June Tactics for Smallmouth Success
September 24, 2010
This is the month when the versatile angler can really shine when it comes to catching smallmouth bass. Our expert shares his techniques.
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
Ah, I love June. The days are long, the weather is warm and the smallmouth bass can drive you nuts.
OK, that last part isn't exactly what you were thinking. But in fact, June requires more angling versatility than any other month on the calendar. During most years, smallmouths in lakes will go through three distinct activity periods in just 30 days. June fishing can be fair, fine or even fantastic - if you can figure out what period the fish are in and then quickly adjust your tactics to the situation. Never assume that the fish will be doing the same things and be in the same places from the beginning of month to the end. This is a recipe for failure. To make sure you score no matter when you hit the water, it's wise to break the month into thirds.
In our latitude, the first 10 days of June generally offer the easiest "big bronze" fishing of the year.
If water temperatures are normal, this is the peak of the spawning period, and fishing can be fast and furious. The actual spawn - when smallies start fanning out nesting sites - gets fully under way when water temperatures approach 60 degrees. As the fish are hormonally cued to shift into their reproduction cycle, they quit feeding and adopt an aggressive nest-guarding mode. A spawning smallmouth doesn't want to actually eat your offering; instead it sees a lure as a dangerous threat to be attacked.
This can be things that are far larger than a lure. During a recent June, a 19-inch spawning smallmouth grabbed the tail of a 34-inch northern pike my client had inadvertently pulled over the smallie's nest. Think of it - a 4-pound smallie biting a 10-pound pike so vigorously it tore the pike's tail fin! And it only let go when I lifted the pike from the water! That's protective behavior. Of course, this aggressiveness also makes smallmouths extremely vulnerable to overharvest during the spawning period. Immediate release of spawning fish is essential, both to maintain good populations of large adults and to ensure the survival of the fry.
In the southern half of the state, smallmouths normally spawn a week or so earlier than those in the northern half. In fact, traveling anglers can often experience excellent spawn fishing from mid-May through mid-June, provided they start in the most southerly waters and keep moving north. Even lakes in the same geographical zone can have different spawning dates. Large, deep lakes warm up slower than small, shallow ones, and the peak of the spawn can easily vary by five or six days. And of course, weather conditions will influence how far the smallies are along in their reproductive cycle. Unusually cloudy, rainy weather means slow-to-warm water. Conversely, a lot of sunny days bring warmer water and an early spawn. Though weather can be fickle, male smallies spend over two weeks on nest-guarding duty, so the spawn overlaps the early-June period nearly every year.
Naturally, to catch them you have to find 'em. This is especially critical during the spawn.
In some lakes, spawning bronzebacks are highly concentrated. Just a few shorelines or bays have suitable habitat, and the other 98 percent of the lake will hold few fish during the spawn. In waters with more abundant habitat, the fish will spread out to various locations around the lake. In every instance, they are looking for relatively shallow gravel-bottomed areas in which to fan out nests. However, "relatively shallow" is relative. I know of nowhere that bass spawn 30 feet deep, but in exceptionally clear waters, some fish may build nests in the 12- to 15-foot depths. These may be some of the biggest bronzebacks in the lake. And with water-filtering zebra mussels expanding their range, more lakes will likely become even clearer in the future. So besides fishing the 3- to 5-foot-deep shoreline zone, don't fail to check out deeper gravel-bottomed habitat.
Another prime location is downed trees, since the biggest males love to build their nests next to or underneath wood. Shoreline trees and logs are obvious hotspots, but wood that's washed well away from land and has settled to the bottom in water over 8 feet deep can also provide prime nest sites. Best of all, this deep wood is often overlooked by spring anglers.
If the surface is flat, topwaters can be terrific during the spawn for depths under 6 feet. Small prop baits are excellent for these situations. Try to lightly drop the lure about two feet past the suspected nest. Let it sit for at least six seconds. Then give the rod tip a very short twitch, so the lure makes a distinct "buzz" but moves forward only a few inches. If there's no initial strike, repeat these short pulls and long pauses until the lure is two or three feet past the target zone. With this extra-slow retrieve, the lure remains over or near the nest for a long period, greatly increasing the odds of a strike.
Where nests are hard to see and the fish are widely scattered across shallow bays or flats, crankbaits are hard to beat. Lipless flat-bodied models with some red color on them are particularly productive during the beginning of the spawning period, when the smallies are the most aggressive. However, slow-sinking jigs and slider worms are often best of all, especially as the spawn progresses. To most effectively tempt less aggressive nest-guarding males, think slow, really slow. Certainly, some spawners remain so pumped up they'll chase down almost anything that's barreling by. But on many days the majority of fish are unwilling to strike a fast-moving bait.
When the water is shallow and the light is right, spawn fishing can be an exciting visual affair. You can see individual nests, sometimes even the fish themselves. However, you often won't be able to spot the actual beds, though you can see large subsurface boulders or logs. Target these likely nest sites by casting a jig or worm to both sides of the cover, 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, especially if the bait is slow-sinking. The two types of jigs that are particularly effective for this type of fishing are 3-inch grubs and similar-sized tube jigs, both on a very light head. Figure 1/16-ounce offerings for water less than 8 feet deep and 1/8-ounce for deeper water. The action of the tail as the jig slowly falls seems to really appeal to the fish. Using the lightest line possible also improves the number of strikes generated and detected. An extra-limp and small-diameter monofilament is still my favorite line for finesse jig-fishing. If nests are in open areas, 6-pound-test is fine, while 8-pound-test is required around cover.
Another simple tactic to increase your strikes is to approach very cautiously. Spawning fish are often very skittish. And while they may not flee if your boat gets too close, they will refuse to strike. Keep at least 45 feet from potential nest sites and always keep boat and motor noises to an absolute minimum.
