Skip to main content

Finding Smallies on Big Water

Pros reveals secrets to locating the better smallmouth in huge northern lakes

Finding Smallies on Big Water
Finding Smallies on Big Water

Fishing deep northern lakes for smallmouth can present the proverbial feast-or-famine scenario. Erie, St. Clair, Ontario, Champlain; these all-stars, along with many other brown fish favs, offer vast ranges of productive bottom structure. It all looks "fishy," but quickly comes that ageless question: "Where to start?"

No doubt, a lot of fishing often comes down to a lot of looking, and while the shallow migration of spawning season puts lots of fish in more predictable locations, the rest of the year finds them scattered across the lake's deeper structure. Investing sufficient search time is assumed, but the ill-prepared can float for hours and produce little or nothing. Fact is, every boulder and break may look like it could hold a herd of hefty smallmouth, but the real gold mines are hardly random. There's usually a clear reason why certain spots produce best.

Consider these tips from veteran smallmouth tournament anglers:

The mark of success


On a past outing on Lake Ontario, EverStart Northern Division pro Joe Lucarelli's graph showed a large boulder rising several feet off the bottom. Pointing to a handful of heavy marks, he noted his preference for quality over quantity.


"I want to see two to three good hooks (on the sonar), because the bigger the fish, the more color you have in the hook," Lucarelli said. "If you see two or three hooks, there's obviously more fish down there, you just didn't see them when you drove over them. But if you see a ton of fish on the screen, there's only so much bait for these fish to feed on. 

"It's like deer hunting where you can only have a certain amount of deer in a square mile because there's only so much habitat for those deer to feed on before they run out of food. It's the same thing with fish. I'd rather have a couple big smallmouth consuming bait than have 25 2 1/2-pounders mixing it up amongst themselves."

Subtle detail

Canadian fishing legend and TV host, Bob Izumi, knows that with countless acres of similar bottom, big smallmouth gravitate toward the spots of subtle differences. Izumi calls them "hooks" and these sharp turns in a lake's rocky bottom can lead him to smallmouth bonanzas.


"There are so many break lines out there that can hold fish, but it's important to find the broken rock on the graph," Izumi said. "I rely on my Lowrance graph 100 percent. I'm constantly looking at the graph. If I mark a fish - even one or two - I sit on them and try to catch them for five or 10 minutes and then I move around with the electric motor.

"It's really like sight fishing in shallow water, only you're sight fishing with your electronics. You just mark them and work them. They're not all biters down there, but when I'd start marking balls of baitfish, I'd stick in the area. If you mark a couple of hooks near a school of baitfish, it's usually a done deal."


Check out this gallery:



Look around

Lucarelli has found some of his best smallmouth action on isolated rocks far from the more obvious spots of larger scope. Idling the rocky outskirts of an offshore island, or a large reef system, he'll monitor his Humminbird 998c with his beams set at 80 feet on either side.

"You can't beat that side-imaging when it comes to finding fish on the Great Lakes," Lucarelli said. "These lakes are just so vast, it just saves you so much time. If you can determine if the fish are on rocks or other types of things, you can duplicate that over and over again."

Deep thoughts

Izumi suggests looking beyond the obvious and fish for the heavier smallies that many anglers fail to locate. Noting that he has pulled the rare 6-pounder from a wad of 2's and 3's, Izumi said he typically expects to find his better smallies segregated from the lesser fish.

"Those bigger fish sometimes tend to be off the edges," he said. "What I find is that if you're getting numbers in 20-24 feet of water, drop down into 30-32 feet or even deeper because those bigger fish tend to sit off the big schools."

N.Y. pro Lawrence Mazur takes that concept a step farther. When Mazur won the 2011 EverStart Northern Division tournament on Lake Erie he targeted an area of chunk rock and boulders in 52-70 feet of water. The late-August event found air and water temperatures remaining warm, so Mazur worked the outer edge of targetable structure.

"It's the last piece of structure before it gets out into really deep water," he said. "As you get further down the lake, you get into 130 feet of water and there's not that much structure out there. The bait's not going to go out into that deep water and cruise around, so it just hangs out there. The smallmouth just follow that bait and hang in that structure."

Action indication

When Lucarelli dropped a tube to a cluster of rocks in about 24 feet, it didn't take long for a frown of consternation to indicate our forthcoming departure. It was just the lack of smallmouth bites, but also the absence of Goby activity. This invasive species has expanded widely throughout many northern lakes and they like to nibble at the fringes of tubes meant for bass.

"I'm just not getting the goby bites here - that's gotta mean something," he said. "Those (smallmouth) are not out on the rocks because they think it's cool. They're there because they want to eat. So if the bait's not there, then the fish aren't going to be there.

"There's nothing better than throwing a dropshot and you feel the tap, tap, tap, tap, tap, tap and all of a sudden the tapping stops and then you have that one (big) bite and the rod just loads up. That's the gobies drawing attention to your bait, a smallmouth coming over to your bait, the goby getting out of there because he doesn't want to get smoked and then you catching the smallmouth."

