Smallmouth Tactics in a Southern Swamp
Paul Lewis, July 16, 2021
As some of you know, I am blessed with my second line of work (aside from guiding) to travel the nation and spend time in areas vastly different from the Pacific Northwest waters I call home. Currently, I am in Charleston, South Carolina, and being that it is the tail end of spring I have been dying for a spawning Smallmouth bass trip. You know, once in a while we all have the need to practice our Bill Dance, KVD, Mike Ike, Major League Fishing, Backflip out of the boat hookset! Luckily for me, the other day my good buddy Captain Rob from Prawley’s Island Beach to Creek Guide Service gave me a call to chase after spawning Bowfin, a prehistoric toothy predator inhabiting the freshwater in the area, so we loaded up the kayaks and headed for the swamp!
Bowfin, locally called Mudfish, are a predator who have inhabited the South and Midwest for over 150 million years and in that time there have hardly evolved. Bowfin thrive in water with very low oxygen because of their ability to gulp air and breathe through their swim bladders. From frogs, to small birds, insects, other fish, and any scavenged meat, everything is on the bowfin’s menu. They are truly a killing machine. The only time bowfin aren’t on the hunt is during their spawn. At this time, they make beds where the smaller male protects the nest. The female then lays her eggs and leaves. What does that sound like? SPAWNING BASS! So, I headed up with my smallmouth gear and got ready to rip some lips!
We started early in the morning covering water to locate the beds. In the swamp, the water clarity was only about 3 inches so to find the fish we focused on finding a nice ledge to a flat and casting a bladed-jig or Texas rig and slowly covering water bouncing bottom. Bowfin, like spawning bass, just pick up lures out of the bed to move them off. So, as anglers, we just felt a thump, then knew to set the hook! After missing the first couple hooksets, it was game on, tearing into quality bowfin left and right. Once we found the spawning grounds, we switched gears to a lighter and more finesse approach so we could hold our baits over the beds for a longer time. Everything was working, from drop-shot rigs, Ned rigs, all finesse approaches were hitting. Bowfin are ferocious predators, peeling drag, rolling up in the line, and with their teeth, we lost a few biting through 20 pound fluorocarbon clean.
Comparing smallmouth to bowfin, there were almost too many similarities to count. The way the protect their beds thru circling the outside, and staying off before cleaning it out, it was incredible. At points, we were able to pull the male off the bed to find the larger female, getting both in the boats. One interesting difference in the two species was their habit of spawning so close together. at times, we were fishing right next to each other targeting two different pairs of spawning fish. since the water was so stained, we were able to use larger line and still stay stealthy. Just like spawning bass, the key was just enough disturbance to annoy the fish without initially startling them off. For such toothy predators, it was surprising to see them act so much like bass, spooking off if you casted right onto them.
After targeting the bowfin, we switched gears to target large panfish and chain pickerel under limbs and hiding in the shade. It was shocking to see 12 and 13 inch warmouth, red ear, and shellcrackers destroying 3 inch crawfish imitations and eating topwater in the heat of the day, truly an epic experience!
Thanks to their hard skulls and soft bites, I really got my fix in full swing hooksets! It was great experience and I can’t thank Captain Rob enough for letting me get in my fill of bed fishing even though I am out of town. As anglers, it is always fun to bring tactics from your home waters to a new area and find success. Next up on my plate is chasing striper with salmon tactics, and I hope your next adventure is fishy and filled with learning as well.
Tight lines, all!