116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
ISLE, Minn. — What started as a quest for many giant smallmouth bass ended as a lesson in not catching fish with grace.
My son Fred Love of Ames and I engaged Matt’s Fishing of Onamia for three days’ guided bass fishing on Mille Lacs, one of the continent’s top smallmouth bass fishing destinations.
On Sunday we fished with proprietor Matt Treno, who has been guiding anglers on Mille Lacs for 15 years. He told us at the outset that bass had been hard to catch — a condition he said could be caused by intense angling pressure, a surfeit of forage or both.
“You cannot fish them too slowly,” Matt told us and then repeated it. He advised us to fish with a light jig tipped with a short plastic worm known as a Ned rig. Let it settle to the bottom and inch it back to the boat with numerous pauses, he said.
His advice contradicted my own considerable experience catching smallmouth on moving lures, but I did my best to follow it. Fred, a practitioner of meditation, later told me he mentally repeated the advice like a mantra throughout the day.
Of the 20 bass we caught on Day One, none hit a moving lure, few hit with enthusiasm and most just picked up a static chunk of lead and plastic off the bottom. I caught at least five bass that bit while I was not even attending my rod. Our catch that day included Fred’s personal best, a 3.5 pounder, and my best (and last) of the trip, a 4 pounder.
That evening, as we discussed the day’s fishing, I told Fred, a student of spiritual masters, I was surprised at our success with the do-nothing technique.
“Unlearn what you know, Grasshopper,” he said, referring to the nickname of the youthful Kwai Chang Kaine, a seeker of truth and wisdom in the 1970s television series “Kung Fu,” starring David Carradine.
The next day we fished with Matt’s associate, Eric Jacobsen, who told us as we idled away from the launch ramp that conditions looked favorable for a top-water bite. On one of Fred’s first casts, as his lure gurgled across the calm lake surface, a large bass engulfed it, and just minutes into the day, Fred had his second personal best in two days, a 19.25-inch 4-pounder.
Our day was made, which was good, since we caught only one other fish in the next eight hours, despite Eric’s tireless efforts to put us in position to do so.
Guides know the whereabouts of many rock reefs and underwater boulders that are the equivalent of game fishes’ living rooms. In a lake that covers 207 square miles and likely holds more clean water than the entire state of Iowa, we drove directly to one after another and cast our lines into the water only after Matt’s sonar imaging equipment detected the presence of fish.
At the end of Day 2, in which the three of us caught two fish in eight hours, Matt said he had never seen the fishing worse. I believed him then, and I had mathematical proof of his statement on Day 3, when we caught zero fish. You could tie zero but you couldn’t beat it.
Day 3’s only excitement happened when I set the hook into what first felt like a snag but which proved to be a heavy fish reluctant to leave the lake bottom. With my rod bent tautly toward the water and Eric scrambling to get the landing net, I barely had time to think I was about to catch my personal best smallmouth when the hook came out of the fish’s mouth and disappointment escaped my mouth in a burst of curse words.
Fred looked at me and knew just what to say: “Detach, man.”
I instantly felt not just better but good — about the fish we caught, about the beauty and majesty of Mille Lacs, about our capable and affable guides’ diligent efforts to put us on fish and the time spent with my wise and truth-seeing son.