The Smallmouths Of Summer
September 24, 2010
If you are a fan of the smallmouth bass, your favorite time of year is here. From now through August, get your game face on!
Photo by Bruce Ingram
It's summertime and the livin' is easy. At least it is for us Northern smallmouth bass fans. While smallie anglers down in Southern states often give up fishing during the dog days, our smallmouthing stays doggone good all summer long. But you have to understand where the fish are at different times of the day or season.
Here's the skinny on how you can hit hot fishing from June all the way through August. Just be sure you have your game face on and you're ready to do battle.
TARGETING THE SPAWN
On most lakes, smallmouth bass are still spawning during the first half of June. This means the most active fish will be concentrated in areas with shallow gravel substrates. In some lakes, only a few shorelines or bays have suitable spawning habitat, and the other 98 percent of the water will hold few smallies. Obviously, you need to locate the spawning areas and skip the majority of water. Prime nesting sites are next to downed trees or boulders 3 to 8 feet deep.
After the peak of the spawn, bronzebacks will still be guarding their nests for a couple of weeks, but they likely aren't as aggressive as they were earlier. When the lake surface is flat, one good way to entice them is with a slow-moving and quiet topwater. Small prop baits are excellent. Fish the lure with short twitches of the rod tip so the lure makes a distinct "buzz" each time it moves forward. Pause four or five seconds between pulls. With this extra-slow retrieve, the lure remains over or near the nest for a long period, greatly increasing the odds of a strike.
Where the surface has a chop or spawning fish are widely scattered across shallow bays or along shorelines, medium-running crankbaits are the ticket for covering water. Choose a lure that will dive deep enough so it nearly reaches bottom, and work it with a stop-and-go retrieve.
When spawning fish are acting super-finicky, nothing beats the old reliable jig. Two types of jigs are particularly effective for this type of fishing: 3-inch grubs and similar-sized tube jigs. The tail action of the lure as it slowly falls really appeals to the fish, so use a very light jighead. Using the lightest line possible also helps, both to increase the number of strikes and to detect them better. An extra-limp and small-diameter monofilament is still my favorite line for finesse jig-fishing. Go with 8-pound-test if there's a lot of cover, or 6-pound-test for more-open water.
Fly-fishing is also a great way to catch spawning smallies. On a fly rod, you can use a quiet topwater like a Sneaky Pete in calm water. For a choppy surface, try a Big Blockhead popper. To tempt finicky spawners, my favorite fly is a slow-sinking olive or brown Rabbit Bugger. These and many other innovative fly patterns for specific situations are featured in my new book on fly-fishing for smallies.
Once smallmouths finish the rigors of guarding their young, they go into a sluggish recuperative mode. On many lakes, this post-spawn period often starts around the second to third week of June. This is the slowest fishing of the summer, but fortunately it's of short duration -- a week to 10 days long. One way to entice smallies during their "post-spawn funk" is to work deeper areas next to spawning sites. Dragging a small slider worm ever so slowly along the bottom in 8 to 14 feet of water invariably picks up some fish.
SUMMER IN THE SHALLOWS
After the smallies recover from spawning, they move to locations where they spend the rest of the summer feeding. For many fish, this means moving to offshore structure, which can be as deep as 35 feet.
However, midsummer smallmouthing doesn't always mean dredging the depths. On most lakes, there are also places where you can catch some bronzebacks in shallow water even during July and August. The previously productive shallow spawning bays and shorelines are probably devoid of larger fish, but rocky points extending into deep water and cover-laden shorelines adjacent to deep water are good. These shallow zones likely won't be hotspots at noon on sunny days, but during mornings, evenings and rainy weather some fine fish can be caught.
SMALLIES OFF THE POINTS
Long points that taper gradually into deep water are my favorite places to catch smallies in the shallows. Not every lake has these bronzeback magnets, but where they exist, they're consistent producers. When the light is the lowest -- at dawn or dusk -- fish the shallowest part of the point closest to the mainland. Buzzbaits and "walk-the-dog-type" topwaters are both excellent for this low-light bassing. When there is more daylight, work the deeper part of the point. While topwaters often continue to produce if the surface is flat, once the water is more than 6 feet deep, going to a subsurface offering is better. Thin-minnow crankbaits are great for working over the tops of points. Use minnow-colored plugs early in the summer and switch to crayfish colors -- gold or rust belly -- for the late-summer season.
