Northern Bass High

Learn the secrets of Northern Ontario's smallmouth bass, and why you should bring your own lures from home.

When you are visiting Northern Ontario this season to fish one of the many thousands of smallmouth bass lakes and rivers, there are a few key things to know. 

BRING YOUR OWN LURE

Be sure to bring your favourite lures from home, especially if you fish in lakes and rivers where round gobies are the principal bass food.

That might surprise you, given for the most part the invasive gobies, thankfully, are not present in Northern Ontario's pristine lakes and rivers. But sculpins are plentiful, resident and superabundant, and smallmouth enjoys eating them as much as kids munching on hot buttered popcorn at the movies. And unless you look very closely with a well-trained eye, you can't tell the two forage fish apart. In fact, with the exception that sculpins have free and independent pectoral fins, while the fins on gobies are fused together, the two species look like identical twins.  

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Gord Pyzer teamed up with Mark Kulik, back in 2007, to see how well goby-style baits imitated native Ontario sculpins

So, how did local bass anglers miss this pattern for so long? It is because they didn't know - most still don't - that sculpins run rampant in the lakes and rivers in Northern Ontario and are devoured daily by the bass. Indeed, the big-headed, wide-mouthed, beady-eyed baitfish lack a swim bladder and thus, spend their lives dwelling on the bottom of our lakes, using their pectoral fins like feet to get around. They are also nocturnal, resting during the day like chameleons, blending in and lying motionless on the bottom of our favourite Northern Ontario waters. So anglers never see them.  

But if you have perfected your bass/goby presentation skills on your home waters, when you put them to work in Northern Ontario you will quickly have the local resort owners, guides and pros scratching their heads and wondering out loud .... who is this person putting on the bass fishing clinic?   

GET THE DROP ON SMALLMOUTH

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Even more ironic is that as round gobies have expanded their range and spread throughout the Great Lakes region of Canada and the United States, tackle makers have rushed to produce precise soft plastic imitations. Little did they know, however, that they were also making accurate sculpin reproductions that would work just as well, maybe even better in Northern Ontario.

Indeed, lures like the X-Zone Slammer were designed to imitate gobies and be fished on a drop-shot rig in places like Lake Erie, Lake Ontario, Lake Simcoe and Lake Champlain. But when a select few out-of-towners brought the baits north to Lake Nipissing, Lake Temiskaming, the North Shore of Lake Huron, clear across to Eagle Lake and Lake of the Woods, they kept right on catching fish.  

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Gobies and sculpins lack swim bladders and use their pectoral fins to get around, so keep your baits close to the bottom

I'll never forget the day I was first introduced to the goby/sculpin connection, fishing with my good friend, Mark Kulick on Lake Simcoe. Mark was the founder of X-Zone and our best five bass, out of the several dozen that we caught and released that day using Slammers, weighed a staggering 31 pounds. Better than a six-pound average, and it remains my best day ever fishing for trophy-size smallmouth bass. 

ERIE DRAG 

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Gord Pyzer dragged a tube jig slowly across the bottom to nab this gorgeous Northern Ontario bass

It also explains why tube jigs have long been a hit with bass anglers fishing across Northern Ontario. Because gobies and sculpins don't swim, per se, up high in the water column like other baitfish species, but remain glued to the bottom, bass anglers have dragged tube jigs mimicking their movements with great success.

In the Great Lakes region where the Erie drag is famous, the bass is likely gobbling up the soft plastic as an invasive goby, while up north, they’re mistaking it for a tasty bite-size sculpin. 

GO FOR A SWIM

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Using a slightly bigger football jig will help you accentuate the bulbous heads of gobies and sculpins

Ditto, three, four and five-inch long, fat-headed paddle tail swimbaits that have become the rage in many southern smallmouth waters. They were originally designed to impersonate gobies, but the lakes where the invasive species have taken hold are typically crystal clear, so lure designers have paid special attention to replicating the precise size, shape and profile of the strange-looking baitfish.  

Not surprisingly, since sculpins and gobies are virtual twins, albeit from different mothers, the swimbait pattern exceeds in Northern Ontario as well. Especially when you attach the soft plastic fraud to a slightly heavier 1/2- to 3/4-ounce football jig to accentuate the wide, bulbous heads of gobies and sculpins and maintain bottom contact.

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This brings us back, full circle to our initial proposition. If you fish for smallmouth bass in your home lakes and rivers using goby-style presentations, bring those same baits with you when you visit Northern Ontario this season. Because, while the northern cousins have never laid their eyes on a goby, they lick their chops when they see a sculpin.

About Gord Pyzer

Gord Pyzer is the fishing editor of Outdoor Canada magazine and field editor of In-Fisherman magazine. He is the co-host of the Real Fishing Radio Show and host of Fish Talk With The Doc.

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