was only 0.98 pounds, or about 12 inches.
The Jeffrey Energy Center Auxiliary Makeup Lake was the only lake to receive a “Good” rating, but several larger reservoirs such as Wolf Creek, Glen Elder, El Dorado, Wilson and Melvern have become hot beds for the species. Even Perry Reservoir is beginning to see a stronger smallie population, with several tournament anglers weighing them in during the past year.
During a quick trip earlier this month to Lake Shawnee, however, I saw firsthand that the lake’s supposedly so-so smallmouth population is better than advertised.
I drove out to the lake at 6 a.m. and was greeted by a beautiful sunrise over calm, glassy water, with fog rolling across the surface as the warmer water temperatures intertwined with the cooler air above it. Perfect smallmouth conditions.
After some moving around, I found a spot off the bank that had a significant dropoff — an easy way to tell this if you’re bank fishing is to throw out a weighted lure and watch to see how long it takes to hit the bottom. If it takes a long time in one spot but seems to hit instantly in another spot nearby, that’s an indication there is a big dropoff. A boater later confirmed it was 14 feet to one side and 3 feet to the other, so there was a pretty substantial drop in the area I was targeting.
He tried to break me off under a rock, but I stopped reeling and waited for him to bring himself out, then lifted the rod and dragged him over the rock. I initially thought it may have been a walleye because of its hiding tactic, but was taken aback when it emerged from the water and I saw it was my first-ever smallmouth.
It wasn’t a big one, maybe 11 inches, but I was thrilled to have caught the beautiful, hard-fighting bass.
But that wasn’t the end of my smallmouth inauguration; it was just the beginning.
A mere two casts later, I set the hook and was again rocked by a hard-fighting fish on the other end, this one pulling the same tactic as the last of trying to hide under a rock as I reeled it ashore. When this one emerged from the rocky hiding spot, I was floored. This wasn’t a little dinker like the last one — it was a full-fledged football of a bass.
Now hyperventilating, I picked up the nice bronzeback and estimated its weight. It felt heavy, about 2 pounds, and I was geeking out. I was probably more excited by that 15-plus-inch smallie than I was about my personal-best 20-inch, 5-pound largemouth — I mean, it sure as heck fought harder.
I took a picture and carefully released it into the ultra-clear, fog-covered waters and watched it jolt off into the abyss. It was keeper-sized, but with a species like the smallmouth that is just starting to take off, I’d much rather release them to make babies and get caught another day. A little bit of conservation can go a long way in maintaining a fishery.
I again went down to the water’s edge to release it, and I got an awesome shot of it slowly gliding back into the water, then disappearing into the depths. A careful release can be so much better than just chucking it back in the lake.
About 30 minutes later, I caught a very small bronzie before hooking into a keeper-sized largemouth that caught me off guard. I think it may have been the first largemouth I’ve caught in that lake this year, and here it was swimming amongst the smallmouths.
I saved the best for last though, slowly working the deep water until a nice smallmouth hammered the Ned Rig and took off like a cannon on the hookset. I maneuvered it around the now familiar rock pattern and gasped when I saw it up close.
My best estimate was that it was approximately 17 inches (I compared it against my arm and later measured that marking with a tape measurer) and most likely weighed between 2 1/2 and 3 pounds. The In-Fisherman length-to-weight conversion chart pegs an average 17-inch smallie at 2.80 pounds, so it’s right in that ballpark. All I knew was that it was heavy, but maybe my arm was just tired from fighting all those smallmouths so hard.
If you’re looking to get out there and catch a smallmouth of your own, I suggest going in the early morning and targeting rocky areas in direct sunlight as the sun comes up. Smallmouths love to camp near big dropoffs, so watch how much your lure falls to get a sense of depth in your location. Because the sun was warming the rocks and bringing the deep fish in more shallow, I was able to catch fish on both sides of the dropoff as they were fairly well scattered throughout the water column.
I highly recommend using the Micro Finesse Jig, which has been my most successful lure this year, but a green pumpkin tube jig also can work well. Pink is another good color for smallmouths, especially in murkier water when the sun is out. Many Northern finesse anglers will even use Marabou hair jigs in a Float-And-Fly setup to catch them when the weather gets really cold.
So now, what will be the next species for me to cross off my list? I’m thinking yellow perch or wiper, but it’s not really up to me what finds my line, so I’ll just keep enjoying the ride.