Believe it or not, in June smallmouth bass are going through three distinct life phases. Here's how to fish all three.
By Tim Holschlag
Talk about different experiences! Last June a smallmouth angler called me raving about the fantastic fishing he and a pal had just experienced. Then, only a week or so later, another guy e-mailed me lamenting how absolutely terrible his fishing was.
On the same lake and just days apart, but the fishing experiences of these two men were dramatically different. What's up with that?
Actually these very different experiences are common with June smallies. Here in our region, smallmouth bass often go through three very distinct biological phases during June. And understanding what the fish are doing at any point in time on your local water is a key for angling success. Let's take a detailed look at these June phases and see how best to fish each.
THE SPAWN PHASE
When water temps reach 60 degrees for a couple of days, most smallmouths in a given body of water start spawning in earnest. The males fan out a nest, females lay their eggs, and then males guard the eggs and fry. The peak of this spawning period often starts in late May or early June, and can last a couple of weeks. And no question, this period often offers excellent fishing. However, just hitting the peak time isn't enough; accurately targeting the prime spawning habitat is essential.
In many waters the best banks are no more than 5 to 10 percent of a lake's shoreline. Look for gravel shorelines ranging from 3 to 8 feet deep, especially those at the north end of the lake, since they warm up the quickest.
Downed trees and logs along those shorelines are the very best locations, but large rocks also offer some nest protection. Some fish will put their nests next to boulders.
Small, isolated bays with the proper bottom material are good as well. They are protected from the strong waves that can churn up shorelines in the main basin. Other spawning hotspots often overlooked are tributaries of a lake. These incoming streams, including even small creeks, often have favorable gravel substrates and some smallmouths will travel upstream 5 or 10 miles to use those spots.
These streams likely require an angler to use a small craft like a kayak, or do his fishing on foot, but they can pay off handsomely. One small spawning tributary I like to fish doesn't have many fish for the first mile upstream of the lake; the bottom is all sand. But then there are two miles of rubble and gravel substrate, and several dozen smallies spawn there every year. I use a kayak to squeeze down the stream and then I get out and work prime spots by wading. Some big fish come out of those very small waters.
After targeting the right habitat, the next issue is using the best techniques. For a short window of time, often just a few days, spawning fish will be extra-aggressive and will move 5 feet to strike even fast-moving crankbaits or topwater lures. So that is the time you can really cover water by moving along a shoreline at a moderate speed. However, during the majority of the period, fish are much less eager and a much slower, more focused presentation is needed. A lightweight jig or plastic bait slowly falling, or a quiet topwater barely moving over the fish, will tempt the less-active bronzebacks.
During an average June, the majority of male smallmouths will be done with nest guarding within 12 to 17 days from when they start. That can vary from lake to lake, but generally starts earlier in the southern part of the state. The spawn phase also takes longer in large, deep lakes and is over sooner in shallow, warmer ones. However, a general guideline is this: If the water has been at least 66 to 68 degrees for several days, most fish will be through spawning and will leave their nest areas.
They often are just a little farther offshore in 7 to 10 feet of water, but their nest-guarding instinct is gone.
I call this period the "Post-Spawn Funk" and it is a resting/recuperative phase when most smallies are very inactive. In many lakes the phase occurs about the middle of the month and may last a full week.
Fishing is tough during the "funk," but working slightly deeper water near spawning shorelines with crankbaits will yield fish. Other post-spawn locations to try are the mouths of incoming creeks. These always seem to draw a few fish and working those spots with slow-moving plastics or jigs will produce action.
Another way to beat the post-spawn period is by moving to a slower-to-warm body of water. Lakes that have a really deep main basin often warm slower, and so fish can be on a spawning schedule that's a week later than in a warmer lake. Therefore, if it's possible to shift from one lake where the spawn is over to one where it's still occurring, you can avoid the slow-bite period.
THE GUIDE'S TIPS
Dan Johnson, a guide with smallmouthangler.com, offers this tip for enticing those challenging post-spawn smallies. "Focus on a shoreline that had a high number of spawning beds (many of these empty nests should still be visible along the bank). Move out to where the depths drop to 10 feet and slowly move parallel to the bank. Use a medium-sized fat-bodied crankbait that dives to at least 8 feet. Work it with a medium speed retrieve and give it regular rod tip twitches followed by 2-second pauses. Pay attention for strikes during the pause. This is good way to provoke extra-sluggish fish." — Tim Holschlag
EARLY SUMMER FEEDING PHASE
Fortunately, the post-spawn recuperative period doesn't last too long on many bodies of water, especially if the weather stays warm and water temps quickly rise. In many places, by the last week of June smallmouth metabolisms will have shifted into a feeding rather than resting mode.
It doesn't happen to all the fish at the same time, but increasingly smallmouths will start feeding and the bite will improve significantly.
In fact, on some lakes this phase can produce one of the best times of the year for taking sheer numbers of fish.
Bronzebacks are thin and hungry from the rigors of spawning, but summer food sources are still low. Best of all, some will be along easy-to-target shorelines, especially those spots with lots of boulders or downed trees. And other fish will start moving offshore if the lake has a lot of rocky reefs, points and humps. One simple rule of thumb is to fish the boulder banks during mornings and evening, and shift to the farther-out spots during midday.
But waters with lots of shoreline cover should have some fish along the banks even during midday. Some fish will be smaller, and so the average size likely won't be as high as it is during the spawn. But even 12-inchers are power packed and there should be some big bruisers among the mix. A 4-inch fluke twitched along the cover is deadly, and 4-inch finesse worms are killers when you want to fish a little slower.
Rocky points that aren't too far from the bays or shorelines where fish spawned are some of my favorite early summer locations. Smallmouths seem to move to these areas a little before they move to deeper mid-lake structure. The low light of mornings and evenings are excellent times to fish, of course, but midday angling can pay off if you work the deeper end of the point. The old reliable tube jig hopped down the edge of the point is deadly. The boat staying in position so you can thoroughly work depths of 15 feet or more is important, and so will require a good anchor or an extra-strong trolling motor if winds are significant. And when fish are extra-deep (20 feet or more) and winds are strong, using a simple vertical-jigging technique with a 1/4-ounce jighead and a 3-inch grub body is effective.
Releasing smallies at any time is essential for us to maintain a quality fishery; a quick release when fish are spawning is required to aid in the survival of the fry. Those tiny fish are the future of our fishing.
Video: Tactical Change For Big Smallmouth Bass
Doug Stange shows how using the right lure and retrieve get the job done on a days' worth of smallmouth bass fishing.