Saturday, June 18, 2011
Bass bustin' (throw 'em back)
Bass angler Tony McCalmant caught his first smallmouth in a small Bonners Ferry lake/Ralph Bartholdt
POST FALLS—It was the big rainbows that first poked Tony McCalmant with the barbed hook of youthful fishing adventure.
He spent much time as a boy trolling for world-class Gerrard rainbows with his dad on Idaho’s biggest and deepest body of water, Lake Pend Oreille in Idaho’s Panhandle, a craggy woods and mountain paradise of elk and wild cats.
His stomping grounds of Bonner’s Ferry, just a thumb hitch from Canada, doesn’t conjure immediate images of bigmouth bass. Instead, it’s cold water trout and bugling elk that spring to mind, but the small, secluded lakes around McCalmant’s hometown with names like Brushy, Smith and Robinson were also home to an abundant population of spiny rays.
McCalmant didn’t find out until he was in his teens and he hooked his first bass in one of the pint size, brush-rimmed local lakes.
“I caught my first bass when I was 14,” he says. “I caught a nine pounder out of Smith.”
Like most novice bass anglers, the experience left him with a muscle twitch in his casting arm and permanent dreams of the hard fighting, tail dancing fish he has chased ever since.
McCalmant belongs to the regional bass circuit and is a bass pro at Mark’s Marine in Coeur d’Alene not far from where he now lives in Post Falls – in the center of the state’s northern bass haunts.
When June comes, McCalmant measures water temperatures, lake depth, run off and the spawning clock. The mental math often brings him back to the place where he started fishing a couple decades ago: Lake Pend Oreille, and the wide river at its outlet that pours to the Columbia .
This time, it is not Gerrards that McCalmant is after.
“There is a good population in there of smallmouth and largemouth,” McCalmant says.
Years ago, before the bass craze struck North Idaho like a fever pitch, as most NI anglers focused on kokanee in the big lakes, or macks, or other species of trout, a few hard-core bass guys like McCalmant hit the sloughs in June for bigmouth bass, and fished the points and rocky outcrops for smallmouth.
Back then, McCalmant says, most bass guys fished in relative anonymity.
In the past decade however, things have changed.
“People saw us out there setting the hook and eventually they started checking it out,” he says.
These days the many weekend anglers come with buckets. Where the bass pros caught and released their trophies to fight them another day, the bucket brigade most often catches to keep.
“They sit at the culvert openings to the creeks and along the point banks where the bass are waiting to spawn,” McCalmant says.
From the largemouth in the warming waters of the sloughs to the smallmouth in the cooler lakes, the weekend brigade catches its limit and takes them home to the fryer.
McCalmant isn’t abject to fish eating, but he and his fellow pro anglers have seen the impacts, he says.
“The fishing is going down, and down in a hurry,” he says. “Over the past few years we have watched the population decline pretty heavy.”
He encourages all bass anglers in the Pend Oreille River sloughs to keep sustainability in mind.
“There are plenty of smaller smallmouth,” he says. “If you’re going to keep fish, keep the 12 to 15-inch fish and release the big females. Anything over 16 inches would be a good fish to put back.”
That does not mean that size worthy smallmouth bass cannot be found in the vast structural features of the lake, which sports 111 miles of shoreline.
“There are plenty 3 and 4 pound fish and bigger ones are not uncommon,” McCalmant says.
The river’s many warm, weedy sloughs hold enough bigmouths in the four to six-pound range to keep catch and release anglers coming back.
“I know of a nine pounder caught, and I’ve seen bigger fish,” he says.
Idaho regulations for its year round fishery that allows a combined six bass to be kept, with only two largemouth, and no largemouth under 16 inches, are an unwise mix, says McCalmant. The regulations make keeping the biggest, spawning fish legal.
“Those big fish are mostly hens with tens of thousands of eggs in them,” he says.
He wants people to fish bass in an effort for the sport to gain a prominent place in an angler’s repertoire of priorities, and he thinks Idaho’s reputation as a hot bass spot hasn’t yet been mined.
Buoying the Panhandle’s reputation as a ball busting bass destination can only be accomplished if anglers take care with the fishery.
“If we want to get this fishing back to where it was, in the future, we need to stop doing what we’ve been doing,” he says.
Fish it hard, but put them back, he says.
A version of this story first appeared in the June 2011 issue of Northwest Sportsman Magazine.
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