Mid-June is the time smallmouthing can quickly go from feast to famine.
After two or three weeks of round-the-clock nest guarding, the fry have developed enough to disperse from the spawning site. The adults' physiology goes through major hormonal changes, telling the fish their reproductive cycle is over for the year. It also means the smallmouths become noticeably less aggressive. This recuperative mode varies in duration and intensity from lake to lake, but as a rule it lasts one to two weeks. During this transition period, fish seem to ease into feeding, so extra coaxing is required to catch them.
Fortunately, there are a couple of ways to beat the post-spawn blues. One possibility is targeting shallower dark-stained lakes. These waters warm up fast in early summer, which causes the smallie's metabolism to speed up. Fish in these lakes seem to go through the post-spawn slump quickly and start actively feeding soon after reproduction. If any stained lakes are available in your area, this is an excellent time to fish them.
Of course, most smallmouth lakes aren't heavily stained, and for these clear waters, specific post-spawn tactics are called for. First, it's essential to figure out where the fish are. The shallowest nesting areas now have few smallmouths, so don't make the common mistake of continuing to sling baits to the banks. Instead, move a little farther out from the spawning shorelines and look for cover. This may be only 50 or 100 yards from the abandoned spawning beds. An adjacent flat with large boulders and developing weed growth is a prime post-spawn location. Old sunken logs in 8 to 12 feet of water are also good targets.
Recuperating fish will hold tight to cover, so they probably won't be spotted by electronics, nor will they move far for a bait. Snagless-rigged worms worked slowly and thoroughly will really pay off. Four-inch finesse worms rigged Texas-style on slider jigheads can be effectively fished in this type of cover. You'll often need to make several casts to each piece of cover to get one retrieve close enough to interest the fish. Don't expect packs of bronzebacks, but rather one or two nice fish per spot.
Oddly, post-spawn fish - at least on some lakes - can also be caught using very different tactics. While steadily retrieved crankbaits are only mediocre during this period, thin-minnow cranks fished with sharp twitches can be terrific. On many lakes, some post-spawn fish will suspend on flats, where they are very susceptible to this unusual presentation. Use 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 can be effective with topwater stick baits and spinnerbaits, too. The secret to success with a surface stick bait is to impart a lot of side-to-side motion without making it move forward very much. 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 bait ticks the bottom on each drop. Naturally, erratic retrieves can produce at other times of the year, too, but they really shine for post-spawn smallies.
For sheer numbers of smallmouths, late June can be nirvana. Once they've shaken off their post-spawn funk, smallies enter their summer growth period. Now they start to feed with gusto, but forage - like young-of-the-year minnows and crawfish - is still limited. This means hungry, eager-to-bite fish. While this period lasts only two or three weeks, it can offer some of the fastest action of the year. There may not be many lunkers in the mix, but on lakes with good smallmouth densities, anglers can land and release several dozen fish a day.
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. But during lowlight conditions of mornings and evenings, shorelines adjacent to deep water can still produce.
On many lakes in June, an early-rising angler can experience great shallow-water angling for a couple hours after first light. By working cover-laden shorelines or the tops of shallow reefs, you can really score with topwater lures and shallow-running crankbaits. Surface lures of the "walk the dog" variety are particularly good.
Retrieved properly with twitches of the rod tip, these plugs dart wildly from side to side, covering a lot of water and generating many strikes. However, smaller and midsized smallies often miss a darting stick bait when they strike them. So to increase hookups, try having another rod rigged and ready with a "come-back lure." Here's what you do: When a fish misses the topwater, you or your partner immediately casts a slow-sinking jig to where the fish swirled. At least half the time the smallie will strike the jig if you can get it back to the fish very quickly.
As the morning sun climbs and the fish sink, early-summer anglers should start concentrating on deeper water. Rocky humps, reefs and points extending into deep water are especially prime midday locations. An effective technique is to anchor and thoroughly work these areas 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 16-foot depths. It's wise to also have a rod rigged with a jig for these areas. Crawfish are starting to become a food source, so crawfish-colored grubs or tube-bodied jigs both work well. One-eighth and 3/16-ounce head sizes are the most versatile. Don't hesitate to 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.
Perhaps the most overlooked beginning-of-summer hotspots are deep-water weedbeds, especially if the vegetation is still less than 18 inches high. Of course, rocks and wood are the standard smallmouth cover, but in lakes where weedbeds are also available, newly emerging vegetation can be dynamite, too. The weeds hold a lot of aquatic invertebrates and minnows, so hence they attract smallies. Weeds in shallow, isolated bays are mostly the domain of largemouth bass. For smallmouths, look for vegetation on a flat that extends far into the lake or on a midlake hump with enough sand or gravel substrates to allow for weed development. Careful reading of your depthfinder will enable you to detect the larger weedbeds. However, small patches can easily be missed with the electronics. Therefore, always pay close attention to your lure for any signs that it's making contact with weeds. Even a batht
ub-sized patch can hold a couple of nice fish.
Early-summer anglers who can stay on the water into the evening are often rewarded with a topwater bite as good as the early-morning action. Besides using stick baits, try both prop baits and popping surface lures. Noisy "popping" topwaters are especially productive if there is a slight chop on the surface, which there often is early in the evening. A rapid-fire "pop-pop" is sometimes the ticket, but more likely a "pop" followed by a three-second pause and then another "pop" is the favored presentation.
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There you have it, a quick tour through June's diverse smallmouth scene. This month is when the versatile angler can really shine. And remember, whether you catch them on the first day of the month or the last, a released smallie is always more valuable to your fishing future than a kept one.