Field and Stream
The “Ferocious” Commuter
I REMEMBER THE RIVER IN spring with its rosy-fingered dawns mirrored on hemlock-shaded pools when bankside cobwebs were spangled with luminous dew, and in the fall, when the sun fell like a golden melon over the edge of the world, as it does before evening’s chill, lighting the forest floor where maple leaves are soon limned with frost. And in drought summers, when great boulders lay bare and the riverbed looked like some prehistoric backbone twisted in a hundred sinuous curves. There was only one daily train into our town, and after it departed, the stationmaster, Dan Todd, often invited me to ride his handcar, to help pump the machine down the tracks. The railroad followed the river, and in many places we had a bird’s eye view of the water.
Dan was a nut flyfisherman, and just the sight of swallows or cedar waxwings dancing over a riffle was reason enough to stop and try a few casts. Although occupying the same pools, smallmouth bass were a kind of sideshow on the East Branch of the Delaware—brown trout were the stellar event—but the spectral forms of bass rising to a hatch of mayflies or stoneflies, or a bounty of flying ants, was to a teenage addict worth pumping another 5 miles. I was immune to the salmonid syndrome (the idea that bass were inferior to trout), and to me the bronze acrobat was maybe not as smart as the brown trout but more endearing for that reason. But if smallmouth fishing has a modern genesis, it began with the American railroads, for Micropterus dolomieu was at one time a regular commuter with a finfull of one-way tickets.
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The smallmouth first appeared in print in 1664 when Pierre Boucher published his Histoire Véritable et Naturelle de la Nouvelle France. Of course, “New France” was the province of Quebec, where the abundant bass was known by the Algonquin Indian name achigan, which means “ferocious.” But elsewhere its distribution was a slow process of transplanting the fish beginning in the mid-1800s. Railroads followed all the big river systems and bass were often dumped off trestles by angling hobbyist engineers.
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For my part, the best of all smallmouth fishing is with the fly rod. There is a great variety of lures that will take fish: cork and balsa popping bugs; streamers like the Muddler, Zonker, and Woolly Bugger, dry flies and nymphs of all kinds; hair bugs that imitate frogs, mice, crayfish; and even some basic saltwater patterns. For most fishing, I do well with three, a Queen Bee popper, a Black Woolly Bugger, and a Crazy Charlie, all on No. 6 hooks.
In lakes during those hot-weather periods when smallmouths retreat to deep water, I take along an ultralight spinning outfit and use grubtails, marabou jigs, spinnerbaits, and rattlers. I still use a 5-foot fiberglass rod that weighs just 1½ ounces. In my opinion, space-age graphite and its composites are too stiff and too fast for casting ultralight lures; in the process of our building better mousetraps, only the mice have prospered.
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My angling year includes a considerable variety of gamefish, but I haven’t missed at least one lengthy smallmouth trip in over four decades. I like the spring season best, fiddlehead and apple blossom time, when a bronzeback in the shallows will spring panther-like at a surface lure, then make a rocketing jump; such a simple act but always a startling experience no matter how often it is repeated. It is about as explicable as the electric pulse of sound through silent space.