Smallmouth along the Bronzeback Byway: Chapter 1

The smallmouth bass of the north woods are calling and I must go

Smallmouth headquarters
Smallmouth headquarters, the family cabin, nestled on a quiet lake in northern Wisconsin

Wildfire Refugee

I left Missoula in a huff with smallmouth bass on the brain. Lingering smoke and heat had spoiled our precious summer and I’d been out in the elements, guiding clients through the putrid haze. Our ample snowpack was long gone, replaced by rising water temperatures. Deteriorating fishing and concern over our wild trout population weighed heavily on my mind. Other guides had pulled the plug, postponing their seasons until fall, and losing thousands in revenue. I couldn’t, in good conscience, continue to claim checks that our non-renewable resources may not be able to cash. I could find respite in the north woods until cooler temperatures prevailed.

Smallmouth fishing boat
A fishy little vessel

My wife and kids were already there, living the lake life at the quintessential retreat, the family cabin. Built by my wife’s grandparents, the cabin exhibits all the charms of a mid-fifties hideaway; screen porch, stone fireplace, and ALL the prerequisite knick-knacks. Off the dock, the kids can catch bluegill and bass, play in the sand, swim, or cruise the lake in the Pink Paddle Boat while we keep a lazy eye on them from the hammock.

Cabin Decor
Proper cabin decor

The lake itself harbors some bruiser largemouth. I can duck out in the early am, while the clan slumbers, and disturb the weedbeds at daybreak with swimming frog patterns. Ten minutes away, within wild and scenic river systems, lies smallmouth nirvana. The experience of a wild river smallmouth blowing up a frog pattern is one of flyfishing’s electric moments. It’d been too long since I’d partaken, so I packed a jet boil, some dehydrated dinners, instant coffee, sleeping bag, pop-up tent, and my fishing gear into the back of our Volkswagen. My plan was loose, take the northern route across Montana and North Dakota, then spend a couple of days fishing my way along until a bed opened up for me at the cabin. I dubbed this path the Bronzeback Byway.

One Last Trout Detour Before the Smallmouth Search

There’s a small mountain trout stream that drains the Absaroka Mountains along the Montana/Wyoming border. I’d driven over the river too many times to count, thinking to myself, next time, I’m gonna’ fish that. Previously, I’d had an agenda, some place I needed to be, or traveling companions that deterred me from making the side-trip. Now untethered, this would be the time. I took the exit off I-90 and headed upstream until the foothills found the timber and I pulled into the parking area of an inviting primitive campsite with only one other soul for company. Of course, the gent had taken the prime spot streamside, so I laid claim to the next best option and deployed the pop-up tent and bedding. A few minutes later, pleased with the efficiency of my Spartan camp, I rigged up my 8’ 3WT and headed for the river.

mountain trout stream fly fishing
Small stream trout fishing at its finest

Hoppertunity Knocks

Hoppers stung my bare calves on the short stroll through the bunchgrass. In contrast to the tepid flows I’d left back home, the glacial melt bit my ankles as I stepped in and considered the river. The substrate was greasy, and I’d need to wade carefully. I worked out a short length of line and investigated the edges of each boulder with the dry fly. Small trout took immediate interest in my hopper pattern, but there had to be some bigger fish in this delightful pocket-water? I tied on a dropper nymph, a #16 Jigged Prince to be exact, and in a juicy seam below the confluence of the river’s forks I landed a spirited rainbow that gave the 3 weight all it could handle.

beautiful mountain rainbow trout
A midsummer’s dream, a 3WT and a chunky mountain rainbow

I cradled the trout a moment and marveled at a fine representative of the fishery. Then, I proceeded to inadvertently sample the whitefish population and found it well intact. Nearly every drift resulted in an encounter with a native mountain whitey. I could check the river off the list and returned to camp for a freeze-dried dinner. At dusk, I steadied my elbows on my knees and glassed an adjacent hay field as mule deer funneled out of the foothills for the evening feed. After a few hours of marginal sleep, I broke my efficient camp and hit the road at dawn, intercepting a herd of elk en route to an alfalfa breakfast just before I merged back onto the vacant interstate, bearing

smallmouth camp
The pop up tent is the light traveler’s best friend

Roadside Attractions

on the road to smallmouth
Getting some exercise along the interstate

I’ve always loved the desert, specifically, the high desert of the Great Basin. As a kid chased chukars, cottontails, mule deer, and rattlesnakes. The badlands of eastern Montana are reminiscent of the stark landscape of my youth. Begrudgingly, I’ve spent very little time exploring this vast, sparsely populated region since I moved to Montana 15 years ago. So, I carved out a few hours to stretch my legs and soak in some of the arid scenery. Back behind the wheel, a Howard Stern interview with Tom Brady led me down a rabbit hole, and before I knew it, North Dakota was in the rear view.

smallmouth meals
Camp rations

I arrived at a campsite just over the boarder in Minnesota and pulled in before the gates locked at 10PM. Luckily, I found a vacancy tucked away in the back of the campground. After navigating the state’s online booking system, I sucked down another freeze-dried dinner and hit the rack until the first hint of light seeped into my tent. Pried from slumber with another long day of travel ahead, I set off in search of exercise. A neatly mowed trail wound through the campground along a meandering river possibly teeming with smallmouth and pike, but I resisted the urge to string up a rod. I had landed in Minnesota, the official starting point of the Bronzeback Byway, but I had a few stops to make before my smallmouth adventure would begin in earnest.

minnesota smallmouth river
Hard to pass this river up, but you can’t fish ’em all