It’s the last week of April in Wisconsin and soon smallmouth bass will be making beds and getting ready to spawn. I’ve been fishing the Wisconsin River for over a month this year for walleye and sauger which have a season open year-round as do smallmouth on the river. Recently, I’ve been catching smallmouth and that’s a good sign since the “bronze backs” will soon be making their beds and start spawning. This past weekend the water temperature on the Lower Wisconsin has been in the upper 50’s. The Lower Wisconsin River is an excellent spot for smallies plus you get wonderful scenery and some peaceful solitude while looking for bedding fish. There are very few people on the river this early in the year and if you fish during the week you may have the Wisconsin River to yourself!
As it is with most rivers, you’re never quite sure what you’re going to catch since the Wisconsin River holds dozens of fish species. On any given day you may catch walleyes, sauger, smallmouth, northern pike, musky, catfish, largemouth, plus assorted rough fish all from the same area. I’ve learned that crank baits, in-line spinners, bladed spinners, and assorted plastics (pre-rigged worms, lizards, grubs, etc.) can all work at times and artificial baits usually prevent the fish from dying when swallowing the hook. I believe in releasing all smallmouths I catch, so I stay away from using live bait even though river smallmouth will gobble a river shiner or chub if it passes by and at times out fish the artificial. The problem with live bait is that the smallmouth can swallow it so quickly it’s hard to just lip hook the fish. Circle hooks can prevent smallmouth from getting deeply hooked, but I still prefer artificial baits to save the fish.
River smallmouths are very opportunistic feeders and will feed on crayfish, minnows, bugs, and frogs. So, you can see that they have a varied diet and will feed on about anything that passes by them in the river. The river’s current is the conveyor belt of food for the waiting smallmouth. Places where smallmouths like to wait for food to pass by are; the front and back of islands, the front face of rock piles, log jams, flats that border deeper water, creek mouths, and sunken islands. This time of the year when the water temperature can rise and fall 10 degrees in a day smallmouth will look for the warmest water that they can find. Remember this when looking for smallmouth early in the year. Dark bottom areas will warm up quicker and attract forage and the smallmouth will be close behind looking for food. Other factors that can affect spring pre-spawn bass are; the water level, the water clarity, and any change in current or flow.
A good place to start fishing is below the dam at Wisconsin Dells and fish anywhere you see good structure all the way to Lake Wisconsin where there is a dam at Prairie Du Sac. The dam at Sauk Prairie is the last dam on the river and there is 85 miles of open water and smallmouth territory all the way to the Mississippi River. Whether you fish from the Dells to Lake Wisconsin or from Sauk Prairie to the Mississippi River, all of the waters are prime for river smallmouth. There are miles and miles of fishable waters here and a vast majority of it holds smallmouth bass.
The Wisconsin River is shallow in many places and a Jon boat and smaller motor is the best way to go when the water is at a normal flow. A bow or transom mount trolling motor is another necessity for slipping the current and fishing some of the rivers backwaters. Early in the spring, I’d slowly drift down the river looking for bedding fish and smallmouth working minnows in the shallow and warmer water. Cast a pre-rigged plastic worm in purple or black toward shore and slowly work it back to the boat stopping and letting it sit now and then. Casting 1/8th and 1/16th ounce jigs with a Kalin’s 5 inch twister tail in purple, electric blue, and pearl color is another option that works well for me. A plastic tube in any of the “hot” colors on a jig is another winning combo. Shallow running crank baits like the Mann’s Loudmouth Jerk and the Rapala Husky Jerk are also good baits for casting the shorelines and around structure when searching for smallmouth. The best colors are anything that has orange (crayfish colors) on it or the basic hues like fire-tiger, perch, silver and black, or blue and black. Slow rolling spinner baits like the Mann’s Hank Parker Classic work well when fished around any good structure. I use Stren monofilament line in 8 or 10 pound test when river smallmouth fishing.
The Wisconsin River is a smallmouth dream and the best fishing is yet to come. You can catch them right now if you use some of the tips that I’ve given you. Let your smallmouth go and if you’re looking for a meal then target walleyes and saugers. The minimum size for smallmouth is 14 inches, but you can catch some nice bronze backs in the 17-20 inch range. If you’re looking for fun and a great fighting fish, then come to the Wisconsin River for smallmouth bass!