This largely overlooked world class smallmouth fishery sits in the north of Vermont and is within a day’s drive of most Northeast anglers.
The first half May is an exciting time for local inshore anglers. After a long winter, and a seemingly longer March and April, it’s a time when the fishing action finally begins to ramp up significantly. Striper fishing is heating up by the day, bluefish will be making their initial appearance along our shores, and the flounder bite, while not what it used to be, is also an option for some around this time as well. And then there is the opening of the much anticipated fluke season, with anglers by the thousands chomping at the bit to put some fluke fillets on the table.
This then may seem like an odd time to contemplate traveling out of state to fish, especially for someone like mewho spends much of my time chasing inshore species for most of the season. For the last few years, however, I’ve found a new diversion for this time when the local fishing is starting to blossom. Instead, I’ve been heading north, to northernmost Vermont, where just a day’s drive from my home on Long Island, I’ve taken part in a world-class smallmouth bass fishery that is virtually unknown to anglers from these parts.
Trout are the glamour fish in Vermont. In fact, the state hardly stocks anything else. Perhaps for this reason, Vermont smallmouths just don’t get the attention, and fishing pressure, that they might otherwise. In fact, many Vermont anglers don’t fish for them at all. Smallmouth bass are a year-round fishery in the state, but what makes this particular time of the season so special is the pre-spawn bite. In between ice-out and their annual spawning routine, the bass go on a major feeding binge, which usually lasts for a few weeks, starting when the water temperature reaches 50 to 55 degrees. In most years, on the calendar this corresponds roughly to the first two weeks of May. Often, smallmouths averaging 2 to 3 pounds and ranging up to 5 pounds or more can be caught by the dozen per trip. These fish are fat and feisty, too. Many resemble bronze footballs, and often go airborne the second they are hooked. Couple this action with the backdrop of spectacular New England scenery, plus the fact that you may well fish all day without encountering another angler, and you can see what makes this fishery so attractive.
While smallmouths can be found in every region of the state, I prefer to head to Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. This sparsely populated region is peppered with numerous, crystal-clear, boulder-strewn lakes, which provide the perfect habitat for growing trophy-size bronzebacks. It’s here that I meet up with local guide Derrick Patenaude, owner of Up North Canoe and Kayak rental (upnorthcanoe.com), located in Morrisville, just a 20-minute drive north of the resort town of Stowe. During the warmer months Derrick offers canoe and kayak rentals on the numerous sparkling, cool rivers in the region as well as on the nearby Green River Reservoir, which, nestled in a densely forested valley, boasts miles of undeveloped shoreline (Green River Reservoir is a great smallmouth lake in its own right.). In the spring, before the rental season kicks in, Derrick guides visitors for anything from native brook trout in the smallest mountain streams, to largemouth and smallmouth bass on the biggest lakes. He’s a native of this country, and knows its waters intimately. It was on a summer trout fishing trip several years ago that Derrick told me of the spectacular spring bass fishing. The next year I made my first May smallmouth trip, and I haven’t missed a season since.
Last spring Derrick and I fished Lake Memphremagog, known locally as simply “Magog.” Not nearly as well-known as its larger brother Champlain, which forms the border with New York to the west, this huge lake is over 30 miles long but only a few miles wide at its widest point. Most of the lake lies in Canada, with only the southernmost 5 miles or so protruding into Vermont. Magog, actually holds largemouth as well as smallmouth bass in roughly equal numbers. While the Canadian portion of the lake features depths of up to 350 feet and supports lake trout and landlocked salmon in its icy depths, the U.S. portion averages less than 30 feet, with abundant rocky outcrops, shallow bays, and weedbeds, which provide superb habitat for both bass species. An increasing northern pike population means an encounter with one of these toothy beasts is always possible as well. While catch-and-release is the norm with bassing, one can always count on a by-catch of large yellow perch to take home for the table. The perch are also on the pre-spawn feed at this time. Many fish are jumbos that top a foot in length, and sport spectacular spawning colors that rival those of any tropical reef fish. While they will occasionally strike your plugs meant for bass, should you choose to target them you need only tie on a small jighead with a plastic grub and you’ll catch a pail-full in no time.
