There was no doubt it was a steelhead. Until it wasn’t. The grab had been so jolting, the head shakes so violent, that no consideration was given to the fish being anything but a steelhead. Yet there at my feet, in six inches of water, lay a brown smallmouth of grotesque proportions. Pulsing and flexing, flaunting its outsized strength.
I had caught plenty of smallmouths before, just never one that big or that mean. I wasn’t sure what to make of it. Kneeling in the waning glow of an early-spring sun, there was little time for contemplation. I sent the fish on its way, returned to my station at the head of the run, worked out some line, and was promptly fooled again.
I felt in awe about the entire experience, coupled—admittedly—with a tinge of disappointment that the fish hadn’t been the “steelhead” I’d so coveted. Yet I was also left with a lingering, intense curiosity about these tributary-spawning smallmouth of the Great Lakes, which some 15 years later have progressed to the front of my flyfishing palate.
The window is fickle. The calendar is of little use when it comes to pinning down the timing and dynamics of the run. Too early is too early and too late is too late and there ain’t a whole lot in between. The pre- and post-spawn windows present the bite you’re after. And once you’ve discarded the bycatch approach and settled on targeting these fish with purpose, you need to hunt hard when the opportunity presents itself.
In early April of 2021, we saw one of those windows start to crack. A week of low water and unseasonably warm temperatures was accelerating springtime movements. Still squarely in the heart of steelhead season, it would have been an easy opportunity to overlook, a mistake I’d made many times over the years. My buddy Alex and I decided to take our shot.
Superlatives would do an injustice. It was simply immaculate fishing. Wolf packs of six to eight smallmouths, averaging two to three pounds, pursued nearly every retrieve. The fish were right where we wanted them to be, none of them were small, and all of them were hungry. On two occasions, multiple 18-fish collided in suicidal pursuit of the same streamer. Awestruck and giggling, my buddy Alex broke the delirium:
“This is the day we’ll chase forever.”
It was an appropriate and joyous comment. But we didn’t want to chase that day; we wanted to repeat it, with whatever degree of predictability possible in this fragile, ever-changing world.
It sounded simple enough, given that we’d been on them in a big way with plenty of spring still left on the calendar. But reality turned out to be anything but. As weather patterns flipped—including a 30-degree swing in water temperatures over less than a week—so did the fish. By most accounts, the majority of those fish vanished from the tributaries. Even the biologists I surveyed could only speculate, but there was some consensus that the early-running fish had most likely retreated to the more stable temperatures of the big lake environment.
This explanation, while logical, did not satisfy my ever-expanding curiosity. I was tired of best guesses; I wanted to know exactly where those smallmouth had gone.
For all the years spent angling after them, and for all my avowed affinity for these fish, I knew only of their game worthiness. I knew little of the biology, population dynamics, open-water feeding habits and environmental susceptibilities that make them unique. I naively assumed that current science would have it covered. Surely, all I had to do was ask.
I turned to Zak Slagle, one of Ohio DNR’s fisheries biologists assigned to the Lake Erie unit, convinced that he would turn over the answers I coveted. Slagle was engaging, and shared my passion for this tributary-spawning Great Lakes population, and promptly burst all my bubbles.
“The Great Lakes are a unique system. You just don’t see big lakes with naturally occurring rivers in the southern part of the smallmouths’ range,” Slagle told me. “Even in species where 80 or 90 percent of the population doesn’t migrate at all, you’ll have an ‘upper tier’ of movers that can travel, say, 50 or 100 miles. But the way we sample fish, it was difficult for us to catch that until very recently.”
My curiosity piqued, I pressed Slagle on what understanding the fisheries-management community has about the migratory patterns of Great Lakes smallmouths. Why do they migrate? What biological or environmental patterns influence migration? I was after answers. I didn’t just want to repeat that day. I wanted to make sure my three sons could repeat it long after I’m gone. But Slagle plainly acknowledged that, from an actionable, scientific point of view, our understanding is limited.
“I don’t think we’ve studied that enough or know that very well,” he told me. “We want to know how much mixing there is with the main lake population. Are they vulnerable to harvest or tournament fishing? Do they even make it out to the Big Lake? That’s not something that’s been well-studied.”
As we spoke, I felt myself start to pout. Like a three year-old who got the orange cup when he wanted the green one. Before I could throw an outright tantrum, Slagle indicated that early returns on recent research are, if nothing else, eye-opening.