On sunny days, smallmouths generally move deeper down the point within an hour after sunrise, so naturally I begin fishing by targeting the shallowest water first. I'm careful to ease up very quietly to those shallow areas, especially early in the morning when it's glass calm and fish are especially sensitive to any unnatural sounds. And because my boats are rigged for easy and quiet anchoring, I'll often stop at least 60 feet away and cast from there. Many times, I've seen anglers alert early-morning fish that were in the shallows by getting too close or making too much noise with their boat.
When it's dark and rainy, shallow-water fishing isn't just an early and late affair. During these conditions, you'll often find fish on the shallowest parts of the point all day. So don't fret about getting a little wet. Put on your rain suit, get out there and fish hard for as long as the rainy weather lasts. Topwater plugs or noisy surface flies will both work well if the raindrops are light, and spinnerbaits are the ticket if the drops are coming down heavy. Some largemouth-oriented bass boys like to use really big spinnerbaits for both bass species, but you'll often hook more smallies if you use lures with smaller hooks. Many 1/4-ounce spinnerbaits have hooks small enough to consistently hook 12-inch smallmouths.
The best blade color will vary depending on water conditions, light intensity and forage type, but a simple rule is to try silver earlier in the season and brass blades as summer progresses. Whatever spinnerbait you use, working it so it occasionally ticks bottom or bounces off a boulder is sure to increase your strikes.
While large points are surefire hotspots, certain kinds of s
horelines also have good summer potential, at least during low-light periods.
Banks where a lot of large trees have toppled into deep water are some of the best zones, but shorelines with other types of cover such as boulders, bulrushes, lily pads and other types of weeds will also hold fish. Just make sure the targeted cover is over a rubble or gravel bottom and the prospective shoreline is next to water at least 15 feet deep. A lakeshore that meets these criteria can serve up superb morning and evening fishing.
FLY-FISHING THE SHORE
Naturally, these shallow-water smallies can be caught with a variety of tackle, but I have to admit, working a bassy shoreline with a fly rod is the ultimate in angling enjoyment.
Once you get a handle on fly-casting, you can quickly and almost effortlessly lay a fly rod popper next to shoreline cover. You drop it lightly next to the log, rock or weed, then pop the fly several times. If there are no takers, you can pick up the fly and quickly deliver it to another spot with only a single fluid backcast. And when a brawny bronzeback engulfs the fly you'll be amazed at how hard it fights on the long rod.
One easy way to learn all the in and outs of fly-rodding is by reading the new book Smallmouth Fly-Fishing available from Smallmouth Angler at
FISHING THE MOUTHS
Another shallow-water location that can hold plenty of summer smallies is river and stream mouths.
Especially in oligotrophic or infertile lakes, incoming streams bring in the nutrients that attract smallmouth forage. If the incoming flow is substantial and the river mouth is at least 4 feet deep, some fish will be present all day long, provided the area isn't heavily disturbed by anglers. And while smaller stream mouths seldom hold fish during midday, in the mornings they, too, can be excellent. But stream-mouth smallies tend to be spooky, so it's best to stay as far away from the mouth as you can get and still make accurate casts. In-line spinners cast well and are sure-fire producers at these hotspots.
Actually there's also a type of lake where smallmouths can be found shallow even during bright, sunny conditions.
In heavily stained lakes, where natural tannins reduce the water visibility to only 3 or 4 feet, some summer fish will stay shallow all day long. While "classic" smallmouth lakes are deep and clear, there are some bodies of water that are relatively shallow with a lot of marsh drainage. This creates a low-visibility, dark-stained lake. It also means low-alkalinity water, and lower overall numbers of smallmouths than what a more fertile lake would hold. However, the predator fish in stained lakes are also hungrier than those in other waters, so when you find fish, they're easy to catch.