Hit 'em quick

Once Izumi locates his fish, he won't risk losing the opportunity. Like most, he relies primarily on a dropshot for his deep smallmouth pursuits, but Izumi quickly ushers his rig into the strike zone with a 5/8- to 1/2-ounce tungsten weight. The advantage is twofold. First, heavy dropshots punch through the often rough water to reach bottom in short order, while the beefy weight stabilizes the rig to help maintain the essential vertical presentation when windy conditions keep the boat bouncing.

"It's really important to drop on them and not have a light weight that slowly falls," Izumi said. "You want something that'll get down there and almost hit them on the head."

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Recommended Articles

See More Recommendations

Popular Videos

G Loomis NRX Rods

G Loomis NRX Rods

Whatever the target species, these rods feel good in the fly shop when you're giving them a test drive.

Abu Garcia Zenon Spinning Reels

Abu Garcia Zenon Spinning Reels

New to the North American market comes the 'world's lightest spinning reel.'

Humminbird CoastMaster - A Closer Look

Humminbird CoastMaster - A Closer Look

Patterned after Humminbird's LakeMaster charts for freshwater anglers, CoastMaster charts bring the same features for salt anglers. CoastMaster delivers unrivaled nearshore and offshore fishing performance.

Minn Kota Raptor

Minn Kota Raptor

Associate Brand Manager Adam Knowles, from Minn Kota, talks with Rob Neuman from In-Fisherman, about the all-new Raptor shallow water anchor.

See More Popular Videos

Trending Articles

Almost anyone can catch a bunch of small catfish. Hooking a true monster requires a different level of preparation, skill and effort.A Time for Giant Catfish Catfish

A Time for Giant Catfish

John N. Felsher - August 24, 2020

Almost anyone can catch a bunch of small catfish. Hooking a true monster requires a different...

The colder waters of early spring are prime times to use these proven bait rigs for stripers.3 Proven Bait Rigs for Stripers Striper & Hybrid

3 Proven Bait Rigs for Stripers

J.B. Kasper

The colder waters of early spring are prime times to use these proven bait rigs for stripers.

Sight Savvy: Different styles of bow sights each have their strengths—and weaknesses.How to Pick the Right Bow Sight for You Bows

How to Pick the Right Bow Sight for You

Tony Hansen - August 25, 2020

Sight Savvy: Different styles of bow sights each have their strengths—and weaknesses.

The National Shooting Sports Foundation provides places to start.Are You a New Hunter Looking for Help? Hunting How-To

Are You a New Hunter Looking for Help?

Adam Heggenstaller - August 19, 2020

The National Shooting Sports Foundation provides places to start.

See More Trending Articles

More Stories

As the official zone maps of Pool 8 were handed out for the Championship Round of the 2016 Summit Cup on the Mississippi River, the six finalists scoured the maps like scratch-off lottery tickets, hoping their numbers would come up big.Past Experience Squashed by Fishing Zone Boundaries for Championship Stories

Past Experience Squashed by Fishing Zone Boundaries for Championship

Rob Newell, MajorLeagueFishing.com

As the official zone maps of Pool 8 were handed out for the Championship Round of the 2016...

Editor's Note: Our popular Camera Corner features reader photos and stories from successfulPamela's Story: A Memorable Fly Fishing Encounter Stories

Pamela's Story: A Memorable Fly Fishing Encounter

April 28, 2017

Editor's Note: Our popular Camera Corner features reader photos and stories from successful

When an angler has thinking time—like now—interesting thoughts come to mind.Sheltered in Place: I Miss My Boat-Ramp Friends Stories

Sheltered in Place: I Miss My Boat-Ramp Friends

Tory Mansfield - April 10, 2020

When an angler has thinking time—like now—interesting thoughts come to mind.

Cabela's agrees to be bought by Bass Pro Shops in a deal valued at $5.5 billion that will combine the top two hunting and fishing retailers in the United StatesBass Pro Shops 'Reels In' Cabela's with $5.5 Billion Deal Stories

Bass Pro Shops 'Reels In' Cabela's with $5.5 Billion Deal

Abhijith Ganapavaram and Sruthi Shankar

Cabela's agrees to be bought by Bass Pro Shops in a deal valued at $5.5 billion that will...

See More Stories

Magazine Cover

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save

Digital Now Included!

SUBSCRIBE NOW

Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services

PREVIEW THIS MONTH'S ISSUE Arrow

Buy Digital Single Issues

Don't miss an issue.
Buy single digital issue for your phone or tablet.

Buy Single Digital Issue on the Game & Fish App

Other Magazines

Special Interest Magazines

See All Special Interest Magazines

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Phone Icon

Get Digital Access.

All Game & Fish subscribers now have digital access to their magazine content. This means you have the option to read your magazine on most popular phones and tablets.

To get started, click the link below to visit mymagnow.com and learn how to access your digital magazine.

Get Digital Access

Not a Subscriber?
Subscribe Now