Sharpen Your Savvy for Summer Smallmouths

Try these expert tips the next time you're on either a river or lake with the scrappy, acrobatic smallmouth bass.

by Bob Borgwat

Many Western rivers and reservoirs hold largemouth and smallmouth bass because they hold the habitat both fishes prefer. You might not find them in equal numbers on the same lake or river, but where habitat features include both cool- and warm-water environs, fisheries managers in several states have introduced smallmouths to provide expanded sportfishing opportunities.

When hooked, a smallmouth will jump acrobatically and dive powerfully. Pound for pound, they are one of the strongest fighters in all of freshwater fishing. Some anglers even consider it the king of basses.

Smallmouths vary from brown to bronze and their flanks carry dark-olive bars and a peppering of lime to yellow flecks. Unlike the largemouth, its upper jaw does not extend beyond the eye and the dorsal fin has a shallow notch between the sharp rays and the softer portion at the rear of the fin.

Smallmouths prefer clear water and are most active in 50- to 70-degree water where rocky outcroppings and steep banks, ledges, drop-offs and humps in lakes and rivers can be used to ambush small baitfish, insect larvae and crayfish. River current is usually no deterrent to their activity. In fact, river smallmouths spend a large percentage of their time in riffles that flow over gravel, boulders and bedrock, much as a trout will. And on reservoirs that experience rapid fluctuations in water levels due to irrigation drawdowns or power generation, smallmouth activity can step up markedly where deep-water eddies are created off points and humps.

Where smallmouths roam rivers in the West, their waters typically flow through fairly infertile drainages marked by rocky, volcanic soils. Their penchant for such environments is in part responsible for their comparatively small size - at least when compared to largemouths. Genetics certainly play a role, but the growth rate of smallmouths is also limited by the kind and quantity of forage they consume and the length of the growing season for the water they inhabit. This accounts for high numbers of fish in the 8- to 10-inch class. In infertile waters, it can take a smallmouth as long as four years to reach 9 inches long.

Big smallmouths do exist in the Pacific states. California's record bronzeback was pulled from Trinity Lake in 1976 weighing 9 pounds, 2 ounces. Oregon's 7-pound, 14-ounce record smallmouth came from Henry Hagg Lake, 25 miles southwest of Portland. And Washington's biggest, at 8 pounds, 14 ounces, was caught in the Columbia River's Hanford Reach.

Considered the king of basses by some anglers, smallmouths are known for their fighting ability. Photo by Bob Borgwat

During late spring and early summer, impoundments hold great opportunities for anglers to refine their fishing techniques for smallmouth bass. Smallmouths won't usually be in the shallow areas they used for spawning a month earlier, so anglers will have to slow their presentations of artificial lures, while bait fishermen must focus on structure.

As spring turns to summer, reservoir smallmouths grow more elusive and less active during the peak of the day, especially under sunny skies. Unless a late snowmelt keeps water temperatures lower than normal into June, early morning and late evening promise the best smallmouth activity. Good fishing action can be prolonged by cloudy skies and light rainfall.

Because smallmouth lures used among lake anglers are designed with the fish's forage in mind, the most productive lures imitate minnows, shiners, crayfish and worms.

"Oh yeah: plastic worms; shad-imitating crankbaits and jerkbaits; floating minnow-styled stick baits; shiner-like grubs, bucktails and tube baits; crayfish-imitating hard baits and soft plastics. These are all killer lures for active smallmouths," says Western bass angler Jim Miller.

Drop-shotting has become one of the hottest ways for fishing plastic worms, craw worms and flukes on steep, rocky banks. "You've got to leave behind the traditional ideas associated with Carolina- and Texas-rigging soft plastics," Miller said. "When you do, you'll discover that drop-shotting improves the placement of your baits in the strike zone and allows you to slow down your presentation so that even a reluctant smallie can't resist it."

The modern version of drop-shotting originated with Japanese ocean anglers and was adapted for bass fishing by their freshwater contemporaries: A 24- to 28-inch fluorocarbon leader in 6- or 8-pound-test is tied with a Palomar knot to the mainline; a tag end of main line a few inches long is provided at this knot for tying on a hook, which is cinched tight to the mainline. Tie a 1/4-ounce bell sinker at the line's end.

"Vertical presentation is perhaps the most effective method of drop-shotting," Miller adds, "because the tight line transmits the lightest of strikes. But you can cast against steep shorelines and walk it down. The advantage provided by the weight at the bottom of the line is that the 4- to 6-inch soft-pour worms and small flukes swim above bottom structure and grass."

Summer smallmouth fishing is best in rivers just after lake fish begin to refuse to bite. Smallmouths rarely transition from lake to stream; therefore, the bass in the rivers are resident fish and recognize the high feeding times that occur when forage is seasonally abundant.

"Smallmouths use riprap, boulders, standing willows and fallen trees as ambush points to strike the smolts," says West Coast river guide JD Richey of Sacramento, "which can be so thick at times that the smallmouths become open-water predators. You'll see them boiling at the height of the smolt migration. The best lures to imitate smolts are silver spoons and black-and-silver and blue-and-silver body baits, such as Rapalas. Just cast them to the bank and retrieve."

Summertime smallmouth fishing in Western rivers also is oriented to the river-worn bedrock ledges that provide hiding places and feeding zones. Or perhaps a fast bite is found where the quickened flow of water over a shoal or bar scours out a long, deep hole downstream.

"Bedrock in our rivers is frequently a result of the volcanic past of the Northwest, and it takes the form of 75 percent rock and 25 percent channel," says Terry Jarmain, whose work as a fishing guide on Oregon's Umpqua River frequently puts him in touch with smallmouths. "The volcanic bedrock creates great ledges because it was laid down in layers, and some layers are more porous than others. That means some of the rock has dissolved at lower levels and created ledges, even small tunnels."

Jarmain likes to slowly drop small plastic worms rigged on 1/16-ounce leadheads through the water column, slow enough to stay off any grass growing there before a smallmouth picks it up. Standard patterns include Tennessee shad, June bug, and tequila sunrise; the latter resembles the small lamprey eels in the Umpqua.

Fly-fishing, too, can produce outstanding smallmouth action. "Fly-fishing is frequently a matter of sight-fishing," Jarmain says.

Jarmain's all-around choice would be for a Girdle Bug, whose rubber legs provide plenty of wiggle, on a 2x long hook; sizes 2-12 are heavily wrapped with flat lead - "A lot of it!" Jarmain adds - to take the fly down through the river current. A floating fly line stalls the sink and suspends the fly just off bottom at the end of a 6- to 8-foot leader of 10-pound fluorocarbon line.

"Ya know - there's no logic in fishing," Jarmain says. "One day the smallmouths will eat a Girdle Bug with a brown body and orange legs, and the next day if the bug isn't black with white legs and a chartreuse tail, they won't touch it. But no matter the pattern, the Girdle Bug is the most productive fly for smallmouths that I've used in the past 10 years."

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