Published April 27, 2008, 12:00 AM

Rainy Lake: Diverse fishery gives up trophy smallmouth bass

Anglers on Rainy Lake have a tough decision to make before they fish the massive border lake.

By: Sam Cook, Duluth News Tribune

The lake: Rainy Lake

Location: International Falls and 30 miles east along Minnesota-Ontario border

The fish: Excellent walleye, smallmouth bass, northern pike

The drive:

* From Duluth, 150 miles

* From Hibbing, 90 miles

* From Ely, 114 miles

Anglers on Rainy Lake have a tough decision to make before they fish the massive border lake. Do they target the lake’s bountiful walleye population? Do they throw at weedlines and rock piles for Rainy’s chunky northern pike? Or do they wing topwater baits for the big lake’s belligerent smallmouth bass?

Longtime Rainy guide Billy Dougherty knows what his choice will be, especially early in the season.

“From June 1 to June 28, I fish nothing but smallmouth,” says Dougherty, whose family owns Rainy Lake Houseboats.

He and his clients fish smallmouth with both spinning rods and fly rods. His clients come from all over to have a chance at these ferocious bass.

“The size of the fish is good,” Dougherty said. “They’re powerful and full of fight. I think they’re the feistiest freshwater fish that lives in a lake.”

Down the lake, fishing guide Barry Woods agrees.

“It’s probably the premier smallmouth fishing lake in Minnesota,” said Woods, who guides under the banner of “Fairly Reliable Woody.” “Of course, I’m partial. But that’s what my customers tell me. They love to come up here.”

How big are Rainy’s smallies?

“I’m not going to tell people to expect a 5-pounder every time they come,” Dougherty said, “but there are lots and lots of smallmouth from 17 to 20 inches. Sometimes, we don’t realize how lucky we are.”

Because there’s a strong catch-and-release ethic among smallmouth anglers, nearly all of the bass go back to fight again.

Rainy’s smallmouth come out fighting as soon as the water begins to warm, Dougherty said. Four of five days of sunshine, and the bite is on. They don’t typically feed much during the winter, he said, so their appetites are voracious.

“Through June, they’ll hit a Budweiser can,” Woods said.

Smallmouth can be caught in all kinds of ways, but both Dougherty and Woods prefer working them on topwater tackle. It’s easier for their clients than jigging Rainy’s rocky structure because topwater fishing means fewer snags. But there’s also no more exciting way to take bass than watching them power to the surface to inhale a lure or fly.

EARLY SUMMER OPTIONS

“The first fish we catch are on Mepps spinners, Vibrax spinners and the plastic impregnated baits,” Dougherty said. “Once the water temperature hits the high 50s, we’ll go to topwater in the afternoon. Then, from June 7 to the end of the month, you can catch fish topwater every day.”

For fly-fishers, Dougherty prefers a No. 4 popper of Styrofoam or cork. Deer-hair poppers also work well but can be tougher for his clients to cast because they’re more wind-resistant. Topwater spinning tackle typically means Heddon Tiny Torpedoes early, then the larger Rebel Pop-R’s and “chuggers” such as the Chug Bug, Dougherty said.

Both Dougherty and Woods will throw topwater lures over submerged reefs, which Rainy Lake has in abundance. Woods likes topwaters over reefs that top out at about six feet deep.

“My favorite lure is the [Rapala] Skitter Pop,” he said. “It’s heavy and I can cast it. We throw the Skitter Pop over the rock piles. It’s very effective and fun to watch.”

Dougherty says even rock piles that are six feet below the surface can be fished on or near the surface.

“I’ve found I can get these fish up most of the time,” he said. “I’ll work a tube bait four inches under water, and they’ll come up for it. And spinnerbaits, too. Especially ones that mimic a cisco or smelt, whites with chrome, willowy blades.”

For reefs that top out more than eight feet down, Woods prefers to troll Shad Raps.

HANG ON

Smallmouth just pound topwater lures, Dougherty said.

“If you’re using Fireline, you’d better be ready and have the drag set right. I’ve had smallmouth bend those hooks at a right angle. I tend to stay with mono [monofilament line, rather than the less stretchy superlines],” Dougherty said.

How big is a truly big Rainy smallmouth?

“My biggest was just under 6 pounds,” Dougherty said. “Just a hair under 24 inches. We see a lot of them 20, 21, 21½ inches.”

A 20-inch bass will usually weigh 3¾ to 4¼ pounds, he said.

And remember, there are other fish in the water, too. Woods says he and his clients usually fish for walleyes in the morning, then “anything is fair game” in the afternoons.

The walleye population on Rainy remains in excellent shape. A four-fish limit on the Minnesota side and a 17- to 28-inch protected slot limit has kept plenty of spawners in the population.

“It’s amazingly strong. You just shake your head in wonderment,” Dougherty said. “I wish our ducks and pheasants were as easy to propagate with a little protection.”

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