Tenkara fishing for Smallmouth on the Wisconsin river during the Crash feeding Frenzy
It is a great time of year on the lower Wisconsin. The weather is warm, the bugs are not yet too thick, and most importantly, the annual phenomenon known locally as "The Crash" has finally begun. What's that you say - never heard of it? It's a month or so period of time where schools of ravenously hungry, thug-like big river Bronzebacks cruise around corralling bait-fish in places they can trap them against restrictive terrain features - and then gorge on them in splashy feasts that boil the water as the entire school feeds and the baitfish attempt to flee for their lives. Bass fly through the air, smash fish on the surface, and swim in crazy circles as they pursue their prey. It sometimes leaves you awestruck just watching them, and it is almost enough to make you forget to fish - almost.
I had fished the crash last year with our friend Ben (blog post and video) and have been anxiously waiting all year for the time to come again. This year Ben has stepped up his game - he's got an oar equipped jet boat with a casting deck. Talk about fishing in style! We were able to move quickly and comfortably between likely holds, work some promising shoreline along the way, jump out and wade when depth permitted, and anchor in perfect casting range for primes lies when we arrived at an active "crash site". What a killer way to fish!
"Crash Sites" tend to have common characteristics. You'll see a depth change (usually a drop off of some kind) that is often combined with some sort of terrain feature that breaks and channels the current. In many cases this a deadfall jutting from the bank, the forward shoulders or trailing tip of an island, or the tailout of a large pool above a riffle. Underwater structure that creates current brakes and cover for baitfish also makes it an attractive place for the fish that hunt them. Nearby slack water indicates shallows (on the right in both pictures below), which is where the bass will usually drive the fish when they stampede them together for the kill.
Ben knows the river well and got us into crashing fish right away. I rigged the WISCO rod with 15 ft of badger light floating line, and 6 ft of 10lb test Mono. This gave me all the reach I needed to drop casts into target zones while staying clear of the feed. While I tried to make my beloved "Pass Lake" produce, it seemed to lack the size, shape and color of the bait-fish the bass were hunting and it quickly became apparent that I'd need to adjust. A lightly weighted, silver and white #4 Clouser minnow with a wide gape hook proved to be just the ticket.
There are several ways to approach fishing a Crash site. One is to prospect it like you would any piece of likely water. We did this and found it productive...but the most fun is the "wild west gunfighter" method. This method is to stand ready with the rod ready to cast, scanning the water for the first sign of movement. The moment the surface breaks with a panic stricken minnow or rocket powered bass, DRAW! You shoot the cast into (or just past) the zone where chaos is starting to erupt, and then action that fly back through the storm. This often draws a strike and then it is off to the races!
We used a multitude of tactics and techniques, as streamers are extremely versatile on a Tenkara rod. You have a great deal of precise control over the fly's action, and this comes in very handy when fishing for Smallmouth Bass. For skipping across the top of the water, a high rod tip and small hand motions work great, as larger hand motions tend to tear the fly off the water resulting in a loss of contact with your target zone. Since baitfish rarely swim in long, straight lines, we want to imitate the erratic, darting quality of their swimming. An excellent way to do this with your Tenkara rod is to mimic drawing small shapes, letters, or numbers with your rod tip as you retrieve your fly. Adding pauses, sinks, and rapid depth changes is also a great way to breathe some life into your retrieve.
Don't underestimate the potential of sound. Using your fingers to tap on the grip (especially if you are maintaining good line tension) will transmit the noise and vibration of struggling fish and can draw the attention of predators looking for a meal. This can also be a great way to add "punctuation" to a drift as a fly passes through a critical target zone. I've had great success adding this "tap" to the down and across swing - try adding it just as the fly makes the turn for the swing! For effective use of poppers, we've found it helps to keep the rod tip low and draw the rod back sideways and parallel to the water. This helps to keep the popper in the water and easily generates that desirable "pop".
All of these techniques were put to good use, and brought us so many fish to hand that we just stopped counting or even taking pictures of them all!
As you can see here in the last picture, we got into some White Bass here and there - they put up a solid fight too! The fish ranged from about 12-16 inches and were pure "big river" muscle. Every Smallmouth puts up a great fight, and challenging them on a fixed line rod is a thrill like no other.
It is here that I have to address the one big disappointment of the day. Due to poor timing, operator error, and me only bringing along one battery for the head cam - I didn't really get any good video to share on this trip. I guess this gives me a good excuse to get back out there soon and get you some primo footage!
The "Crash" is a amazing event to see and even more amazing opportunity to fish for Smallmouth Bass. If you have yet to try smallmouth angling on tenkara rods - drop everything and make it happen. We here at Badger believe it to be the best sportfishing experience you'll find on a fixed line rod.
If you want to get in on fishing the Crash or the Lower Wisconsin River in general, contact Black Earth Angling Company and book ASAP - they are exceptional guides who are Tenkara friendly!