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Smallmouths By Foot

By Bill Schultz - April 1, 2001
Like many of you I love getting into my boat and fishing. What I don't particularly enjoy are the crowds on the weekends, especially around major metropolitan areas. If the weather is descent, the launches are crowded and the lakes are packed with personal watercraft, water-skiers and pleasure boaters. So on weekends, my boots replace my boat as a means of locomotion.

My favorite fish is the smallmouth bass. Here in the Midwest, we have many rivers loaded with this bronze bomber. For instance, there are a number of great rivers within an easy drive of my Milwaukee home. With a bit of exploring, you can find similar areas near your home no matter where you live.


As with any type of fishing, it's important to match tackle with the type of fishing you will be doing. When walking and wading a river, it's difficult to carry a big tackle box and a bunch of rods and reels. I recommend using a small plastic tackle box, backpack, or even better, a belted tackle container that can be worn around the waste. I prefer light action rods around 6' in length. These are easier to weave between shoreline foliage. My personal favorites are the St. Croix Premier PS56L and PS60LF. They have enough backbone for a larger fish, but have the action needed to cast light baits into current. More recently I've been fishing, based on wading vs. fishing from shore in heavier cover, rods in the 6'6" length. The extra length gives me more distance when casting the small lures I use and a little more leverage when fighting bigger fish. This past summer I put many hours on the St. Croix Legend Elite ES66MLFCS. For 2001 I'm looking forward to trying the new lighter action ES66LFCS and the new Avid series AS66LF. The bottom-line is that any of these rods are great for this type of fishing.

Many of the rivers you will be fishing in summer are low and clear. For this reason a quality reel with the long cast spool works best. I opt for the 1000 series Shimano with 4lb. or 6lb. Silver Thread Excalibur. This line is easy to work with, it's strong and abrasion resistant, a plus when working river rocks.

A variety of small crankbaits, spinnerbaits, tubes and grubs complete your tackle requirements. Most of the time I use the Rebel 1-1/2" 1/10oz. Teeny Wee Crawfish in brown, green and chartreuse. If the water is clear, natural colors work better, if stained, the chartreuse brings more strikes. I've caught 16 different species on this bait alone. I also like the Rebel Crickhoppers, Berkley Power Tubes and Grubs, Rebel Pop-R in smaller sizes, Heddon's Zara Puppy and Torpedoes, and small spinnerbaits complete my arsenal.

Another important piece of equipment, especially in clear water situations, is a good pair of polarized sunglasses. For the past five years I've used the Hydro Optic H3O Polarized Sunglass System. They look great, are very comfortable, and they have three interchangeable lenses for bright, cloudy, and low light conditions. Polarized glasses are a piece of equipment I won't leave home without.


When fishing rivers, I look for conditions that will attract fish. Deeper holes and the tail end of faster water or rapids are two of these. I've also had good luck on the down river side of submerged rocks, around downed trees and along rocky shorelines. In low water fish move to the center of the river and choose cover like boulders. During high water they move to the banks and hide behind anything that will form a current break.

The Teeny Wee Crawfish is a floater and shallow diver. It runs to three feet, which makes it perfect for shallow rivers. There, the lip bounces off rocks and the bottom cover, triggering strikes. Its rattle and in particular its very tight wiggle make it tough for fish to resist. The Deep Teeny Wee Crawfish works well for deeper rivers and holes. I've had good luck with the 2" Wee Crawfish, but the vibration and tighter wiggle of the smaller size seems to trigger more strikes.

When the water is colder, I slow the retrieve or interrupt it. Stopping the lure will trigger strikes as the bait moves along and then suspends, as if resting from the effort. In slower moving sections of rivers I've also had success with a Texax-rigged Berkley Power Tube, on a #1 or #2 VMC worm hook topped with a small bullet weight, worked slowly on the bottom. Traditionally rigged tubes using a jig also work, but get hung up on cover more often. Something I've begun using more recently is swimming a 1/32 or 1/16 ounce jig with a three inch Berkley Power Grub with a steady retrieve. This works best in clear water.


A number of locations can be very productive on the Milwaukee River. Estabrook Park is an excellent starting point, a few miles north of downtown. A couple of more hot spots going north are Kletzsch Park and below the dam in Waubeka.

The Sheboygan River is another good stream for smallmouth. It also offers the bonus of the occasional northern pike. Also at the top of my list is the Fox River below the dams in Waterford and Rochester.

Gene Dellinger at D & S Bait and Tackle in Madison led me to the Sugar River below the dam in Albany, south of Madison. Late one afternoon last summer, two hours of wading produced eight smallmouths, two walleyes and one northern that didn't manage to bite off my Teeny Wee Crawfish.

Also, try the Platte and Grant Rivers in Grant County, and the Fever River in Lafayette County. Larger, but still fishable from shore and wadable in some areas are the Wiscconsin River, which is a fantastic smallmouth bass fishery throughout its state-crossing run, the Chippewa River southwest of Eau Claire, the Menominee River along the states northeastern border, and the Peshtigo River.


Whenever you're on the river wading or walking, safety needs to be an important part of your outing. Be sure to let someone know where you'll be fishing, or better yet, go with a friend. Wearing a personal floatation device (PFD), especially if you're not a strong swimmer, is a good idea. Wading in shorts when the water temperature is warm can be fun, but when the water temperature is cold, be sure to wear waders that will keep you warm. Wear wading shoes with a good non-slip rubber sole or felt sole, and walk carefully, don't hurry. You also need to be careful walking the shore and when you're getting in and out of the water. It's very easy to slip on rocks or trip on other shoreline cover, I've had this happen to me and am lucky I haven't been injured. Know your limitations. If you walk or wade a certain distance in one direction you're going to have to make the trip back.

As most smallmouth bass enthusiasts know, all fisheries are fragile and it takes many years for a river smallmouth to reach maturity. That's why I practice CPR…Catch, Photograph and Release. Following this practice on these and all smallmouth rivers and streams will insure that wading for smallies will remain a viable option for generations to come for crowd weary anglers.

Good Fishing!

Author Bill Schultz

Bill Schultz
Bill Schultz lives in New Berlin and Sturgeon Bay, WI, and is a contributing writer for several magazines and web sites. Since catching his first smallmouth bass in 1994, he has caught and released over 26,700. His focus has been on the big waters of Green Bay in and around Sturgeon Bay, along with rivers and streams throughout Wisconsin. Catching and releasing smallies and sharing his recipe for success has become a passion for him. Bill is on the Pro Staffs for St. Croix Rods, Mercury Marine, Yar-Craft Boats, Jackson Kayaks, Bending Branches/Aqua-Bound Paddles, Kalin's, Keitech USA, RAM Mounts, Cedar Lake Sales and Malone Auto Racks/Trailers.
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