BATTLE CREEK — Scott Markham caught a small bass at the head of the pool, I missed a decent fish on a crank bait, and we floated downstream into what seemed like it should be ideal smallmouth habitat without a strike until something stopped my crank bait dead. I set the hook and immediately became one with a nice (say, 27 inches) northern pike. Two casts later, Scott Markham caught one in the same size range.
"Guess that explains why we're not catching any bass," Markham said.
Indeed, pike rule the roost. Everything else gets out of their way.
We were fishing in a stretch of the Kalamazoo River that hasn't seen many lures in the last couple of years. This is where the oil spill occurred, two summers ago, and the river has been closed to recreational traffic until recently. As soon as the ban was lifted, Markham was on the water there.
"I fished here years ago," said Markham, with whom I usually fish miles downstream below the next dam. "It's pretty up here and with the ban lifted, I figured why not give it a try. It fishes better than I remembered.
"It fishes like nobody's been fishing here for a couple of years."
True that. Once we hit the next hole, we started catching bass. It was pretty basic stuff — throwing at the bank with tubes or crank baits wherever we could find deep water, which, if you've been on just about any river this summer, is something of a challenge. There were several feet of bank exposed; I guessed the water level at at least 18 inches low.
"There's more deep water here than in a lot of places on the river," Markham said. "And a lot of log jams. It really fishes like a healthy fishery."
The bass we caught were healthy and larger than on average in most Michigan smallmouth streams. The bulk of the fish were in that 12- to 15-inch range — nice fish for a typical stream fishery — but there were few of those 9-inch (or so) smallmouths that you just about can't keep off your baits.
We'd put in at Fort Custer and motored upstream — often at a snail's pace — for 45 minutes before we got started.
"The river is so low I'm not comfortable running it," said Markham, who fishes out of an 18-foot Polar Kraft with a 65-horse jet-drive outboard. "This is the time of year when you can break stuff on your boat if you're pushing it. When the water's low, that's when something jumps up and bites you."
Fortunately, the worst of the snags had been flagged by the clean-up crew, so we could see when we had to slow down.
Markham, a 35-year-old electrician, has been guiding bass anglers on the Kalamazoo River for more than 10 years. I've been fishing with him, once a year, for most of them. We always catch good numbers — 50 between us in a five-hour trip is not unusual — and generally we catch some pretty good ones, too.
This trip was unusual in two respects; we not only caught fewer than usual — when we got off the river, five hours after we started, we'd boated about 30 (and I admit I lost count) — but they were on average, better than usual. I don't believe we boated an honest three-pound bass, which we usually do, but we had a bunch of two- to 2 ½-pound smallies.
"We'd have had a good stringer if it was a tournament day," Markham said.
Perhaps a couple of characteristics played into that. We didn't find any of those long, fast riffle areas where you can cruise through and catch a small fish on just about every cast. That might explain why those typical stream smallmouths were fewer and further between, but the lack of those 7- to 10-inch fish — which usually make up a fair portion of any small stream trip — got me wondering if they simply weren't there. Those are the fish that would have been fingerlings when the oil pipeline burst back in July 2010. Did they all die?
While there are still some areas of contamination — mostly in the bayous off the main river channel that were cordoned off — the river looked pretty good. It has always amazed me how gorgeous the habitat is in these urban waterways in Michigan. Except for the intermittent road noise from a passing vehicle or a house here or there, you'd swear you are miles from civilization.
To me, smallmouth bass fishing in Michigan streams is perhaps the most overlooked natural resource in the state. I've enjoyed excellent bass fishing on a litany of rivers over the last couple of decades. Some of them — the Huron, the Grand and the Muskegon, to name three — are well-known for their bass fishing. But others — the Manistee, near High Bridge, or the Au Sable, below Alcona Dam — are relative unheralded, and from what I can tell, under utilized.
The Kalamazoo is neither; it is both noted and pretty heavily fished. But it is also outstanding.
In many places in America, these small stream fisheries are often about as good as it gets. In Michigan, they barely register.
Makes you realize just how good we anglers have got it in Michigan.