Want to Relax While Fishing? Try Wading

Waukesha, Wis. — Rivers are natural corridors for transportation.

Often they are used to move things.

And sometimes it’s people.

When summer settles across Wisconsin, one of my favorite activities is wade fishing for smallmouth bass on streams and rivers.

It always reminds me of the extraordinary ability of rivers to transport.

“These trees form a nice skyline for being so close to the city,” said Warren Huck of Waterford, my fishing partner for the day. “But I don’t want them messing with my backcast.”

A swamp white oak grew at the river’s edge, its gnarled limbs covered in dark green leaves and peppered with acorns.

Huck avoided the tree to his rear, then angled a cast toward a rocky shore and let his line swing downstream.

After a couple seconds, the line hesitated and he lifted the rod. A smallmouth bass jumped.

We were fishing the Fox River south of Waukesha, just minutes from the state’s largest metropolitan area.

But tucked in the verdant river corridor, we were insulated from the outside world.

The loudest sound was the trickle of river as it sliced past boulders, danced through riffles and spilled around our legs. Both shores were heavily covered with trees and shrubs; we could see no sign of human development.

After a 2-minute tug-of-war, Huck led the 13-inch smallie to hand, removed the fly from its mouth and released the fish.

I’ve known Huck, a retired railroad worker and former U.S. Marine, for about 20 years. We share a love of fishing, especially for river smallmouth.

After running high for much of the spring and summer, many Wisconsin rivers have assumed a wadable level in recent weeks. In southeastern Wisconsin, that includes the Fox, Milwaukee and Oconomowoc rivers.

Huck and I fished several sections of the Fox on Thursday.

The day was like a Wisconsin tourism department advertisement for summer: 79 degrees, light wind, blue sky.

The water in the Fox was in the mid-70s, comfortable for anglers and bass.

We donned old tennis shoes, grabbed some fishing tackle and walked into the river. Huck used fly tackle to present streamers, including Clouser minnow patterns. I used a spinning rod to throw soft plastics, either unweighted on a hook or on a very light jig head.

We focused on pools and deeper sections of the river where smallmouth would likely be holding. We also cast to shadows along shore, which often hold more fish in the heat of the day.

Wading is more personal, more intimate than other types of fishing.

You feel the current, sense the bottom, learn the terrain.

Whereas many 21st-century boat anglers rely heavily on electronics for water temperature, depth and even fish detection, wade anglers utilize touch and feel.

Is the river lined with rock? Is the bottom mucky? Where do springs enter? Which sections are too shallow to hold mature fish? Where are the deep runs and pools?

Experience and a partner can come in very handy, indeed, to keep a wading outing from becoming a swimming session.

“Don’t worry, I’ll call your family to let them know where you went under,” Huck said with a laugh as I investigated a drop-off.

The water never got deeper than my waist. But in a stretch with mostly 1- to 2-foot depths, such a pool is a “must fish” spot. I noted it for a future outing.

Smallmouth bass occur in all the state’s drainage basins, according to George Becker in “Fishes of Wisconsin.”

The popular “smallie” is native to the Badger State and found in more than 3,500 miles of Wisconsin rivers and streams.

The fish prefers cool, flowing streams and large, clear lakes. Researchers document smallmouth most commonly in clear to slightly turbid water over sand (27 percent frequency), gravel (23 percent), rubble (15 percent), boulders (14 percent), and mud (11 percent) bottoms.

Smallmouth aren’t as tolerant of warm water as largemouth bass. But in Wisconsin it’s not uncommon to find smallies in the same water as bucketmouths.

One of the things I admire about smallmouth is their range, from urban waters such as the Milwaukee River to remote gin-clear lakes in the Northern-Highland American Legion State Forest and Chequmegon Bay in Lake Superior.

In southeastern Wisconsin, smallmouth are found in areas with better water quality in terms of temperature, flow and oxygen.

Huck and I waded mostly downstream, drifting out baits through likely spots. Common carp and suckers scattered ahead of us in spots. Twice we also saw northern pike.

A flock of cedar waxwings preyed on insects hatching over the river. On one stretch, we played tag with a great blue heron that insisted on fishing ahead.

The bottom was mostly rocky and firm. In several spots we passed the splayed and empty shells of fatmucket mussels. Deer and raccoon tracks pocked the shores.

We released all the smallies we caught. The fish were from 10 to 15 inches long and solid and handsome and strong.

The bronze fish swam away swiftly and disappeared in the brown water.

Lee Wulff, the American angler and author, wrote: “The finest gift you can give to any fisherman is to put a good fish back, and who knows if the fish that you caught isn’t someone else’s gift to you?”

The smallmouth in our local waters, a native hallmark of river health, have especially earned the right to swim and reproduce again.

After a few hours, Huck and I fished our way back upstream and hiked out of the river corridor.

We had seen only one other angler in the river, in a kayak. Several other anglers fished from bridges or from shore.

The opportunity to wade a river and fish for smallies is a summer treasure in Wisconsin.

It’s also a reminder of how good a river is at taking us away.