We are close to a groundbreaking moment.
While many of us focus on tournament wins and AOY stats, a separate occurrence may be in our midst. Like the big bass race of the 1980’s, when record seekers continued to push toward George Perry’s all-tackle largemouth record, we are seeing increased threats to the second-highest honor in bass fishing – the world-record smallmouth.
As reported all across the Internet last month, Robert Bruce caught a 10-pound class smallmouth bass from northern Michigan, again breaking the state record. The fish eclipsed a 9.33-pound monster taken in 2015, which had shattered Michigan’s then-100-plus year-old record.
While we’re seeing larger smallmouth come from fisheries all across the country, Bruce’s fish brings a greater significance. Its incredible size places the bass on the top-10 list for heaviest smallmouth of all time, less than a pound out of second.
The all-tackle world-record smallmouth is recognized as a bass caught by David Hayes in 1955 at Dale Hollow Lake. That fish weighed 11-15. A 10-14 caught in 1969, also at Dale Hollow, follows it. The next five smallies on the list are all at or above 10 pounds. Incredibly, the legendary Billy Westmoreland caught two of those five.
Having a new entrant in the 10-pound class is significant enough, however, even more noteworthy is the trend toward Northern climes producing huge fish. In addition to the back-to-back Michigan records, Ontario’s Lake Simcoe has produced numerous fish in the eight-pound class, tournaments on Sturgeon Bay continue to award lunkers near that number, and a small lake in Wisconsin produced a nine-pound class bass on video for renowned guide Eric Haataja.
Fisheries managers and trophy hunters alike recognize when a certain body of water, or region, is poised to make a run at the title. Everyone remembers the world-record largemouth race of the 1980s all across California, where a handful of lakes cranked out dozens of fish in the 20-pound range.
Yet few realize that the same thing occurred in the smallmouth world decades ago at Dale Hollow. It was there that five of the top 10 smallmouth ever recorded were caught between 1950-72. And remember, this was at a time before modern depth finders, mapping chips and fluorocarbon fishing line.
However, with the exception of a 10 1/2-pounder caught in 1986, Dale Hollow has been absent from the record books over the last 40 years. Indeed, the giant smallmouth trend has leaned northward for quite some time, as recognized by the throngs of anglers pushing that direction for vacations each spring.
Dale Hollow veterans blame past catch-and-keep practices, something we’ve discussed here on numerous occasions. Paul Archer, a Dale Hollow veteran who moved to the lake a generation ago simply to pursue giant smallmouth, confirmed this.
“So many guys took the big fish years ago that the gene has been wiped out,” Archer said. “It's like taking all the 7-foot tall people out of the world. Once you get rid of them all, there won't be any more of them.”
Many regions of the north, however, remain relatively untouched. Local anglers there have traditionally focused on other species to satisfy their frying pan itch, like walleye, yellow perch and pike. As a result, the ancestral gene pool has remained largely undisturbed.
A number of environmental conditions have also increased the overall size of northern bass, although exactly how remains a scientific mystery. For a while, it was accepted that the introduction of round gobies had fattened up the fish. Yet, a number of monster smallies have recently come from waters void of this exotic morsel.
Scientists now point to an overall longer growing season, a factor of a warming planet. Regardless of your political stance on such matters, waters throughout the north have been scientifically documented to be increasing in overall temperatures for over a century. Ice cover is less, spring spawns are earlier, and feeding periods are longer.
Being a cold-blooded species, bass growth remains a victim to water temperature. Warmer water leads to an overall increased metabolism of the bass, and they continue to grow longer, plain and simple.
So, perhaps, such an environmental shift is opening up a previously unforeseen window.
It’s also important to remember how little trophy smallmouth are targeted throughout the northern regions. Comparing to the big bass race with largemouth, as in the heydays of Florida, California and, now, Japan, few smallmouth anglers go out with the intention of catching nothing but giant fish.
I feel somewhat qualified to speak on such terms because, at one time, I did just that.
My most memorable day chasing monsters occurred with Hall of Fame angler Steve Clapper. We combined to catch five smallmouth weighing more than 31 pounds. Clapper has been on a number of these forays during his lifetime and once landed a smallmouth in the 8-pound class from Lake Erie. I spotted a bass in the clear waters of Lake St. Clair that I feel weighed nine. Yet, in most cases, these fish were contacted in late fall and winter, when the number of boats on the lake can be counted on one hand.
Yes, all across much of the bronzeback belt each fall, locals are busy deer and duck hunting, or sharpening blades on their ice augers, waiting for freeze up. It’s a far cry from hundreds waiting at the ramp each morning, as was the case at Lake Casitas.
Is the smallmouth record at risk? I think so. While it’s a long way from the second place spot to number one, I think soon – possibly this fall – we’ll see another monster appear, pushing our imaginations further.
(Joe Balog is the often-outspoken owner of Millennium Promotions, Inc., an agency operating in the fishing and hunting industries. A former Bassmaster Open and EverStart Championship winner, he's best known for his big-water innovations and hardcore fishing style. He's a popular seminar speaker, product designer and author, and is considered one of the most influential smallmouth fishermen of modern times.)