Covering water quickly with a very noticeable lure is the best way to catch stained-lake smallmouths. Target shorelines with plenty of cover and work the water with a fast-moving lure or fly. The spinnerbait's powerful flash and acoustic signature makes it an excellent subsurface choice. For topwater fishing, a 1/4-ounce buzzbait is hard to beat. If you're fly-fishing, try a Buzz Bomb on top, or a Lefty's Deceiver subsurface.
Of course, to consistently catch midday fish on a typical smallmouth lake during July and August, you'll need to head offshore.
In the mid- and late-summer periods, the majority of larger fish on clearwater lakes spend their days on deep-water points, reefs and humps. Points are easy to target, but offshore structure is trickier to figure out. Both reefs and humps are rises in the bottom surrounded by deeper water, but reefs can be quite large, several acres in size and extending hundreds of yards. Humps, on the other hand, are generally much smaller, sort of tiny underwater islands, sometimes barely 15 feet across. But finding and fishing this offshore habitat is well worth it, since a single large reef can hold dozens good-sized fish.
Naturally, accurately targeting this fish-holding structure requires a good map and depthfinder. Often the general outlines of larger reefs and humps can be identified by studying a lake map, and increasingly, maps mark some lake features with Global Positioning System (GPS) coordinates. In theory, this means a GPS-owning angler can simply motor out to a reef's coordinates. However, being able to precisely identify a reef's edges, various depths and different bottom substrates still requires a depthfinder. So learn to get the most out of your electronics. This is one situation where using it well will definitely pay off with more fish on the line.
Some of the best midlake structure often has a rubble bottom with few weeds or wood on it. Crankbaits won't snag unduly in these situations, and banging a deep-diving crank off the rocks is an excellent way to cover water and attract fish. Plugs with combinations of orange, gold and brown are pretty consistent, but under some conditions, fish preference leans toward chartreuse or silver. Other times, changing the lure's action or sound significantly improves your strike ratio. Some crankbaits have a wide, slow wobble, while others produce tighter, faster action. Be willing to try both types. The same goes with rattle and non-rattle baits. In lower visibility conditions, plugs with rattles often yield more strikes. However, where bass have been repeatedly exposed to "rattlers," quiet lures are usually better.
Whatever you use, work the top of the point/hump/reef first, then progress into deeper water. If your first choice of lures meets with only limited interest, be willing to experiment. At times that means switching to much slower presentation. Especially during cold fronts, tube-jigging an area might be the only way to really score. Slowly fishing almost any type of jig will produce a few fish, but a scented tube jig worked super-slow is best of all. After the lure hits bottom, let it sit motionless for at least six seconds. Then slowly move it just a foot or two and let it sit again.
MILK RUNS & WOLF PACKS
Perhaps the most consistent way to score with summer smallies is by establishing a "milk run." It takes some time to develop, but when you work up a good run it can pay off for years. The idea is simply fishing a series of locations at regular times during the day. It's one of my most valuable guiding techniques.
It goes like this. From previous experience you know a certain spot fishes best at a certain time of the day, while another location is better at a different time. So you start the day fishing the top of a point early in the morning. You exhaust that spot in about 45 minutes. You move on to another proven hotspot -- maybe to a slightly deeper reef -- then to another spot and another, until finally by midafternoon you hit your deep-water honeyhole. By having five or six or more proven locations to fish on any given day, you're very likely to find some -- perhaps many -- willing mouths.
One reason some locations are red hot at one time and stone cold a little later is because the smallies form "wolf packs" in that lake. In some extremely i
nfertile Northern lakes, forage is always low, so smallmouths adapt by hunting as a group of three to about a dozen fish. This helps smallmouths capture more of the lake's limited forage, because a fleeing baitfish may escape one or two of the pack, but not all of them. These roaming wolf packs often travel the same circuit offshore or along a shoreline. So if you figure out what time of the day a small pack or large school of smallmouths is likely to be at a given location, it can be a bonanza. Keep careful records of both where and when you catch fish. Over several trips you can often discover a pattern that will pay off in future fishing.
Smallmouth habits can vary greatly from lake to lake, and where the fish will be at different times of the day and season is always changing. So figuring out where they are at any given time requires constant investigation. This is just one of the reasons I find smallmouth fishing so fascinating and enjoyable. I hope you do, too.