Stalking Bass in Trout Country

By Beacon Staff

ECHO LAKE – Give a man a fish, he’ll eat for a day. Teach him to bass fish, he might forget to eat for a day – especially if it’s tournament time. It’s the nature of the sport to become totally invested in the moment.

Like fly fishermen and trophy elk hunters, largemouth bass anglers flirt with obsession, if not totally give into it. If it weren’t for that pesky necessity called work, these anglers would be out on the lake every day of the summer, from sunup to sundown. They dream in bass.

Unlike the best-known bass strongholds of the South, Montana isn’t typically thought of as a premiere largemouth destination. Bass? In the land of blue-ribbon trout streams and A River Run Through It? But the relatively small – though deeply committed – core of fanatic bass fishermen in Montana will tell you that certain waters here are teeming with their favorite game fish, if you can find them.

Kyle Quinell moves his boat away from the dock after putting being dumped into Echo Lake by his fishing partner Justin Thompson near the beginning of a club tournament.

And, as with fly fishing, there is a code of ethics and sportsmanship in bass fishing that’s considered sacred. During tournaments, this code is enforced through rules. You can cast and jig, but you can’t troll or use live bait. You respect the fish.

“That’s what we do – we fish for bass,” said Don Collins, president of the Echo Lake Bassmasters club. “And we promote bass. We promote catch and release. Bass are hardy, but they’re slow growers and we have to make sure they’re self-sustaining.”

Bass fishing is thought to be the most popular form of angling in the United States, and ever growing, Collins said. It is a multi-billion dollar industry, and the professional largemouth circuit has become a major-money sport, covered extensively by ESPN. Kevin VanDam, a three-time Bassmaster Classic champion, has more than $4.5 million in career earnings.

Montana’s bass fishing community is broken down into regional alliances in the form of clubs. In Northwest Montana, there are Echo Lake Bassmasters and Western Bassmasters, both chapters of the Montana BASS Federation Nation. Western is the oldest in the state. There are other clubs – affiliated with BASS, FLW Outdoors and WON BASS – spread out across the state.

Anglers join clubs to meet other bass fishermen and learn more about the sport, in hopes of improving their own skills. It’s also a good way to get involved in tournaments.

Most of Montana’s diehard largemouth anglers, at one time or another, turn their attention to competition. From Fort Peck to Noxon, tourneys bring the top bass fishermen in Montana together for the chance to win prize money and qualify for larger, out-of-state competitions. Regional clubs, through votes, help shape the format, location and other details of tournaments, which are all catch and release.

Justin Thompson, left, and Kyle Quinell load gallon buckets with protruding PVC pipe onto their bass boats at Echo Lake. The artificial structures are meant to help create fish habitat.

Tournaments show off the best in the sport, not just in terms of fishermen, but also in terms of gear. Rods, reels and tackle play essential roles in the pursuit of trophy largemouths. An angler might have eight rods or more decked out with different lures and line strengths at any given time, to be used in different situations.

Then there are the high-powered boats, gliding across lakes at speeds up to 60 miles per hour or more. Each boat, depending on the angler, is equipped with varying levels of sonar and imaging technology to detect fish and show the vegetation or contours of the underwater depths.

But it wasn’t always so. Collins remembers the first state bass fishing tournament, held in the 1980s at Echo Lake. There were 97 participants cruising the water in big bass boats, canoes and just about anything that could float. It was slightly chaotic.

“Yeah, it was really scary,” Collins said. “It was anything – just all kinds of boats out there.”

Tournaments today are decidedly more organized, having been streamlined through regulations that monitor angling, boats, fish measurements and other facets of the sport. While the prize money is nice, the true incentive of these tournaments, beyond simply wanting to be the best of the best, is the chance to move on to the bigger competitions.

The ultimate goal is the annual Bassmaster Classic. The winner is considered to be the world champion of largemouth bass fishing. Local anglers are quick to point out that two Montanans have qualified for the Bassmaster Classic in the past several years: Stan Fisher and Jay Evans.

On Aug. 27-29 at Noxon Reservoir, the Montana BASS Federation Nation state tournament will be held to decide who moves on to divisionals. At divisionals, anglers have the chance to qualify for nationals, and then the Bassmaster Classic.

The very fact that many of the same names are at the top of tournament leader boards each year proves that there is more skill and acquired knowledge involved with big-time bass fishing than luck. Of course, any honest angler will tell you that elements of luck always help.

Leon Stiffarm holds up two largemouth bass caught during a club tournament on Echo Lake.

Bass fishermen do not just chuck lures; they dedicate their lives to thinking like fish. What do they eat, and at what times of the year? How do shifts in barometric pressure affect fish behavior? Where do they like to hide at certain times of the day? Why the hell aren’t they biting?

Intrinsic to thinking like a fish is understanding its habitat. While a lake may look the same in all spots – just flat water – to many people, a bass angler has a constant desire to know what’s below. And sometimes, they know precisely what’s below, because they put it there.

Last week, Western Bassmasters and Echo Lake Bassmasters met at their monthly club tournament, held Tuesday evenings on Echo Lake. Before the tourney started, boats drove to selected areas and dropped “structure” to the lake’s bottom to be used as fish habitat.

The structure consists of white buckets with concrete at the bottom and multiple pieces of black tubing sticking out of the top. Fish like to hide in the black tubing, as if it’s weeds or some other shelter, and the concrete keeps the structure on the lakebed. Eventually, real vegetation grows on it. This ties in to the angler philosophy of promoting self-sustaining bass populations.

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks approves the annual structure placement. It’s good for the fish and for the anglers. Justin Thompson, a visiting angler from Arizona who was fishing with Western Bassmasters president Kyle Quinnell at the Echo Lake tournament, said that a similar structure program at a lake in Arizona has revived the fishery after a severe fish kill.

“Once we starting putting in habitat, you saw the numbers growing,” he said. “The fish were getting bigger.”

Here in Montana, from Echo Lake to Blaine Lake and Fort Peck Reservoir to Noxon Reservoir, and in the sloughs of Flathead River, days on the lake can produce 60 largemouths per boat, or zero. That is the harsh reality of fishing. But it’s clear the populations here are healthy, and among them are trophy lunkers.

This is why Montana’s anglers wake before dawn on a Saturday, fresh from dreaming about the big one, to greet the sun with rigged rods, carefully articulated strategies and, if they remember, a packed lunch.

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