I grew up with largemouth bass. Any early memories involving trophy fish include largemouth as a central focus. Yet it took only a handful of notable smallmouths from New Mexico’s Gila River forks to completely change my perspective. Today, largemouth are amusing enough, but I choose smallies whenever possible. There’s the long debate over which fights more doggedly, but those early red-eyes quickly settled the matter in my mind. Pound-for-pound, it’s the smallmouth, period. Now that’s settled, there’s also the matter of aesthetics. Smallmouths live in prettier places — or at least from the perspective of a lifelong westerner drawn to mountains and clean waters where trout sometimes swim. Catching smallies is just part of the fun but, admittedly, a big part. Here’s the best ways I’ve found to catch the heaviest.
On northern Idaho’s renowned Dworshak Reservoir, where Gem State smallmouth records have fallen in recent years, it’s a scene played out each spring and early summer. Timing’s dependent on run-off and resulting water temperatures, but it’s going to happen, as predictably as any government agency squawking about underfunding. Each spring, as water temperatures hit about 46 degrees, smallmouth bass congregate at the mouths of feeder streams and rivers. They appear in numbers and they’re ravenous after a long winter of relative inactivity, making them easy targets for savvy bass fishermen. The best spots are predictably the most difficult to access; anglers hiking down the North Fork Clearwater River from Aquarius near Headquarters, investing in the long boat ride to reach Breakfast Creek. But don’t discount smaller feeders, even those that slow to trickles with late summer.
It’s really difficult to go wrong. Kids catch these winter-softened bass on worms offered to trout beneath bright bobbers. Just about anything in your tackle box is apt to catch these hungry fish. Still, I seem to have the best luck on trophy bass when using curly-tailed grubs on lead-head jigs — offerings remarkably small for the size of the fish sometimes encountered. I’ll toss a 1/4-ounce jig into moving water at the cove head from an ultra-light rig, lighter line cutting deeper/faster, allowing the jig to bottom-bump into the first settling basin below. If I haven’t received a take by then (rare), I gently twitch it back in short, jig-and-reel action. The takes are not subtle.
Now remember, any Rocky Mountain stillwater fed by active streams or rivers is a candidate for early-spring inlet action. It’s not really about fancy technique, but simply being there. It can produce the fastest, most productive action of the season.
New Mexico’s Elephant Butte is vast and spooky deep (sonar readings of 150 to 200 feet commonplace), a rocky desert lake sometimes reminding me of Baja’s Sea of Cortez. Striped bass were once the main event, and the lake’s largemouth population is certainly worth investigating. But what many fail to acknowledge is the Butte’s huge smallmouth potential. Catching smallies in the 4- to 5-pound range is par, while bass up to 7 1/2 have been boated. Smallmouths are privy to a wide variety of foods here, crawfish large among them, but the mainstay is threadfin shad.
Combine the lake’s seemingly bottomless depths, readily available rocky-cliff structure and shad and you’ve a winning combination for trophy bass. There are endless possibilities, from Kettle Top’s plunging cliff, to the Jungle Gates’ submerged rock walls, to the reaching points across from Marina del Sur — just to throw some names out. A guy could spend a month exploring possibilities. Here’s the point — don’t spend too much time on a single spot if it doesn’t produce quickly. Keep moving, trying new spots and eventually you’ll find that hotspot. The Butte’s like that, lots of gorgeous water completely devoid of fish, other places apparently holding them all.
Securing bait is the first priority. Take a cast net and try coves on the south end of the lake, seeking shad “popping” in shallows. Securing an excess (and having a reliable bait tank) allows “chumming” appealing structure, tossing out a handful of live shad to test the waters. It’s then just a matter of rigging a simple hook/sinker rig and sending it down along drop-offs and points, and remaining poised to set the hook on a violent take.
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