This is the Price of Smallmouth (A Fishing Story)

This is the Price of Smallmouth

“This is brutal… I’m not sure how much more of this I can take…”

The weight of the kayak had increased dramatically over the last several hours.

Maybe it was because a gallon of water now sloshed within the cockpit, back and forth, with every ankle-threatening step along the loose gray rocks that continuously shifted underfoot. Maybe it was because I’d carried the ‘yak up and over several miles of creek bed with nothing but a trickle of water running between the pools. Or, maybe… maybe it was because the heat had gone from a nice, cool, comfortable 80°… to over 100°…

rocky creek shoreline low water illinois
Watch your step…

Whatever the reason, the afternoon slog continued… just as it had this morning. But the morning slog had been much easier to stomach, because with every stop in a clear, quiet pool along along the way… there were fish.

Smallmouth bass, to be exact.

The entire morning had been spent “pool-jumping“, and it had been productive.

Now, with the fishing behind me… I was on the return trip. That meant no breaks. No stopping. No more fish. Just a straight slog back to civilization.

It was hard work. But in Illinois:

This is the price of smallmouth… and it’s a price I’m willing to pay.

Illinois Creek Fishing Smallmouth Bass Pop 'n Drop
Drag. Sweat. Carry. Sweat more. Drop into the next pool. Catch fish. Repeat. With hobbies like these, who needs a gym membership!?

But… why go to all this trouble to fish?

Ever since I was a boy, smallmouth bass have been sacred to me. My family could never afford big fancy vacations to magical kingdoms, but we would take a summer trip to “Grandpa’s place” on the Manitowish Chain O Lakes in Wisconsin. The price was right (free) and we would swim, run through the woods, catch crayfish by hand in the rocks that lined the shore, and fish.

I remember my first smallmouth bass vividly.

My father took me out in “the green boat.” An aluminum Starcraft that had been handed down by family, equipped with a 5 HP Johnson outboard.

AJ Hauser Fishing Aluminum Boat Jon Boat Project
“The Green Boat”
Scott Hauser Sweet Aluminum Boat & Mercury
Dad. Cruising.

We puttered around in this for years, until he saved up some money to upgrade to a 25 HP Merc’. Unbelievable. We thought it was the fastest boat on the planet. Fancy folding seats were installed, along with a vintage graph & trolling motor.

Scott Hauser Aluminum Boat
All of us, packed into Dad’s green boat.

Dad fished out of that boat a lot. Usually before we were awake.

Fog Early Morning Lake Wisconsin Sunrise Sun Rise
Early morning on the chain.

To be fair, Dad would ask me regularly to go fish, but I was content to catch perch, rock bass and bluegill right off the dock. Just a regular kid with zero attention span.

But once in a while, we’d hit the lake together.

On one warm July afternoon, we were fishing underneath a bridge over about 15 feet of water with thick, tall weeds. Dad was working a jig… maybe an jointed Rapala… both favorites of his. These presentations were foreign to me, as I had only ever caught fish on bobbers and worms. Any why even bother fishing anything else? I could rip my own worms and put ’em on the hook – not to mention I was catching 20 fish for every one Dad caught. Granted… mine were all the size of sardines… but still, for a little guy with zero patience, this was the way to go!

Then it happened.

Something came out of the deep weeds and grabbed my worm, turned, and began it’s descent back towards the deep cover. My bobber didn’t twitch, it didn’t get jackhammered, it didn’t doink-doink-doink from a pumpkinseed peppering… it just kind of started to… sink

I watched it drop down, down, down… and finally set the hook… the bobber didn’t move. Instead, it sat suspended underwater as the rod doubled over and my reel started to make a sound I had never heard before… a sound that perked Dad right up…


The drag on my Zebco started screaming.


I watched in amazement (and slight horror) as that rod tip danced right above – and then beneath – the water.


Left, right, left, right. I could see golden bronze flashes of light deep below the surface as Dad grabbed his old stringy net with holes in it and continued to shout commands… but I couldn’t hear them. I couldn’t hear anything aside from that beautiful, horrible, amazing, terrifying drag.


The dancing rod tip became sluggish.

The sharp bend in the strained rod slowly, painfully, began to straighten out.

Bit by bit, it returned to its original shape, easing up towards the sky.

The beast allowed me to reclaim line.

With every crank of the handle that golden bronze beauty came closer and closer to the surface.

Finally she gave in. Dad scooped.

The lake was silent aside from the tinkling water droplets falling off of her body. The behemoth was too big to fall through the holes in the net.

I could not believe my eyes.

