Targeting Early-Season Smallmouths
September 24, 2010
Fishing for smallmouth bass in the early summer can be feast or famine. You just have to adapt your tactics to the situation to achieve success.
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
By Tim Holschlag
Early-summer smallmouth bass fishing can be feast or famine.
Here's a good example. Last June my friend Tom and his partner released over 100 smallies in just three days of fishing a productive smallmouth lake. Half their fish were over 15 inches, with several breaking the 4-pound mark. Ecstatic over this super fishing, he eagerly organized a return trip to the lake two weeks later. But this second time around wasn't so super. My friend managed little more than a dozen fish in two days of hard fishing on the same water. None of these smallies were lunkers, and most were less than 14 inches.
Unfortunately, Tom's experience isn't unusual. Some early-summer trips serve up a banquet of good fishing, but other times nature's bounty is slim indeed. Rapidly changing weather and falling water temperatures can put a damper on the bite. But the biggest reason for spotty success during June through mid-July is a lack of understanding. Many anglers don't realize there are three distinct fishing periods during that time.
Let's consider my friend Tom. On his first trip, he had the good fortune to hit the peak of the spawning period. Just two weeks later, he hit the post-spawn. Having little understanding of different biological periods, Tom continued slinging his lure toward banks where he had scored previously. But now only a handful of bass were still on their beds, while most had moved away and were in a less active post-spawn period.
You can avoid Tom's poor showing by adapting your tactics to these very different periods. To best understand and deal with the spawn, post-spawn and early-summer peak, let's look at each separately.
THE SPAWN First is the time of year a lot of bassers dream about - the spawning period. This is when many guys believe the smallies are all charged up, cruising the shallows and ready to smack anything in sight. While the spawn is seldom this intense, if you hit it just right, this period can be darn phenomenal. The problems are that spawning times vary from year to year and often it doesn't last long.
This period starts when water reaches 60 degrees along the shorelines and bays where the smallmouths spawn (midlake temperatures may still be cooler). The first order of business is correctly identifying the spawning areas. Smallies spawn in shallow, gravel-bottomed areas, so in lakes where these are abundant, fish will be widely scattered. On lakes with limited reproductive habitat, fish will be highly concentrated and spawning may take place in just a couple of small bays. On lakes with downed trees, the biggest males invariably build their nests next to the wood and not just near the obvious stuff right along the bank. Old tree trunks that have washed out from shore, and may be in 7 to 10 feet of water, are prime nest sites but are often overlooked by anglers.
The peak of this period - when males are most aggressive - may only last a week during unusually warm springs. If there are a lot of fluctuations in the weather, the spawn may be spread out over several weeks as different fish spawn at different times. Topwater lures can be dynamite during this time, especially if they're fished slowly. However, slow-sinking jigs and slider worms are often better, especially for the less active fish.
So how to tempt them with your offering? First and foremost, think slow, really slow retrieves. Sure, sometimes spawning smallies are so hormonally primed they'll chase down a lure that's going by like a bat out of heck, but not often.
When you can't see the beds but you can see large subsurface boulders or logs, target those. Cast the jig or worm to both sides of the log or rock, letting it fall completely to the bottom. And pay close attention for a strike on the drop. Spawners love to grab lures just before they hit bottom.
And remember, immediate release is especially critical during the spawn. Most fish you'll catch will be nest-guarding males. Penning them in a live well - even for a short time - means their unprotected eggs or fry are likely to be destroyed, and with them our future smallmouth fisheries.
THE POST-SPAWN FUNK I call this period "the funk" because immediately after spawning, the smallmouths on many waters become noticeably less aggressive. They seem to go into a lethargic recuperative mode for a couple weeks. However, there are ways to significantly increase your chances during this time.
First, don't make the mistake Tom did and continue work previously productive but now abandoned shoreline nesting zones. If careful observation and a couple hours of fishing convince you that the smallies' parenting is over for the year, it's time to move to new locations.
One good tactic is to follow the spawn. If there is a larger, deeper lake in the area, you should check if the body of water's fish are still on their nests. Deeper lakes warm up slower and hence spawning is later. And even on the same lake - if it's a big one - the spawn on one bay may be a week later than it is on another.
If you're going to make your stand on a post-spawn lake, direct your efforts toward slightly deeper water. Some fish will still be in shoreline zones but not tight to the bank. Others will be on flats within 100 yards of shore. Focus on rocky substrate areas 6 to 12 feet deep.
The other way to up your odds with post-spawn smallies is to use the right retrieve. Many post-spawn fish don't show much interest in steadily retrieved crankbaits or even slow-moving jigs. Rather, they like thin-minnow crankbaits fished with sharp twitches. This calls for a rod-tip retrieve that really makes the lure jump and dart. And if the fish seem extra finicky, try a suspending crankbait. Suspending lures stay right in the fish's face between twitches and sometimes elicit strikes when nothing else will.
Actually, the same erratic retrieve that works with crankbaits is effective with topwater stick baits and spinnerbaits, too. The secret to success with surface stick bait is to impart a lot of side-to-side motion without making it move forward very much. So the topwaters to use are those that dart widely side-to-side with only short rod-tip twitches. When using a spinnerbait, go with 1/4-ounce models and work them with 18-inch forward sweeps and enough pause in between so the lure ticks bottom on each drop. Of course, erratic retrieves can produce at other times of the year, too, but they really shine for post-spawn smallies.
Savvy smallmouthers can really score during this period. Once they've recovered from the rigors of reproduction, smallies enter their summer growth period. In our latitude, the beginning of this season often starts in late June. Sometimes called the "early-summer peak," this period lasts two or three weeks, and it's my favorite time for lake smallmouthing. The fish are starting to feed in earnest, but with food sources still low, the smallies can't afford to be overly picky.
In fact, overall catch rates during the early summer peak can be the best of the year. On lakes with good smallmouth densities, I've seen many days when two anglers each landed several dozen fish. These may not be the biggest fish of the season, but those who target the right locations will find plenty of eager biters.
The early-summer peak most often kicks in after several days of calm, warm weather that pushes the water temperatures to 70 degrees. This is also when the majority of the smallmouths start moving to deeper banks and to offshore structure. Rocky humps, reefs and points extending into deep water are especially prime midday locations.
An effective technique is to anchor and work these humps and points with deep-diving crankbaits. Hit the shallower top of the structure first for the most active fish, then fish down the sides to the 12- to 15-foot depths. It's wise to also have a rod rigged with a jig for these areas. Crawfish-colored grubs or tube-bodied jigs both work well, with the 1/8-ounce head size being the most versatile. If you miss a crankbait strike, throw the jig back. It pays to also try the leadhead in the deeper water - over 10 feet - even after you've worked the area with crankbaits. Often the very biggest fish will go for the jig.
Another effective early-summer technique is low-light topwater fishing. This is especially productive during the first two hours of daylight. Target banks adjacent to deep water that have a lot of cover such as boulders, wood or weeds. The inside of shallow bays that may have been terrific spawning locations will likely hold few smallies by this time of year, so skip those low-percentage areas. Be willing to try both noisy prop lures and popping baits and quieter stick bait topwaters. Let the fish tell you what type of surface lures they want on that day.
If you follow these guidelines for success, you'll catch early-season smallmouths.
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