It’s hard not to be transfixed by the tranquility of a small northwoods river, at least until a sassy smallmouth bass explodes on your topwater. Such was the case for me recently on northeastern Minnesota’s Cloquet River, while enjoying a beautiful autumn afternoon on the water with my father.
The evening prior, we’d driven to the family cabin near Duluth with my sons Jake, 18, and Josh, 15. The boys had elected to chase ruffed grouse in the endless groves and thickets of the surrounding national forest, while Dad and I launched our 16-foot flatbottom at a ramp on Island Lake Reservoir and motored to the incoming Cloquet to see what we could find.
Walleyes were on our radar as well. In fact, connected with a small ’eye from 23 feet of water a long cast from the rivermouth. We were drifting live bait rigs wherever the sonar revealed deep-water predators harassing clouds of baitfish.
Back to the river. At this juncture, the Cloquet is two or three cast-lengths wide. It tumbles down a rapids a mile or so upstream of its confluence with the lake. We trolled our way upstream, bumping diving crankbaits along the main channel in 5 to 9 feet of water. Near the base of the rapids, I drew what looked like a largemouth from its lair in the shadows of a large boulder in a section of still, weedy water—but fanned on the hookset.
Undaunted, we jigged and cast slowly back downstream, soaking up the beauty of the river and savoring the time spent together. About halfway back to the lake, we switched to trolling and shortly thereafter I hooked a fat smallmouth bass on a diving crankbait. The fish hit in one of my favorite fall bass locations on small natural rivers—at the head of a hole along a gradual outside bend.
Having revealed the prime lie’s promise, the bass was quickly released. I made a few casts with the crank and hooked another fish. But my heart was set on a different presentation, so I followed the advice of fellow NAFC blogger Scott Bonnema and tied on a topwater.
You might not think topwaters would be potent weapons on a chilly fall afternoon, while a strong wind whips whitecaps on the main lake. But they are. On my third cast, a nice bronzeback rolled on the bait. I threw again and it connected. If you’re any kind of an adrenaline junky, there’s nothing like the rush of a smallmouth busting a surface bait. This time I drove the hooks home and after a few runs and leaps, the tired bass rolled at boatside.
That fish, and the afternoon, were classic examples of what angling adventures await on small rivers across country. I’d suggest you give them a shot. And if you can share them with friends and family, so much the better!
Bonus Video: Rainy Lake Bronzebacks