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In Search of Smallies

Professional angler Karen Savik is hooked on fishing. And in her native Minnesota, there's plenty to catch. She can go for walleye, northern pike, muskie, largemouth bass, crappie, sunfish, yellow perch and a couple different species of trout. For Savik, however, one fish stands above the rest — the scrappy smallmouth bass.

"What I love most is fishing for smallies," said Savik. "When you hook one, the acrobatics are so exciting. They'll quiver, shake and jump right out of the water."

It's been said that pound for pound, smallmouth are the fiercest fighters. Early Indian cultures, which probably supplemented their diets with fish, thought so, too. In fact, the Algonquin Indians dubbed this underwater warrior, ouchigan, meaning ferocious. Smallmouth, called bronzebacks by some, are native to the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River drainage in Canada, as well as several big rivers in Oklahoma, Arkansas and Tennessee. Today, their range extends from coast to coast, primarily because people enjoyed fishing for them so much and started to stock them in new areas. Story has it that one of the first wildcat stockings occurred in 1854, thanks to a bucket, a locomotive and General William Schriver's determination to haul 12 West Virginia smallmouth over the mountains. By 1916, even western states such as Wyoming and Nevada were stocking them.

Despite such extensive efforts, the smallie's population and range are still limited, mostly because they're finicky about where they'll live. Their usual hangouts include deep, clear lakes with rocky bottoms or streams with gravely beds and a little current.

The habitat preferred by smallmouth is also attractive to the people who fish for them: clear water and beautiful surroundings, and is part of the reason, plus the smallmouth's legendary feistiness, that creates dedicated anglers like Karen Savik.

Just how devoted is Savik? She inherited her dad's love of fishing as a kid. Four years ago, she took it to another level through tournament fishing. Since then, she's had tremendous success in Minnesota's Pro Bass Tour and won the Aquatennial Bass Championship in Minneapolis in 1997. She'll broaden her horizons even more this year by fishing the Everstart Fishing Series, which will take her to New York, Ohio, Wisconsin and Michigan.

Being a pro angler is a busy life. Savik owns and operates a restaurant during winter, and traveling and fishing is her full-time job the rest of the year. Still, she found time to share some of her fishing secrets with Women In The Outdoors readers.

Her first piece of advice is something we should all keep close to our hearts.

"The most important thing is to be brave. Don't be afraid to try something new; you won't regret that you took the chance," she said. "It took a lot for me to pick out a boat, buy fishing equipment, learn a lake and learn to fish. But I'm glad I did."

Savik has taken her own advice and today has the confidence that allows her to fish and win in a sport that's dominated by men. "I'm out there for me, to win. And everyday I learn something new."

Rods and Reels
The first thing to learn with any new hobby is what equipment you'll need. Paging through Bass Pro's latest catalog can seem like a big job. However, Savik's advice is to keep it simple. Beginning bass anglers should stick to the basics by getting a medium action spinning rod and reel or a baitcaster combo.

A rod and reel combo can start at about $25, and you can easily invest a couple of hundred dollars in a rig. Each reel touts a different feature including the number of bearings, gear ratio, drag system . . . the list goes on. It's always a good idea to test different reels before buying anything. You should be able to easily adjust the drag, make long casts and smooth retrieves without getting the line all snarled up.

There are just as many rod choices as there are reels. They come in different lengths, actions that vary from ultralight to heavy and are made from different materials including fiberglass and graphite. A good starter rod should be 6-feet to 6-feet, -inches long. It should be strong for good hook sets, yet sensitive enough to feel the slightest nibble.

Lures and Line
If you do a little homework before you shop for tackle, you'll save money and buy lures that really work.

Savik recommends four basic types of lures: topwater lure, spinnerbait, jerkbait and an assortment of soft plastic baits called tubes. "If you fish with those four lures, you'll catch fish without spending a million dollars."

Savik swears by these four kinds of lures because they'll allow you to fish from the surface of the water to the bottom. Topwater plugs twitched at the surface can trigger a strike, while a quick retrieve with a spinnerbait may grab their attention just below the surface. Jerkbaits will let you fish a little deeper and will do the trick when coupled with some quick stop-and-go action. Tubes, which are hollow cylinders that are closed at one end and frayed at the other, are hot stuff for tournament anglers right now. Fished with or without weight, and reeled in at different speeds may tempt an old bronzeback to make his move.

Lure size is also key to catching fish. Within each of the four basic lure groups, select a few different sizes, including 1/8 ounce, 1/4 ounce and 1/2 ounce. Color is also a big factor. Savik's rule of thumb for lures is matching the water you're going to fish or what the fish are feeding on, whether it's crayfish, minnows or aquatic insects.

"In clear water, try using more natural colors such as green, brown or even white," suggested Savik. "If you're fishing muddier waters, you may want to try a bright color such as chartreuse."

Buying fishing line presents no shortage of choices either. Savik's choice here is 8- to 10-pound test. This will give you enough action for a first class fight and less cause to worry about your line snapping. Other features to consider are how invisible the line is underwater, how quickly it sinks and its resistance to twisting.

If you enjoy a lot of small stream fishing, you may want to buy ultralight rods and reels that hold four-pound test. With line this light, you can hook a 10-inch smallie and have a real battle on your hands.

Where to Fish
While it's true that bronzebacks like hard-bottomed, clear, deep lakes, not all bodies of water matching that description have them. You can find information on where to catch smallmouth bass by calling your state or provincial wildlife agency or visiting their website. The phone number of your wildlife agency is listed in the phone book's state government section. Or, you can click here for links to the wildlife agency site you wish to visit. While you're learning about where to fish, you can also arrange to get your fishing license and updated regulations.

Before you head to the lake, you should also get a lake map, which shows you what the bottom looks like via contour lines. It pays to study the lay of the lake so you can start locating your own fishing hotspots.

In lakes, look for bass near gravel bars, long underwater points and around islands where they have access to deep water. Cover, such as boulders, stumps and underwater weed beds, are also irresistible to smallies.

River smallmouths usually lie just out of the current and let the moving water carry food to them. Their favorite places include boulders, rocky points, logjams, mouths of feeder creeks and bridge abutments that break the current. Areas around deep pools allow them to hold just out of the water flow, yet be ready to dart after snacks that drift their way.

Ready, Set, Go
With this information, you're armed to consistently catch North America's spunkiest sport fish — the smallmouth bass.

"There's not a woman who can't do what I do," Savik said. "All it takes is a little bit of knowledge."

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