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WILTZ: Just how good is Lake Francis Case smallmouth fishing?

In my estimation, the successful introduction of smallmouth bass into our Missouri River system ranks just behind the introduction of Chinese ringneck pheasants in South Dakota. Like the pheasant, the smallmouth is world class. He’s a fighter and a jumper, takes artificial flies and lures readily, is great table fare, attains some size and resides in clean, cold water.

Some elitist anglers like to debate which is the greatest — the smallmouth bass or the native trout. I’m no elitist as I fish for whatever bites. However, there’s no comparison between the firm-fleshed smallie and the mushy trout. Granted, a trout can fight, but he’s no match for a smallmouth.

One evening about a month ago, I was filleting some walleyes and smallmouth bass at the North Point fish cleaning station near Prairie Dog Bay. The fish-filleting angler across the table from me commented, “Nice bass, but I wouldn’t eat those things.”

Was he misdirected or ignorant? I couldn’t say anything as I’m a Chicago Cub fan, but I’ll tell you this. He didn’t know what he was talking about.

That same day Betsy and I had fresh walleye and smallmouth bass fillets for lunch. First, she cuts the fillets into inch square pieces. Then, she dips them in flour, butter and corn flake crumbs and deep fries them. Betsy served them with salad and fresh asparagus. The same meal was served days earlier with fresh Morel mushrooms. One couldn’t do any better. Talk about South Dakota fat of the land within reach of most of us.

As we ate, I asked her if she could tell the walleye from the bass. She couldn’t, and neither could I. Perhaps a practiced gourmet could detect a difference in firmness as the smallie has a slight edge.

Fish-eating experts are set in their ways and very difficult to change. Back in the 1960s, I was invited to join a group of Parkston anglers on their annual spring trip to Minnesota’s Lake Traverse. I was very young and impressionable. I remember Hugo Wudel carrying on about northern pike. He wouldn’t touch the “slimy snakes,” and he certainly wouldn’t eat one. According to Hugo, a pike would contaminate any fish served on the same platter.

We had an attorney with us named Lloyd Mahan. Lloyd was a real character and a bit of a prankster. He also happened to be one of the camp cooks. Even though we had caught crappies by the hundreds, I had kept a northern pike much to the chagrin of Mr. Wudel. I even wondered if I’d be invited to come along on the next year’s trip as Mr. Wudel really laid it on me.

Not being wasteful, I filleted the pike and made it clear to all that I’d take it home. Shortly thereafter, Chef Lloyd called me aside.

“Wiltz, get me that @#$%& pike and keep your mouth shut.”

If you knew Lloyd, you can picture his exact words. I followed orders. Ten minutes later Chef Lloyd was dishing fish onto everyone’s platters with a spatula. Oohs and ahs came from every quarter, but none more flamboyant than Mr. Wudel’s praise. “Nothing beats fresh crappie!” he cried.

Chef Lloyd came to the table and made a declaration as only Mr. Mahan could. “Hugo, you’re eating slimy, snaky pike.” The little cabin at Mindt’s resort just about came apart with laughter, but no one laughed better than Hugo once it sunk in. The man could laugh at himself. I admired that.

Parkston readers will wonder who all made that trip. While Lloyd and Hugo were business men, it was somewhat of a “school’s out” teacher affair. It’s almost 50 years, but I remember Duane Metz, Fran Serr, Ray Willard, Doug Chapman, Gene Ferwerda and perhaps Ralph McGregor. Some of these guys are gone now, but I smile to myself when I think of them. We were like a bunch of kids.

Smallmouth bass are extremely aggressive. It isn’t unusual to see a hooked smallie accompanied by a fellow smallmouth or two as you fight your fish. They too want that lure. A few weeks ago, we were having significant winds during the day, and I thought I could beat the winds by getting out early. At 6:30 a.m., I was working the riprap on the face of the Randall Dam with an amber-colored Gitzit tube jig. I guessed that the abundant smallmouths, occasional walleyes and even less frequent channel cats thought the lure was a crawdad as it jumped from rock to rock with my jigging motion.

The smallies I had already taken came from 7-8 feet of water along a line where the visible rocky bottom became obscured or clouded. I was having a minor problem with my electric trolling motor, and I placed my spinning rod on the boat seat. The tube jig dangled over the side, barely touching the water, and the boat began to drift away from the riprap as I messed with the motor.

Luckily, my rod happened to be in my line of vision when the handle leaped up and tried to follow the rest of my rig overboard. As I grabbed for the rod handle, “snagged on the bottom” crossed my mind. In a mini-second, I realized that ”something” very much alive was trying to take my rod to the bottom. Minutes later I finally guided an 18-inch smallmouth bass into my landing net. So much for crawdads that scamper across the bottom.

Just how good are our Francis Case smallmouths? If the world’s best smallmouth fishing comes from Wisconsin’s Sturgeon Bay near Green Bay, we’re a close second along with Lake Erie. Some of our Francis Case smallmouths measure under 12 inches. A greater number will measure 12 inches in length. I understand that some of our tournament anglers will keep 12-inch fish. I don’t know why unless the action is slow as 14-inch fish are common. One has to work for 16-, 18-, and 20 plus-inch fish on Francis Case Reservoir.

On TV this morning I watched a professional and a program host fish Sturgeon Bay smallies. Many of their fish fell into the 12-14 inch slot. However, they took more big fish than most Francis Case anglers, myself included, catch. I mention Francis Case as these are the home waters for our reading area. Sharpe and Oahe are also full of smallmouth bass.

Twelve preference points weren’t enough for my partner and me to draw a Black Hills ”out of the park” elk tag. Maybe next year.

See you next week.