This must be why Dad was willing to get up and fish before anyone else was awake. This must be why he went to the trouble of loading and launching the boat by himself. This must be why he had all of those In-Fisherman books strewn across the floor of his room whenever we were at Grandpa’s place.

She was the reason, and now I understood.

Big smallmouth.

Big enough to eat.

So we did – and I will never forget this day. I will never stop pursuing that feeling of shock & awe that fish burned deep into my brain. I will never stop trying to recreate that feeling for my boys as well, although here in Illinois – fishing is different. I find smallmouth deep in the woods, well off the beaten path, in waters not bothered by weekend anglers and pleasure boaters.

Creek Bed Underwater Water Kayak Trip Boot
Very few walk these waters…

It is hard, and dirty, and sweaty and hot and your fingers crack & bleed and your ankles get raw and your back aches and no sane person would willingly sign up for this… but…

This is the price of smallmouth… and it’s a price I’m willing to pay.

Periodically this story will pop into my head as I’m slogging for smallmouth as an adult. OH! Speaking of slog…

Back to the slog at hand…

I looked down at my sweat-soaked shirt and realized it wasn’t soaked anymore.

“Dang it. Should have brought more water with me today… I haven’t pissed in over an hour… not good…”

Kayak Creek Fishing Illinois Trees
Focus on a point out in front. We got a looooong way to go…

“I can’t believe the creek is this low. Good Lord the amount of noise I’m making is ridiculous, it’s amazing that deer looked at me for as long as she did. I gotta get back before someone notices I-“

“You havin’ a hard time finding water for that kayak son?!”

“Oh shhhhhhh…………. oot.”

Creek Fishing Trip Low Water Kayak
Hard to be stealthy in areas like this.

No use trying to be quiet now.

I’d been spotted.

Off to the side of a clearing I could see a gentleman standing in the shade of a massive oak tree. He was partially hidden, but less so now as he took steps towards me. There was no doubt he had been watching me for some time. Even though I’d noticed the bank was peppered with NO TRESSPASSING signs during my morning slog in, I had ignored them. They were old and faded, after all. Some were even completely illegible – surely they were just warnings from a bygone era… RIGHT?!

Well… maybe not…

See, in Illinois creeks are not necessarily open to the public. The creek bed is owned by the property owner, even though the water is debatable. If you are floating on a creek that is not specifically designated a “non-navigable waterway” you might be fine…

But I was not floating.

I was carrying my kayak.

I was trespassing.

“Hey there!”

I hollered back as cheerfully as I could, quickly ripping the GoPro off of my person and throwing it in the kayak while offering up a big wave and a smile.

“I was HOPING I would run into someone out here. Do you know any of the property owners along this creek?”

“WE own this property.”

A woman holding two walking sticks appeared from behind the trunk of the same massive oak tree. She glared at me as the tiniest breeze rustled the broad leaves overhead. Clearly, she was not amused by my presence, or my cheeky behavior.

“Owned it for YEARS.”


We all stood there quietly, just letting that awkward silence… be.

10 seconds… 20 seconds… seemed like an eternity

Finally, the silence was broken by the woosh-Woosh-WOOSH of an eagle flying so low we could practically feel the wind coming off his wings as he pulsed rhythmically along the winding creek, past where we were standing, toward the river ahead.

All three of us broke gaze simultaneously to turn and look at the majestic bird. Eagles were more common these days, but they had not been for many years. Their return has been a joy for many outdoorsmen.

Then again, silence.

I couldn’t help but speak.

“It’s beautiful here.”

Creek Fishing in Illinois: Heaven on Earth
This is heaven on earth.

The man and woman looked back at me and muttered simultaneously:

“Yes, it is.”

“You know guys… a few weeks ago I came in here with my oldest son. He wanted to try out his kayak when we drove across the bridge, the one over there in the direction that eagle was headed.”

“The bridge by the river? Is that where you put in?”

“It is.”

“So you’ve come a long way to get this far.”

“Yes, and now I have to go all the way back.”

“Huh… the water is so low… that’s a hell of a long way to lug that kayak…”

Without thinking, I blurted out:

This is the price of smallmouth… and it’s a price I’m willing to pay.

The man cocked his head to one side.

The woman allowed herself a quick grin, as if the statement had touched on a memory of her own. Maybe it was recent, maybe it was from years ago when those NO TRESPASSING signs were still a vibrant orange color.

Maybe both.

“… see, when I was a kid we used to go to my Grandpa’s place in Wisconsin, and we would hope to catch some smallmouth bass. They were sacred to us. We’d go to Grandpa’s place because… well, we didn’t have enough money to go anywhere else…”

The pair looked at one another and smiled again; no doubt sharing a memory without speaking a word.

