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Earning every smallmouth on the Zumbro

It’s not great bass water, but it could be

BYRON

"The 8-inchers are biting. That’s number two," Kevin Crilly called out, holding up a smallmouth bass Tuesday.

Good, but where were the little smallmouths’ mothers, the big ones?

We wanted it to be Mother’s Day on the Zumbro River at Oxbow Park, where Crilly is the new director/naturalist. The 8-inchers are only 2 or 3 years old, little guys that offer a decent tussle, but not rod-benders.

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We fished there to explore the stretch of river that I’ve chosen as my 2008 smallmouth water. Each year, I choose a different stretch of the Zumbro or Root to explore for smallies and other wildlife. I chose the Zumbro west of Rochester in part because it’s close to home and in part for the challenge.

On Tuesday, I didn’t have huge hopes for this stretch of the Zumbro. It’s not as rocky as stretches of the Root or Zumbro I’ve fished in the past. It’s certainly not as good as some parts of the Root, where I averaged six or more fish per hour, with at least one 16-incher per outing.

But the Zumbro should hold smallies because it’s big enough, water flow is consistent, and there are rocks and other habitat.

That branch of the Zumbro does have smallies, said Dan Dieterman, a Department of Natural Resources fisheries expert in Lake City. "I know it had good size distribution" with some 18-inchers," he said. "For a small stream like that, it’s got good-sized fish."

Other parts of the Zumbro around Rochester tend to have more silt, which makes them poorer for smallies, he said. His fishing advice is avoid mud and look for rocks and wood, especially around riffles. When the DNR sampled the rivers, they found fish below riffles, under rock ledges, in back eddies and many at the heads of riffles, not only below.

"Don’t give up casting until right before you’re going to down that next riffle," he said.

Though the waters are close to Rochester, the lack of steep gradient to form riffles and keep them clear of silt, and sometimes poor water quality that muddies the waters, makes it hard to improve or manage the river for smallmouth, he said. You just have to do the best with what you have.

Dieterman’s last bit of advice: the fish are there, but you have to work for them.

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That’s what Crilly and I decided to do Tuesday. He went with his beloved Beetle Spins, the one that worked so well for crappies at Chester Woods last weekend. I fished 3-inch scented twistertails (pumpkinseed color worked better than purple).

Our method was simple — fish everywhere and see what happens. Neither of us had fished this stretch of water before, so we had no idea what to expect.

Crilly’s first fish came out of a shallow above a riffle. My first ones were a tiny rock bass and a smallie. With jigs I tried smaller, deeper areas, while Crilly worked broader stretches where fish might chase a fast-moving spinner.

Our goal was the big ones, at least a 16-incher, but an

18-incher would be nice.

Crilly caught the first decent one; he said it was 12-inches, I thought closer to 11. Whatever the size, it was fat and feisty.

After that, it was a lot of casting. Frankly, most of the water was mediocre at best — shallow, sandy or muddy, no pools or riffles. After a while, we just walked around them.

We did, however, fish hard in any place with moving or deep water. Riffles failed to produce any fish, but deeper areas were a lot better. I caught a 14-inch fish in about 2 feet of water and let it go. The next big one was about 12 inches. Again, in deeper water, but not the deepest areas. Oddly, the deepest water, ones that threatened to top my chest waders, were poor. Maybe the fish wanted warmer water now and will be in the cooler depths in summer.

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After four hours, we caught maybe 20 smallies, most of them 8 inches or less, with three decent ones. That’s not a great average, but the Zumbro isn’t great water. We never celebrated Mother’s Day with a 16-incher or longer.

But the water has potential. With a little work, change in tactics, we just might find those elusive big ones.

John Weiss is the Post-Bulletin’s outdoors writer. If you have comments or story ideas, call him at 285-7749.

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