It could be a new state record smallmouth bass, but Mike Dominick let it go.

“I’ve never seen a smallmouth that fat,” he said. “Not in my hands.”

So why did he let it go?

“Fish and game was surprised, but it was so old I couldn’t stand to kill it,” he said.

The details

Let’s back up here a minute and give you a fuller picture of the situation. Dominick, an Alberton resident, has fished Fort Peck Reservoir for bass since 2007, even though it is a nine-and-a-half-hour drive from his home.

“I just love it over there,” he said. “It’s such good fishing.”

Driving a long way to bass fish is not unusual for him. He competes in several tournaments a year, so his trips also take him to waters in Idaho, California and Nevada, in addition to bass waters across Montana like Noxon Reservoir.

On Sept. 23, part of a three-day excursion, he was fishing with Miles City angler Kevin Sept west of Hell Creek. While tossing a drop shot rig, where the weight is on the bottom of the line with a plastic worm tied in above, they cast onto submerged rocky ridges seeking smallmouth. Dominick was fishing a light-action rod spooled with 8-pound test.

Fish on!

The duo had caught a few fish when around 10 a.m. Dominick hooked a much heavier smallie.

“It tried to jump twice, but it was too big,” he said. “It just stuck its nose out of water and wallowed around.

“It was ungodly fat, just an impressive fish.”

While fighting the fish, Sept said Dominick told him he knew the fish was a big one, given his long experience of bass fishing. Although Dominick said he was “pretty excited – my heart was in my throat the whole time” – Sept said his fellow angler kept a cool attitude throughout the struggle.

“He’s kind of reserved,” Sept said. “He doesn’t show it much.

“During the fight he said, ‘This is a nice fish,’ and for Mike to say that, it’s probably a big fish.”

Net job

Sept then had the scary job of netting the fish, a situation no angler wants to screw up when there’s a possible state record swirling next to the boat.

“It was pretty intense there for a minute,” Sept said.

Luckily, the netting went smoothly, and they boated the chubby bass.

“We knew it was big, but not how big,” Sept said.

A scale in Dominick’s boat said the fish weighed more than the state record, but for a fish to qualify it has to be weighed on a certified scale.

Long wait

Luckily, there was a tournament on Fort Peck Reservoir that day that would have a certified scale to weigh the fish. Knowing this, Dominick slid the fat smallmouth into his livewell, checking on its health frequently to ensure it was doing OK as his livewell’s pump continually circulated fresh water.

It was 3 p.m. before the fish was officially weighed at Hell Creek, tipping the scales at 7.51 pounds. The fish was 21 inches long and 19 inches around, “like a ball,” Dominick said.

The old record was set not that long ago, in May 2016, by Jacob Fowler who caught a 7.4-pound smallmouth while fishing off a dock in Flathead Lake.

The fact that Fowler, a professional model, had caught the state record smallmouth did not sit well with Dominick, given all of the time he spends on the water fishing for big bass.

“I’ve been working two years for that fish,” Dominick said. “I thought that record was breakable.”

Short-lived

So Dominick would be happy to see Fowler’s hold on largest smallmouth bass caught in Montana overturned, whether it’s by him or someone else, which might not be too far in the future.

“I think an 8-pounder will be caught next year,” he said, noting that the fish he caught would be about 8 pounds if it was full of eggs during the spawn.

Fort Peck could easily produce that next big bass, Dominick said. On his last trip he caught five fish over 6 pounds. One trip he and another angler caught 30 smallmouth over 3 pounds in an hour-and-a-half and never moved the boat. The reason the fish are so beefy is the large baitfish population. He’s seen bass stuffed full of cisco, an introduced species also known as lake herring.

“They’ve got the perfect recipe for growing them, as long as the bait keeps up,” Dominick said.

He’s surprised that a walleye angler, trolling with large lures or bait, hasn’t caught a record smallmouth from Fort Peck already. Or, maybe they did and dined on it or threw it back in the water, Dominick speculated.

Paperwork

For now, Dominick is waiting for the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks to approve his submission of the smallmouth as a new state record. To do that, they are awaiting documentation of the certified scale’s accuracy. Dominick has all of the paperwork ready to submit; now it’s just a matter of waiting.

“Whether fish and game accepts it or not, that’s OK,” Dominick said. “It was the most impressive one I’ve seen in Montana.”

It doesn’t escape Sept that he could have been the one to catch the fat bass. He was, after all, fishing right next to Dominick. But he said Dominick has better technique, which he would not reveal. Sept also knows where Dominick released the smallmouth, but the chances of it being there next year seem slim.

“I hope if someone else catches (a new record smallmouth) they’ll release it,” Sept said. “That’s how they reproduce. Being a big female like that, it’s nice to see her go back.” 

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