WABASHA, Minn. — A couple of times a year, my good friend Mike Wirth invites me to join him for a few hours of Mississippi River bass fishing.
For some reason, such invitations are rare, but now that I think about it, I don’t receive many invitations from my other friends, either. Fortunately, I only have a couple of friends or I might start wondering what’s wrong with them.
Anyway, a chance to fish with Mike always is educational, enlightening and entertaining. So I talked my way into his boat last week on Pool 4 of the Mississippi.
I’m not much of a bass fisherman. Most of the largemouth and smallmouth I catch are by accident while I’m targeting walleyes or panfish. Mike, on the other hand, is a very good bass angler. He’s been chasing them for better than 40 years and has fished some of the premier waters in the country.
He is especially tuned in to his Mississippi River bass. He knows what they eat and where they hang out as seasons change and water levels fluctuate. If Mike doesn’t catch at least a dozen bass in a couple of hours, that’s a bad day.
April 23 brought sunny skies, air temperatures that reached the low 60s and water temps in the low 50s when we headed out early in the afternoon. I brought along two spinning rods — one rigged with a crankbait and another with a black hair jig. Mike had six baitcasting rods strapped down on the front deck of his boat.
“You’re gonna want to tie this on,” he said as he flipped me a 5/16th-ounce black and blue swim jig tipped with a four-inch paddletail. “And put this bladed jig (also black and blue with a soft plastic critter added) on your other pole.”
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So I re-rigged my rods as we idled out of the harbor and, after a short boat ride, we were at our first spot. Mike dropped the trolling motor and grabbed a rod rigged with a chartreuse and brown Rapala DT6 crankbait.
“You need a crankbait here,” he snickered as he fired a cast along a current seam just off the main channel of the river before it opens up into a large complex of shallow backwater lakes. “The smallmouth show up here this time of year before they move into the backwaters to spawn.”
While I was still tying on a crankbait, Mike had a fish grab his DT6 but let go.
“They’re here,” he said as he whipped another cast to the same spot and began a slow retrieve. Suddenly, his rod loaded up and he was hooked up with a beautiful 4 1/2-pound, bucking bronzeback bass. After landing that fish and taking time for a couple of photos, he returned it to the water, jumped back in the front of the boat and proceeded to catch a 3 1/2-pounder on his next cast. I had yet to make my first cast but I was definitely enjoying the show.
Mike caught a couple more impressive smallies before they shut down.
“We’ll stop back later,” he said. “Let’s go catch some largemouth.”
Our next stop was a nearby backwater lake with a maximum depth of about six feet. Pitching the bladed jigs to shoreline deadfalls and around docks, Mike caught a half-dozen largemouth bass between 3 and 4 pounds while I tried to get the hang of fishing fairly heavy baits slow enough in the shallow water without letting them drag through the decayed vegetation on the bottom. When I did get a rare bite, I had an equally hard time getting the hook into them. Clearly, my 6 1/2-foot spinning rod with 6-pound Fireline wasn’t the ideal setup.
By now, Mike was singing a Bob Dylan tune. It might have been “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door.”
On we went, deeper into the lake where the water was littered with stumps and entire trees that had uprooted. This was mostly swim jig territory where we flipped jigs deep into the cover. Again, I watched and learned.
Watching Mike hook a bass in heavy timber is like watching Tiger Woods sink a 40-foot birdie putt in the Masters. First, he starts backpedaling across the front deck of the boat. Then, he unleashes a ferocious hookset that sometimes launches even a 3-pound bass airborne.
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Eventually, I did land three nice bass — two largemouths in the lake and a smallmouth after we returned to our initial spot. Mike caught 12 or 15 in about two hours of fishing. We talked about the next phase in the bassing season when the fish begin to make nests in preparation for spawning. That’s an entirely different approach, but I’ll try to talk my way into Mike’s boat again.
In the meantime, as we headed back to the harbor, I found myself humming another Dylan classic ... “Tangled Up In Blue.”