The right smallmouth bass tactics during the post-spawn and beyond will put more fish in the boat.
Here’s how the pros catch more smallies right now. (Also, check out the attached videos from InFishermanTV)
“Cast right over there, tight against the bank,” whispered Todd Harrington in his always calming voice. “Perfect! Now, reel until the tail spins and it starts throwing water, then keep that pace all the way to the boat.”
I didn’t need to keep reeling all the way to the boat because less than halfway in, my surface plug got attacked. A big, beautiful smallmouth was on the other end. After the bronze-sided beauty was revived, she was soon sent on her way back to the rock ledge from where she had come.
“I thought you said it was going to be slow today,” I remarked to Harrington, who, before the trip, predicted the action would be slow.
“That was slow,” Todd said with a smile. “In another few days that bass would have attacked the plug the moment you started reeling.”
Over the course of the day I’d learn more about smallmouth fishing than I ever imagined, for in Harrington’s boat were two other professional anglers. Todd Harrington is a full-time guide and one of the best all-around anglers I know.
Also on board were longtime, mutual friends, Jody Smith, owner of Jody Smith Guide Service, and Phil Strader, a pro-bass circuit angler and guide. By the end of the day, I’d catch my highest number of bass ever, multiple ways, and come away with a heightened level of knowledge and respect for smallmouth bass fishing.
Lipless Crankbaits for Smallmouth Bass
“The most important thing to know is what the bass are doing this time of year,” shared Harrington, when asked what the key was to catching them. “The post-spawn smallmouth bite may start in April in their southerly range, but not get going until June, farther to the north, where water temperatures are cooler.
“Not all smallmouth bass spawn at once,” Harrington continued. “You might only get 75 percent of the bass spawning at one time, leaving the other 25 percent to spawn earlier or later, which makes patterning them very difficult. Of all the species I guide for, smallmouth bass are the hardest to pattern and consistently catch.”
Harrington explained how a lot of big females seem to disappear after they spawn, withdrawing into areas that are tough to find them in. You’d think they’d be gorging themselves right after the spawn, but Harrington sees a consistent pattern, where, year after year, for one to two weeks, the females go into seclusion.
When the bite turns on, Harrington notices some key factors. “When they start hitting, for a couple weeks or more, these fish will be in schools, hunting for baitfish,” he noted. “This usually coincides with water temperatures warming up, which means the fish grow more aggressive. In the waters I fish, once the temperature hits 60 degrees, it’s time to start getting excited about fishing for them on the surface.”
Harrington explained that crankbaits and jerkbaits work well during the downtime when bass aren’t so visible.
“Once the water reaches 52 degrees, for every degree it warms up, more and more small bass start hitting,” Harrington advised. “The key is hitting it when the water warms up enough to turn on a good post-spawn bite of adult fish.”
Once that water hits the ideal temperature, Harrington likes working torpedo-style baits like a Spook or walk-the-dog type baits, and insists that Whopper Ploppers are a great choice. When I fished with this trio of seasoned guides, the Whopper Plopper was my favorite approach. Casting, retrieving and seeing the water erupt was addicting.
As for plug color, Harrington said you can never go wrong throwing bone colored plugs, but not to get too hung up on color.
“When the big bass start feeding again, they gorge themselves. They’re going to eat, and color isn’t as important as technique,” he said. “I also like using very big baits, much bigger than what most people even consider using for smallmouths. Things like a Super Spook can be very good on smallmouths.”
As for speed, Harrington said to let the fish tell you what they want. One day they may want the offering slow, with frequent pauses; other days they may prefer a steady retrieve. It can change from day to day, even during the course of a day. In concluding, Harrington emphasized that if fish aren’t biting one presentation, switch to another, or at the very least, try different retrieve rates. “If post-spawn bass aren’t hitting spinnerbaits or other surface offerings, stickbaits are great to fall back on this time of year,” he noted.
Tactical Change For Big Smallmouth Bass
One point Harrington brings up is the challenge of fishing clear water, and his counterpart, Jody Smith, confirmed that. I’ve fished smallmouth bass with Smith multiple times, and one thing I’ve noticed is, during the post-spawn, he’s all about covering water. From late spring throughout the summer, Jody likes to cast, and cast long.
