Looking to catch more bragging-sized smallmouths? Fire up the ScoutLook Fishing app and rig your rods with proven lures to help pinpoint the day’s hottest bite.
Across many areas of the United States and especially in the Midwest, the smallmouth bass is highly sought after by a dedicated legion of anglers, for one main reason: Smallies are a riot to catch. From their lightening-hard strikes, to drag-screaming runs and unmatched aerial acrobatics, few are the anglers who don’t fall in love at first strike.
The other great thing about targeting smallmouth bass? An angler can go about catching them using a wide variety of lures and techniques; everything from exciting top-water patterns to plumbing the depths of rivers and lakes, and most everything in between.
It’s important to note that smallmouth behavior is dictated very much by the weather. You can go from catching schooling smallies when there is a slight surface chop, to plumbing the depths when the lake or reservoir is flat calm. For reasons like this I make sure to study my ScoutLook Fishing app not only the day or evening before I go fishing, but also, while I’m on the water. Knowledge of forecasted temperature and wind changes during my time on the water allows me to get an accurate picture of the areas I need to target, and what lures I want to be using to tempt burly bronzebacks.
Many anglers specifically target smallmouths when they are hitting topwater baits, as it is nothing short of exhilarating to see these powerful fish explode from the depths to ambush a topwater plug or popper, then dive back down before erupting again, as powerfully defiant and athletic a display as you’ll find in freshwater.
Prime times for anglers to hop aboard this emotional rollercoaster are during the summer and fall months, as this is when these handsome fish are putting on the feedbag for winter. I begin looking for smallmouths on my favorite lakes and rivers that have some form of current present. This current will help position the bass so they can grab an easy meal. Many times this constitutes a point, drop-off or flat. All three of these areas allow for smallmouths to effectively ambush their prey, which at this time of year is primarily shad.
Since many of these fish will be up on shallow flats or near one, I’ll position my boat so I can deploy my dual Minn Kota Talons, so I stay in one place and not disturb the area I’m targeting. Stealth can be critical with these wary fish.
Two topwater baits I’ll typically have rigged on my deck include a Storm Chug Bug or a Zara Spook (see image above). The reason I have two different styles of topwater plugs is that smallmouth at times can be very picky, and I want to be able to present them with some smallie-proven options.
Suspending jerkbaits (see above) have developed into a “go-to” smallie lure for many anglers, especially on bodies of water where the fish are known to likewise suspend in the water column. You can fish these versatile jerkbaits in numerous ways, all the while keeping your bait in the effective strike zone for an extended period of time.
One way to fish a suspending jerkbait is to cast it out and simply “dead stick” the bait, then slowly reel it in and “dead stick” it again. Depending on the water temperatures and prevailing weather, the bass may be a bit sluggish but also hungry, and this tantalizing, slow-moving approach will often tempt them into striking.
A second and more-exciting way to fish a jerkbait is to cast it out and work the bait back to the boat by giving your rod a series of quick, rythmic jerks. This method typically requires you to experiment and see exactly what the bass want in terms of how hard to jerk, and the specific “jerk-pause” cadence they will respond best to on that given day. Once you “dial-in” your jerkbait presentation on a specific day, the winning “jerk-jerk-jerk-WHAM” elbow-jarring strike sequence will be etched in your memory banks for years to come.
From stock, widely available Rapala X-Raps to the new Shadow Rap, to the expensive, hard-to-find Megabass Vision, the specific shapes and color options for jerkbaits are vast. My top colors for fishing jerkbaits in the Midwest include Clown, Table Rock Shad, White Pearl, Shad and a Perch-imitating hue. The time of the year, water clarity, and the forage of the body of water you are fishing will dictate what color bait you tie on; when in doubt it’s hard to beat natural colors for clear water, and brighter hues for darker water.
The line you choose will have a huge effect on how your jerkbaits run. If you are fishing a suspending jerkbait or dead-sticking bait, using a quality fluorocarbon like Seaguar TATSU is very helpful in achieving the desired depth for your bait. Fluorocarbon line is super sensitive and virtually invisible underwater, so it will especially shine when fishing ultra-clear water in the spring, when the bass are not the most active. I’ll typically use either 12- or 15-pound test, depending on the depth I’m trying to achieve with my bait, and how pressured the bass are.
I’ll use the same rod and reel setup for fishing topwater plugs and jerkbaits; for both of these techniques you want a rod with a soft tip so you can give the bait the correct action, and you also want a nice limber bend so the rod will give and “load up” when a big smallie hits and makes that strong surge to the bottom. I rely on the Wright & McGill S-Curve Series Jerkbait/Topwater rod (6’8”), combined with a Victory II baitcast reel. When fishing topwater plugs, I’ll typically spool up with 15-pound Seaguar Senshi mono. The reason I use monofilament, is that it floats and also “gives,” so the hooks won’t rip out of the fish’s mouth.
When smallmouths are holding close to the bottom, they either aren’t very active, or are holding tight to cover that is holding a favored food: crawfish. In this situation it is hard to beat a drop shot rig to entice them into biting. Many times I will fish a drop shot in anywhere from 6 feet of water all the way down to 15 or 20 feet. When targeting rocks, either vast flats with scattered boulders or a rock-lined bank, a drop shot can entice even the tightest-lipped bronzeback into biting. I pay close attention to my Humminbird Helix depth finder, as I can easily see fish on the screen related to the bottom rock; after that it’s a simple matter of dropping my bait down to them and coaxing them to strike.
Proper drop-shotting equipment is essential to success, as you must be able to present your lure in a natural manner. Also important is being able to feel light bites; sometimes a smallmouth will just nibble your offering. It can be a stark contrast to the powerful, violent reaction sure to follow the hookset.
A good drop shot rod should have a soft tip to give your bait the proper subtle action, but also a strong backbone that will get that big bass into the boat. Once I feel the strike, I reel up the slack and give my Wright & McGill Victory Pro Carbon Drop Shot rod (7’) a “sideways sweeping” hookset. Using a fluorocarbon line is helpful as it is very sensitive, abrasion-resistant, and nearly invisible in clear water. I’ll spool up my Wright & McGill Victory 3500 Series Spinning reel with 8- or 10-pound Seaguar TATSU line. This double-structured fluorocarbon line, coupled with my reel’s larger spool, allows me to make super-long casts.
Even though I’m using spinning tackle and light line, I still need to use a sharp and strong hook, such as the Lazer TroKar Drop Shot hook. The choice of bronzeback-attracting soft plastics is nearly endless; experimentation is key to find out what the bass want on a particular day. My top choices (see image above) include a wacky-rigged Zoom Finesse Worm, a Gulp Leech or Minnow, or a Tiny Super Fluke hooked through the nose. Deciding on which bait to use has a lot to do with what forage the bass are targeting. If they are feeding on minnows then I want my bait to resemble a minnow.
The majority of times you are not fishing directly over your target area, so cast your drop shot to the weedline, rock pile or point, and let it sink to the bottom. Use the least amount of weight needed to get down there, considering both wind and surrounding vegetation. The length of your dropper will depend on how heavy the cover, and how far off the bottom the bass are suspended.
Whether they are feeding on top or in the depths of a deep clear-water lake, fall smallmouth bass can be targeted in wide array of ways. Having several lure options rigged up and ready to go, combined with knowledge of current and future weather conditions using your ScoutLook Fishing app, will help you take advantage of the hottest fall bronzeback bite.