Brainerd Dispatch/Vince Meyer
MILLE LACS -- The headline gives reason to pause, as it might be the first time the words "bassin" and "Roach" have appeared in the same sentence.
By way of explanation, the Roach in this case is son Dan, not father Gary. But though the family name was made famous through walleye fishing, Gary and Dan both know there's more than one fish in the lake. When the walleye bite gets tough they gladly shift gears.
Thus Dan and I motored out of Terry's Boat Harbor on Mille Lacs on the morning of July 16 in pursuit of smallmouth bass. I was struggling through one of the worst slumps of my fishing career. I hadn't used a net to land a fish all season and hoped the big lake had a cure for my small-lake blues.
When we launched the only other fisherman at the landing was "The Griz," who waited for clients to arrive. Mille Lacs was strangely quiet for a summer morning, evidence that word of the dismal walleye bite had spread. But fishermen from Sioux Falls to Sheboygan have heard of the smallmouth bass.
Dan had fished here a few days earlier and had found a good pattern: shallow rocks and 3-inch Berkley tube baits in pumpkinseed. But he adds a twist to the presentation. After threading the tube on the hook, he buries the jighead within the tube, pokes the eyelet through the skin and ties on. Just eyelet and hook are exposed, creating a weighted worm of sorts. When jigged with quick flips of the wrist it darts to and fro, an action that attracts every fish that swims.
Brainerd Dispatch/Vince Meyer
Smallmouth aren't hard to find on Mille Lacs. Just look for shallow rocks and the bass are nearby. It took Dan just a half-hour to land the first fish, a 19-incher that broke the water twice and zipped half-circles around the transom. According to my handy Northland conversion card, a 19-inch smallmouth should weigh about 4 pounds. Dan's fish looked every bit the part, with broad back and thick belly.
Dan landed a 17-incher before I finally got in on the action with a 19-incher. After tussling with the fish I decided I go way too long between 19-inch smallies. On a baitcaster with 10-pound test line it gave a good fight. Imagine the fun with an ultra-light and 6-pound test?
Twice each we were broken off by northern pike before I hooked one in the corner of the mouth, where even a pike can't break the line. A 7-pound pike isn't the stuff of legends, but this fish fought well, with a little more thump than a bass.
I'd like to compare the fight of a 7-pound smallmouth with the fight of a 7-pound pike. Mille Lacs offers the chance. If memory serves, one of the Capra's landed a smallmouth here a few years ago that was just ounces shy of the state record of 8 pounds. It's probable a new state record is in the lake. The same is said of the muskie, and who knows what the biggest walleye weighs?
I glimpsed the potential of this multi-species trophy fishery at 1:50 p.m., when I hooked a 25-inch walleye as we drifted in 7 feet of water. That's right, a 25-inch walleye was feeding at 7 feet in the middle of the day in bright sunshine.
"Whaddya got there?" Dan asked after observing the first few seconds of combat. He knew it wasn't a smallmouth or northern, for it didn't rise like a bass or run like a pike.
Some walleyes hang in the shallows all the time, especially on lakes with weeds, but this was the first evidence I'd seen of walleyes in shallow during the day on the rocky coast of Mille Lacs. It was the first walleye I've caught on a tube jig and might be the last.
"I still work for Mr. Walleye Specialties," Dan joked as he netted the fish, a battle-scarred veteran with gashed forehead and the frayed fins of an old fish. "There, we filled our quota of walleyes. Now let's get back to smallies."
And we did, with two 16-inchers for Dan and an 18-incher for me. I decided I go way too long between 18-inch smallies.
By 4 p.m. the big lake had given me a 28-inch pike, 25-inch walleye and 19-inch smallmouth, perhaps the biggest fish of those three species that I've ever caught in the same day.
Mille Lacs, the multi-species wonder, indeed had a cure for my small-lake blues.
VINCE MEYER can be reached at email@example.com or (218) 855-5862.
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