Largemouth are easier to love than their brown cousins. First of all, they really like vegetation and shallow water, which makes finding them easier. Even when largemouth do move deep, they tend to hold tight to something that is easy to identify whether it’s an obvious weedline, a sloping point, or submerged timber.
Smallmouth, however, don’t always seem locked onto something. Sometimes, they just seem to roam in wolfpacks that take them away from visible landmarks, or those that show up on our graphs. This tendency is often mistaken for a weak or nonexistent bite but it might be something else entirely.
The lockjaw that often takes the blame is common right after the spawn, but is not nearly as likely in mid-summer. I’ve taken a look at enough lethargic schools of smallmouth on the camera to know that this does exist, but if you’re going to hit the water now, you’ll probably be dealing with roamers instead of steadfast refusers.
Timing, Timing, Timing
If your hotspots have gone cold, it’s time to go looking but do yourself a favor and plan your fishing trip accordingly if possible. I like to fish smallmouth when they are most likely to bite, and that means during periods of stable weather. It also means first and last light casts are a must.
This is no different than saving a promising treestand for a cold, still, late-October morning for a first-of-the-season sit. Play the odds, always play the odds. Where bronzebacks are concerned, a single fish can tell you an awful lot about what is going on with the rest of them.
For instance, I’ve fished the Mississippi my entire life. Summer smallmouth can be found all over the main channel, but there are certain areas they love. Wing dams, for example, will typically hold a school but you wouldn’t know it if you only fished them at noon. At first light, you might boat several on topwaters while an hour after the sun has poked above the bluffs, you might run through your entire panic box of lures without getting bit.
The fish are still there, they just aren’t eating as actively.
Of course, they won’t be tight to every wing dam or rocky point that breaks the current. They don’t work that way. They might start there, or they might follow a school of pin minnows out farther into the channel or farther down the bank. That’s why one fish is so important.
Location, Location, Location
We spend a lot of time on the “where” of it all when it comes to fishing. The search for the Holy Grail, if you will, which undoubtedly exists on your favorite body of water. You might find it, you might not.
In the interest of not finding it, the location of a school of smallmouth that’ll do becomes important. When they are roaming, they are roaming for a reason. That reason is food, and possibly, so they don’t end up as food. For the most part though, it’s their bellies that drive them to pull off of sunken rock piles and take off over vast quantities of featureless water.
Since tossing a dart at a map to find a starting spot isn’t a great idea, consider known smallmouth haunts as your ground zero. Maybe they slipped out of a spawning bay and spent some time recovering around a few islands or close to a rocky reef. Wherever they were, start there and remember that it’s going to be about fishing off of that cover eventually.
This is where having a fishing partner helps a lot. Maybe your buddy is the chunk-and-wind kind of character, which means it’s all upper-water-column, quick-retrieve stuff for him. That’s fine, as long as you decide to fish something that covers deeper water. Maybe this is a deep-diving crankbait, or something more finesse.
Either way, with two of you covering different areas of the water column you’re more likely to run into an amenable bronzeback.
When one of you does set the hook, pay attention to everything about it.
An Ah-Ha Moment
The 18-inch bronzeback that slurps a weightless stickbait over 20 feet of water and that seems to be lost because the nearest rocks are 200 yards away probably isn’t confused. He is there for a reason and, most likely, so are his buddies. They are probably ghosting along below or behind a school of baitfish and waiting for the chance to eat.
It’s that simple of an explanation, even if knowing that doesn’t do you too much good. You’ve still got to find them in the first place and then get something that resembles their forage in front of them. There are, of course, a few ways to encourage those adrift smallmouth into smashing your lure.
Prop-baits ripped on the surface often get credit for mimicking feeding fish. I don’t know if it really works that way or not, but I do know that an awful lot of smallies hit them when they are churning up surface water, so who am I to say otherwise?
It might require a little more tact to get them to bite, however. If you can see schools of baitfish dimpling the surface or clouding up your graphs, then plying those roving grocery stores with something more subtle might be the ticket. The key to remember is that when you do get a strike, enjoy it because those fish might not stick around long enough for you to rip too many lips.
The silver lining here is that if you get one to bite, you can get another to commit somewhere because you’ll begin to have a pattern on the unattached smallmouth, and that means that even when the action is slow or seemingly nonexistent, it’s only a matter of working the right water until you cross paths with another school of fish.
It might seem daunting, but it’s really a matter of getting your timing right, picking good starting spots, and then keeping after them.