November 07, 2019
By Jeff Knapp
During thefall, smallies are on the move in response to their rapidly changing environment. To catch them, you’ve got to first find them. To increase your chances of locating these often reclusive fish, tie on some of the following search baits and collect yourfair share of autumn bronze.
Jerkbaits, both hard and soft, provide a stop-n-go look that often provokes a smallmouth into hitting, while efficiently covering the water at the same time. Depending on the inherent qualities of the particular bait, as well as the method in which it’s fished, a jerkbait can cover depths from the near surface to over 10 feet plus.
“Soft” jerkbaits, like the Zoom Super Fluke, are collectively called “flukes” regardless of the maker. “Hard” jerkbaits include Rapala’s X-Rap, Lucky Craft’s Pointer and Smithwick’s Suspending Rogue (among others). Both hard and soft jerkbaits possess unique qualities that earn each a prominent place on the deck of the boat.
When used as a search bait, soft jerkbaits often fish best without any additional weight, relying only on the weight of the hook and the bait’s salt impregnation to give it a slow, tantalizing fall on “the pause.” There’s an art to fishing a soft jerkbait, one that incorporates a level of controlled slack on the retrieve. A twitch of the rod tip activates the bait, pulling it back toward the surface. The magic comes in by allowing the bait a bit of freedom, that is, an amount of controlled slack during the pause. Braided line, which typically floats, serves as a strike indicator when a smallmouth eats a soft jerkbait on the pause.
While soft jerkbaits slowly fall on the pause, most hard suspending jerkbaits hover at a consistent level when “killed,” a presentation subtlety that smallmouth respond to better some days. Available in various diving depths, hard jerkbaits can cover deeper zones and are a good choice in clear water where the strike zone window is large with the increased visibility. They will trigger a variety of strikes from the occasional nip of the tail hook to a full-on inhalation of the bait. In most instances, nearly all strikes will be on the pause. Often times, bigger brown bass are triggered on longer pauses.
While there’s no doubt that the stop-n-go look of jerkbaits excel at covering water and triggering strikes, there’s also a place for a lure designed to function well on a straight retrieve/crank. Soft swimbaits, like Storm’s 360 GT Searchbait, Keitech’s line of Impact baits and Lake Fork Tackle’s Live Magic Shad, fill this niche nicely. Also, grub-style baits like Kalin’s Grub and Galida’s Grubz also function well as straight retrieve soft swimbaits.
If there’s a downside to soft swimbaits, it’s that they can be difficult to hook up on. Smallmouth have an odd habit of following the bait, clamping down on it, and then simply swimming toward the angler. As such, it’s often wise to choose smaller models of baits in the 3- to 4-inch range. Mushroom head or darter head jigheads with light gauge wire hooks increase the chances you’ll hook a bass that doesn’t give you that turn of direction on the strike.
Since it’s a weighted bait, a soft swimbait allows you to search vertically as well as horizontally. An increase in jighead weight and/or decrease in retrieve speed permits the lure to achieve greater depths.
Like a skirted swimming jig common in largemouth fishing, a soft swimbait is a versatile offering that can be presented in various ways, even on the same cast. For instance, you’re searching out the deep edge of a remaining green weed flat. After the lure’s splashdown, it begins sinking toward the bottom. On its way, it’s likely to provoke a strike from a smallmouth suspended off the edge of the weed bed.
Lacking such a hit, the bait continues its descent to the bottom, kicking up a plume of silt as it settles in, another possible trigger. You begin your retrieve, bumping the lure along the fringe of weeds (yes, another potential trigger) and finally swim it back through open water, where the built-in swimming action of the bait is put to work. On one cast, there are multiple potential bites—an illustration of how the bait can be fished depending upon the situation.
As fall progresses, and water temperatures dip into the upper 40s and lower, it’s common for smallmouth bass to relocate in deeper water, particularly when forage fish such as rainbow smelt and young-of-the-year panfish are there too. Vibrating blade baits like Heddon Sonars, Silver Buddy and the Binsky Bait can all draw strikes from semi-dormant smallies from here.
Even in depths out to 40 feet (which is as deep as I care to catch smallmouth due to potential damage from pressure changes) blade baits are efficient as a search lure, considering the situation being fished. The deadly combination of flash and vibration let fish locate the lure and trigger both reaction and hunger strikes from smallmouth often surrounded by a glut of baitfish.
While blade baits can be fished horizontally, now’s the best time to go vertical, fishing directly (or nearly so) under the boat. If a light wind is present, use it to slowly drift the boat over the targeted area. If calm or windy, use the trolling motor, in the latter case motoring into the wind.
To work a blade (and I prefer the half-ounce size), allow it to free fall to the bottom. Once bottom contact is made, engage the reel. Then make a sharp, upward snap of the rod of about a foot, which not only lifts the bait but kicks in the vibration. Allow the bait to fall back down on a semi-tight line. Pause the bait for a few seconds before making the next upward jig. It also pays to occasionally pause and hold/hover the bait at the top of the upward snap. To check your depth, on occasion allow the bait to touch bottom to ensure you’re fishing the desired depth.
With blades, some strikes occur on the pause as the bait is slammed, whileothers are “just there,” the result of a strike on a falling lure. When fishing blades, opting for braided line can greatly help your search for late-fall smallies as its no-stretch quality helps you feel subtle strikes.
No matter which of these baits you choose, each is designed to help you find smallies. Fish them this fall.