“Magog’s been called a bass factory,” quipped Derrick as we drove through the town of Newport, located near the lake’s southern termination. Derrick and I arrived at the ramp mid-afternoon (I always appreciate fishing trips more when I don’t have to get up early.). “At this time of the day the sun will have warmed the waters around the shallow, rocky reefs, which will draw in the smallmouths to feed. Right now, everything seems just about right for the bite to be on.” We sidled out of a winding creek towards the open lake, passing a pair of loons cutting the mirror-calm waters. Several minutes later, we stopped near some rocks protruding just above the surface. “This spot has a nice, large area of reef in 4 to 8feet of water. The bass will move from the deeper water to reefs like this one to feed before setting up on the spawning beds in the nearby shallow bays.”
During the pre-spawn period, smallmouths will often smack almost anything thrown at them, but the most effective and fun to use lures are suspending jerkbaits, such as the Rapala Husky Jerk and X-Rap, Smithwick Rogue, and Lucky Craft Pointer. The technique of using these plugs is simple. One first casts the lure out as far as it will go, then give several fast cranks of the reel to get the plug down to depth. Next, pause it for anywhere from several seconds to half a minute. After the pause, give the rod tip from one to three sharp jerks, which will cause the lure to dart erratically from side to side. Jerk, pause, repeat, that’s all there is to it. Bass will sometimes hit the lure while it is paused, but more frequently will strike as soon as you start to jerk it. Often, the strikes are aggressive and jarring. If you’re used to catching only largemouths and have never battled a chunky smallmouth before, get ready for a surprise, for these fish fight well above their weight.
On this day Derrick got the first fish, a fat 10-incher. My first came moments later. Over the next hour the size of the fish increased nicely, as did their aggressiveness. At times, both of us were fighting fish simultaneously. Derrick’s lure of the day was an olive X-rap, while I stuck with my favorite Lucky Craft Pointer in ghost minnow pattern. By the time the sun set on this day, the two of us had landed over two-dozen smallmouths during our four-hour trip. Derrick bested the biggest fish of 4-1/2 pounds. My largest ran about 4 pounds, and provided quite a challenge, as I caught it on ultra-light tackle while I was casting a small plastic grub for perch. Our only other by-catch on this particular day was a very large pickerel of about 25 inches. We had to take a good hard look at it to believe it wasn’t a pike.
Derrick has all tackle available for his clients, but if you prefer to use your own gear as I do, plan on bringing a 6-1/2- to 7-foot light/medium action spinning rod paired with a 2500 series reel such as the Shimano Stradic, spooled up with 10-pound braid. For a leader, top off the braid with a 6- to 8-foot length of 6- to 8-pound test fluorocarbon. Using fluorocarbon over mono is recommended here because of the super-clear water, and also because you’ll need the extra abrasion resistance fishing around rocks. To revisit the subject of lures, you’ll generally be using the shallow versions of the aforementioned jerkbait models in 2- to 4-inch sizes. Since a strong cold front passage can drive the fish deeper for a few days, it’s a good idea to bring along a few of the deep-diving versions of those same plugs, as well as a selection of tube jigs, and some spinnerbaits as well.
Big lakes such as Magog can get pretty rough when the wind kicks up, which it often does in May. Don’t let such conditions keep you away from the smallmouths, however. There are numerous small lakes and ponds in the Northeast Kingdom that hold quality fish. Many of these locations lack ramps, but have easy access for a kayak or canoe. While small ponds may not produce large numbers of fish the way some of the bigger lakes do, trophy-size fish are still to be had. In fact, my biggest Vermont smallie was caught from my canoe on a solo trip on a small lake nestled deep in the woods at the end of a long jeep trail.
Besides great fishing, the Northeast Kingdom offers much in the way of attractions for the whole family. The aforementioned ski resort town of Stowe and surrounding environs feature miles of hiking trails, a beautiful bike trail with rentals available, as well as plenty of shops, boutiques, and spas. The Ben and Jerry’s ice cream and Cabot cheese headquarters run tours, and are located within an easy drive of the fishing as well. Finally, there are many fine restaurants throughout the region. Many local eateries strive to use locally grown ingredients as much as possible. In fact, I’ve actually come to look forward to the food almost as much as the fishing.
One last tip: before you head home, make sure to pick up some fresh local dairy products- the best you’ll ever taste- to keep the perch fillets company in your cooler for the drive home. Oh, and don’t forget the maple syrup!
You will need a non-resident fishing license to fish Vermont waters. An annual license is available for $52, a 3-day for $23 and a 7-day for $31. Licenses are available at the issuing agents listed below. To purchase a license online, go to www.vtfishandwildlife.com