“In September of 2018 we did a small project and tagged some fish out of a tournament that were released in Sandusky Bay [in Lake Erie’s Western Basin]. Those tags were good for two years. We ended up having eight of those fish move hundreds of miles over the course of two years.”
In fact, of those eight “mover” fish, tracked via implanted radio-telemetry tags pinging acoustic receivers in the lake and its harbors, the average distance moved was 115 miles. The big mover recorded a minimum distance traveled of more than 300 miles during the two-year tracking period. Those movements spanned the broader reaches of Lake Erie, pinging receivers in both the US and Canada. Noting that a Great Lakes smallmouth’s life expectancy exceeds fourteen years, that fish saw more of the lake than most charter captains could ever dream of seeing.
I peppered Slagle with question after question. But for all his enthusiastic answers, it ultimately became clear: Despite smallmouth bass being one of North America’s most reputable gamefish, relatively little is known, colloquially or scientifically, about the Great Lakes’ tributary-spawning populations. We do know, through previous studies, that each tributary hosts a unique smallmouth population with its own genetic distinctions. But the overall lack of knowledge surrounding such a historically storied sportfish is surprising, given the current era of digital access to flyfishing info. Secrets tend to burn up quickly, and the next hot species or river is just a hashtag away. Yet these remarkably unique fish continue to swim mostly under the radar, for better or worse. Anglers are on their own in an attempt to “figure it out”—a rare and, at least in some circles, welcome privilege.
Here, I find myself in the half-life of has-been obscurity, yet skating the cutting edge of smallie science. For weeks, a group of friends and I had collectively shuffled plans, banked sick days, scheduled and cancelled fake meetings, and fleeced all onlookers in hopes that we could conjure a peak-run encounter. We weren’t sure if the window was closing, or if it hadn’t fully opened yet. But when a stable pattern of late-May weather presented itself, we jumped, knowing it could be our final opportunity of the season.
The fishing was more like what you’d expect on a real steelheading trip: a whole lot of casting—and twice that much rowing—for a few fleeting moments of glory. In a way, this made those moments all the more meaningful, and the fish landed that much more special. Three quarters of the way through the float, there was an emerging sense that the window had finally closed, and so the whiskey bottle was opened. Our crew soaked up the last of the setting sun swapping stories at the boat ramp, glowing over fish we’d landed, groaning about those we hadn’t, and generally disagreeing about who was qualified to hear the full report from this circle-of-trust group of flyfishers. The bottle passed after each confession, and with it a soft, unspoken appreciation for these unique fish and the small group of anglers who value them.
Thankfully, that group of anglers stands to grow in the coming years thanks to the efforts of Slagle and a group of his peers in neighboring Great Lakes states. Their recent research proposal, which is under review for funding from The Great Lakes Fishery Commission (GLFC)—a cooperative organization that includes governments and other stakeholders from across the lakes, on both sides of the border, “to improve and perpetuate the fishery.”
Their research would seek to answer many of the remaining questions about tributary-spawning smallmouth, such as how these populations contribute to and impact the overall lake populations. If funded, the study would use implanted acoustic telemetry tags, leveraging GLFC receivers already in place, as well as new receivers placed in various tributaries, to track movement and spawning activity of smallmouth over a two- year period. The study would also include genetic analysis using tissue samples to further assess population dynamics and the presence of unique subpopulations.
I’m no biologist, but it’s fair to suppose that smallmouth are well on their way to supplanting trout in many parts of North America where they haven’t already done so. It’s a depressing thought for those of us with an environmental conscience and a love of wild trout. Most flyfishers agree that native fish should rule. But history has squashed that theory so frequently and brutally, that it may be time to consider a new doctrine.
I’m not rooting for any outcomes that include displacement, but with increasing numbers of trout rivers either too low or too warm to fish during summers, it’s possible that smallmouth are freshwater flyfishing’s quintessential quarry of the future. And with the Great Lakes representing the beating heart of their native range, perhaps smallmouth are our community’s do-over—our chance to get at least one species right.
So much of the allure and addiction of flyfishing is wrapped in the pursuit of the unknown, yet it’s hard to protect what we don’t well understand. In some instances, obtaining the data is prohibitively difficult. But in the case of smallmouth, we seem to have the tools and the know-how. Fisheries managers just need to know that we care, that we want the answers, and most of all that we value the resource and want to protect it.
In a way, smallmouth are my steelhead. If we don’t get our conservation shit together, they may soon be your steelhead, too. We might want to get to know them a little better.