Smallmouth bass are amazing adversaries, not to mention a whole lot of fun to catch. Brushing up on your bass biology, then matching savvy scouting approaches with cutting edge presentations, can help you battle more bronze beauties all summer long.
The smallie calendar often includes wintering in deep-water sanctuaries after enjoying a spring fling into shallow water to feed and prepare for the spawn.
Smallies don’t spawn as early as northern pike or walleyes, but rather hit the beds around the same time as other members of the sunfish family, including largemouth bass and bluegills. Males prepare nests in shallow water, typically on firmer bottoms near some type of rocky or woody cover, and hang around to guard the bed after females have dropped their eggs and headed off to greener pastures.
But the males don’t linger long, and soon post-spawn fish of both sexes fall into predictable summer patterns.
“After smallmouths leave the beds, you can catch numbers of smaller fish near the bank in depths of 3 to 8 feet, on a variety of presentations,” says well-traveled bassin’ ace Scott Bonnema, who pursues bronzebacks all season in fabled trophy fisheries like Mille Lacs Lake, the Great Lakes and beyond.
Reeling in crazy numbers of 2-pounders is fun, but bigger bites await deeper, he says. “Groups of larger fish stage in 10 to 14 feet of water, where they feed aggressively well into summer,” he explains.
In late summer, many big smallies move onto deeper reefs, roaming structural sweet spots in 10 to 20 feet of water. They group up and feed heavily, searching along the rocks for crayfish and other food sources.
Never hit the water without a well-prepared plan of attack. Much of Bonnema’s prep hinges on harnessing the latest in sonar and mapping technology for smart scouting.
The first step is priming your chartplotter with world-class cartography, of which there are a number of fine options. “Putting charts to work also requires confirming what the map contours are telling you, not to mention a fair amount of reading between the lines.”
Bonnema is a huge believer in on-the-water recon, which he credits for a string of tournament success stories.
Where water clarity allows, Bonnema scans the shallows with polarized glasses to find promising cover and structure. But even in skinny water — and exclusively in deeper areas — sonar is a key ally in the search for smallmouth bass.
He says traditional down-viewing sonar is a huge asset, but notes that he leans heavily on side-scanning and 360-degree scanning options. “Side-imaging is a phenomenal tool that eliminates having to run over the fish to scout an area,” he says. “It’s basically a transducer on the bow or transom that looks right or left and creates high-resolution images while you cruise along at speeds of 2 to 5 mph.”
In search mode, he looks for a variety of underwater points of interest, including rocks, logs, weed clumps and bottom transitions from sand to mud. “When you spot something you’d like to look at more closely, slow down and use down-imaging or two-dimensional sonar.”
Bonnema also seeks out anything that attracts bass or funnels their movements, such as slight depth changes of 6 to 12 inches, the edge where a line of rocks transitions to sand, and subtle divots and ditches bass use for cover while moving from deep water onto shallow feeding grounds. “Such spots vary from lake to lake, but there will always be key features that concentrate bass,” he says.
He religiously saves the location of such discoveries on his GPS plotter for future return. He marks points of interest with icons for instant recall. Take the time to choose symbols and names that mean something to you so they will help you remember why the waypoint is there.
Also, highlight the area where you expect the bass to hold, as well as where you should position your boat to fish the spot. Consider the angles at which you want to present your bait to the bass. Note how wind, waves, the position of the sun and other factors affect how smallmouths position themselves in relation to cover and structure.
When the surface is calm, topwater poppers are a fun and effective way to target smallmouths. And if you’re an adrenaline junky, there’s nothing quite like the rush of a beefy bronzeback blowing up on your surface bait.
Stealth is important to avoid spooking bass. Keep your distance and fire long casts.
Bonnema gears up with a 7-foot, medium-power baitcasting rod paired with a matching low-profile reel, which is spooled with buoyant 12-pound-test monofilament mainline. Fluorocarbon sinks and ruins the lure’s action.
A loop knot tethers the topwater and lets it move freely. “It spins a little when you pop it for just the right splash,” says Bonnema.
A stroll through most tackle shops reveals poppers aplenty, but Bonnema keeps it simple by focusing on baits in the 2- to 3-inch range, in shades of silver, gold and chrome, that yield a choice combination of gurgle and spray.
When a smallmouth takes the bait, your first reaction is to set the hook, but that’s a great way to lose the bass. Instead, lower your rodtip toward the fish, reel as fast as possible to take up slack line, and don’t set the hook until you feel the fish.
When a bass makes a half-hearted attack and misses the popper, change the color and size of the lure. If that doesn’t work, try throwing something different in the same area, such as a slim-profile jerkbait, jig, drop-shot rig or diving crankbait.