A smallmouth bass was rushing Winston Ostrow’s bug in skinny water, pushing a tsunami-sized bow wave, and I was squealing like a little girl.
Unlike me, Winston kept his wits about him—which is to say, he didn’t fall apart like a cheap suit and yank his bug off the water before the smallie could crush it. He coolly waited for the eat, and when it came—in a sudden, savage boil—he set the hook. The bass shot out of the Menominee River like its tail was on fire, cartwheeled, and landed with a water-cratering splat.
The third man in the driftboat, guide Nate Sipple, dropped the anchor then, and for the next several minutes we were treated to the kind of high-flying, hard-pulling, wrist-cramping show that makes the smallmouth bass one of the gnarliest fighters in fresh water—and makes fishing for them about as much silly, crazy fun as it’s possible to have without involving darkened rooms or controlled substances.
This goes double when the bass are of a mood to clobber popping bugs, and since launching Nate’s Clackacraft mid-morning we’d been doing a brisk topwater business all day. A 17-incher busted my chartreuse Boogle Bug on just my second cast, setting the tone for the entire float. We were into fish more-or-less constantly, and while there were a few over-eager youngsters (as there should be in a healthy fishery) the majority were in the 14-to-18-inch range—the cream of the crop, fat, fit, and ridiculously strong. On a 7-weight rod (and a lightish 7 at that) they absolutely wore me out.
We had the entire catalogue of eats, too: skinny-water wakers like Winston’s; delicate, almost trout-like sippers; crashers, slashers, toilet bowl flushers, the list goes on.
One of the float’s most memorable fish hit near a mid-river island, a jagged fragment of the Canadian Shield thrusting up from the streambed. A tongue of swifter current curled around the island’s lip, but there was a basin of glassy water on its back side that begged to be cast to. I overpowered the cast then cut it short, piling up some slack so the bug would linger in the sweet spot…but it didn’t matter. The bass smoked the bug the instant it touched down, eliciting the kind of roar from Nate and me that’s more typically associated with back-nine heroics on Sunday afternoon at Augusta National.
In case you haven’t picked up on this, we had a blast.
Over the past 15 years or so the Menominee has established a reputation as one of the two or three best smallmouth rivers on the planet. Draining a vast swath of wild, heavily forested country, it forms the border between Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan before emptying into northern Green Bay. The bass have always been there (along with northerns, muskies, walleyes, and even sturgeon), but it remained for Nate’s employer, Tim Landwehr, to let the genie out of the bottle. The proprietor of Tight Lines Fly Shop in DePere, Wisconsin, Tim put driftboats on the Menominee, put top-notch guides on the oars of said driftboats, and with these pieces in place pioneered what’s become the hottest destination going for smallmouth on the fly.
Some of the heaviest hitters in the fly fishing world float with the Tight Lines crew every summer—guys who are firmly in the “living legends” category. Gratuitous name-dropping isn’t really my style but I promise you know who they are. Everybody knows who they are.
The guides float six or seven different stretches of the river, and while each has a somewhat different character the thing they have in common is the potential to produce the best day of smallmouth fishing you’ve ever had. And to produce a smallie of jaw-dropping size. A measure of the fishery’s quality is that it takes a 20-incher to really turn heads—and on the Menominee a 20-inch smallmouth will weigh five pounds, easy.
I’ve caught only one of that size in my years floating the river—Nate Sipple put me onto it a couple summers ago—but a buddy of mine caught two 20-inchers in the same day on a trip with Bart Landwehr (Tim’s cousin). This was corroborated by a third party so it may have actually happened. There might be another 20-incher on my resumé but somehow the fish flopped out of the net before Bart could get it into the boat for a measurement. He doesn’t like to talk about it.
FYI, in the world of smallmouth fly fishing Bart, Nate, and Tim are rock stars. When Rio designed a line specifically for smallmouth, these are the guys they turned to for input. They know their business but just as importantly they’re simply a hell of a lot of fun for my buddies and me to spend a day on the river with. We’re all passable anglers but our capacity to enjoy the hell out of ourselves regardless of whether or not the smallies are snapping is truly unparalleled.
The bass aren’t the only source of fireworks, either. There was the time I used a rod tube to fire a massive skyrocket from Tim’s boat across the river in the general direction of Nate’s boat. (It’s possible a Tecate or two may have influenced that decision.) Thankfully I was a few yards off-target because when that sucker detonated it was belt-high. It was also packing a serious (read: deafening) payload.
Inexplicably, Nate and his sports didn’t seem to think it was very funny. Tim and I were laughing so hard we damn near wet ourselves.
We’re nature-lovers, too. We were about to put in for a float just a couple weeks ago when Nate, who’d stepped into the woods for a moment, came back carrying a leafy branch in his hand.
“Check this out,” he said.
On the branch was perched a dobsonfly that was not only the size of a 747 but sported a pair of wicked crossed mandibles that looked like they could take a finger off at the knuckle. I set an age-class record for the backwards standing broad jump and, once again, started squealing like a little girl.