“These post-spawn bass are already spooky, and if the water is clear, it makes it even tougher to catch them,” Smith confirmed. “They can see the boat from a long ways away, or if you’re wading the shoreline, the fish can be very edgy. The more water you can cover without being seen, the greater the chances of catching fish.”
On my day on the water with Harrington, Smith and Strader, I was amazed with not only how far Smith was casting, but also how many fish he caught soon after his plug hit the water. On one long cast he made, two big bass attacked his double-hooked bait as soon as it hit the water, and he landed both of them.
“When fishing topwater presentations, I tie my braided mainline directly to the plug,” Smith noted. “This keeps things lined out better for casting long distances. When casting extra-long, snaps and different leaders can get things off balance with the whip of the rod tip, and I can’t cast as far.”
Smith noted that when he has clients who can’t cast very far, he will go with a fluorocarbon leader, especially if the water is crystal clear.
“Sometimes you’re casting 150 feet out there, though, and you don’t want line stretch, so whenever I can, I go with straight braid when fishing on the surface.” Smith does go with a snap swivel when fishing diving plugs or jerkbaits with a subsurface action, as distance isn’t as vital as retaining a good action.
To help launch plugs into another time zone, Smith’s setups consist of Lamiglas SI and Infinity bass spinning rods, Daiwa Ballistic and Shimano Stradic reels with 20-pound P-Line braid. “These setups are made to cast the weight of plugs I’m using a great distance, and these rods optimize plug action and get incredible distance,” Smith advised.
Hot Spots for Smallies
On this trip, Phil Strader was all about swimbaits. He likes fishing them in all types of smallmouth water. Why? “Because I look at what’s in the food chain in the waters I fish, as when a bass starts feeding after the post-spawn shutdown, it’s usually on baitfish,” Strader said. “It’s what gives me confidence.”
The key is knowing what bait is in the waters being fished. “You might have chubs and minnows in one fishery, shad or crawdads in another,” Strader pointed out. “Knowing what bait is out there, and matching your swimbait colors to them, is important, especially in clear water.”
Strader noted that it’s also important to know the behavior of post-spawn bass.
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“The key is being on the water when they snap out of this shutdown phase and start feeding,” he said. It’s this timeframe when the bite kicks in, where Strader’s approach with swimbaits really shines.
“If you think about these bass as predators, they basically shut down for a week to 10 days, even longer, so when they get hungry, they grow very aggressive,” Strader explained.
“Now, if you’re a predator and have the ability to eat a lot of food at once, wouldn’t you rather do that than waste energy chasing several small meals? This is why I’m a believer in using big swimbaits when targeting post-spawn smallmouths.”
Strader routinely uses swimbaits in the 5- to 7-inch size range, and with great success. He reasons that the larger profile baits help target bigger fish. And that when the bite kicks in, it can be incredible. “Once they start to recover, these bass turn very aggressive and will attack big baits,” he noted.
Strader guides three months a year for smallmouths, in a range of water types.
“In rivers, smallmouths coming out of post-spawn seclusion congregate on current seams, where the feed is,” he noted. “And in lakes and ponds, they’re found in weedlines just offshore,” he continued. “These habitats not only offer cover, but this is where food congregates. In rivers, fish paddle-tailed swimbaits with jigheads and an exposed hook; in lakes and ponds, a weedless swimbait with a belly weight to cut through grass to reach the fish is the ticket. Both methods are great in their respective habitats.”
Harrington, in his 20th year of guiding full-time, sums up the hunt for post-spawn smallies best. “Predictably unpredictable, that’s what these bass are.”
With warming water conditions fast approaching, now is the time to get dialed in to the smallmouths in your home waters. Watch the water temperatures, diversify your approaches, match the bait and get ready to take your post-spawn fishing to another level.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Looking for tasty ways to cook up your bass? Signed copies of Tiffany Haugen’s popular book “Cooking Seafood” can be ordered by check $20 (free S&H) to Haugen Enterprises, P.O. Box 275, Walterville, OR 97489. Or, tiffanyhaugen.com.