“… when I was in here paddling with my son around the bridge, I noticed fish swimming by the logs and rocks, but the water was too murky up there to make out what they were…”

I pointed in the direction of the river.

“… we started to make our way up this creek and the water cleared up. Then I saw them in the shallows – smallmouth – couldn’t believe it! I knew that I had to come back to try to catch them. I’ve never caught smallmouth here in Illinois – only at Grandpa’s in Wisconsin – and if there was even a slight chance that they were here, 15 minutes from my home, it just… I haven’t been able to stop thinking about ’em! I had to try to catch some, and I was hoping to bring my son back to catch some of his own as w-“


The man bellowed, his voice echoing through the trees.

The stick-wielding woman gave him a sideways glance, but the situation had warmed by this point and her stony glance softened when she saw him stretch his arms out wide, almost inviting me over as his defensive posture faded away –

“Name’s John, and this is my wife, Sue.”

“Is it alright if I come over there and shake your hand?”

“Of course it is!”

I placed the kayak at my feet – finally – and made my way across those loose gray rocks that shifted underfoot towards the bank. Sue was smiling by the time reached I them, and John gave me a hearty handshake – a far cry from where we’d been just moments before when we first crossed paths.

Before the eagle broke the silence.

And so we talked.

We talked about those old memories. We talked about fish from yesteryear. Talked about family trips that John and Sue took to this creek, in the very spot we now stood. Children swimming as the adults tossed grubs at the holes and exposed root systems on the opposite bank.

Sue told me why she carried two large sticks:

“I’m walking the creek and looking for hagstones. When the water gets low like this, you can see rocks with holes in them, where the water has run clean through. You can’t find them when the water is moving fast. They have other names too, but… you should come by some time and see all that I have collected. Bring your boy, I’ll show him all the other neat rocks I’ve found as well.”

“He would love that. Thank you.”

“Don’t be afraid to dig – the best rocks are usually below the boring gray ones…”

“I’ll remember that.”

John jumped back in:

“So what’s the plan now?”

“Well… I think I better follow that eagle and make my way back to the bridge, but I’d love to come back if that’s alright with you?”

“Sure it is… here’s my cell number. You give me a shout some time and come on by the house to see those rocks, and maybe we can talk a bit more about fishing.”

“Thanks. I’d like that.”

… and with that… the slog continued…

A few days later, I gave them a ring and went by with my eldest. Sue had a lifetime of rocks, and crafts to go with them – tables, coasters, jewelry, all adorned with all kinds of rocks from the creek and all over the world. She gave my son a healthy handful for his rock tumbler.

John and I discussed other fishing locations, and he let me know that he loves to hunt. In fact, a lot of people hunt that creek from the deer stands that pepper the shoreline – and if you keep your eyes open, you might just find some antlers shed by a big buck.

He grabbed 3 impressive, partial racks from a shelf with many more, and gave them to my son to share with his brothers.

They still sit above their beds.

I have been back to that creek many times. Some days, the smallmouth are nowhere to be found… but other days… the smallmouth are there…

Illinois Creek Fishing Rapala Husky Jerk Smallmouth Bass
20″ brute of a creek smallmouth.

They hide in the shadows along the bank.

In deep holes underneath the riffles.

Some days they hold tight to the bottom.

Other days, they swim laps, patrolling their area for intruders – or food.

Creek bass are not prone to pass up an easy meal.

These days when I hike, I’m careful with my steps. If you’re mindful you can find treasures that have been here for who knows how long…

Creek Fishing Trip Low Water Kayak Hag Stone Hagstone
A simple hagstone – my first – carved by nature.

Every trip is different, but one thing remains unchanged.

The work.

This year, that work will continue.

I will sweat. I will marvel. I will stumble. I will bleed. I will swear. I will wonder how much longer I can carry my gear before my arms fall off. I will struggle to land fish. Some I will hold, others will break my heart. I will lose baits. Lose track of time. I will lose myself… and at the end of the day when I’m driving home with the windows down in the blistering heat, I’ll think back on what just happened that morning – and I will thank God for all of it.

This is the price of smallmouth… and it’s a price I’m willing to pay.

Creek Fishing in Illinois: Beautiful Spot
On to the next pool…

Tight Lines & Godspeed, Patriots.

Thank you Readers!

Thanks for visiting! I’m going to keep doing everything possible to keep the helpful content coming, and FREE FOR EVERYONE… but I need your help. Please chip in by making a small monthly contribution to keep this site alive & growing. $4.96 will buy a sweet Pack ‘o Dingers, and with it, I promise to catch many bass in your honor. Thanks. You are a gentleman & a scholar! -AJ

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