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The 1-2 Punch for Smallmouth Bass

Throw reaction baits, then switch to finesse setups for smallie success.

The 1-2 Punch for Smallmouth Bass

Having several lure options rigged up and ready to go will help you take advantage of the bite when it’s hot. (Shutterstock image)

With the rise in water and air temperatures in June, so does the activity level of smallmouth bass, and this is the time when anglers can put together a one-two combo of reaction baits and finesse tactics to put together a successful day fishing for big bronzebacks!


In the early summer, smallmouth will begin to feed actively on top. This happens for several reasons. One: They are hungry following spawning, and baitfish make an easy meal. Two: If those smallmouths are transitioning from their spawning grounds to their early summer locations, they’ll be cruising looking for that opportunistic feeding window. A topwater plug provides just that.

Two styles of topwater baits that are popular for targeting smallmouth bass include a popper and a walk-the-dog-style plug. Poppers like the Storm Chug Bug or Arashi Cover Pop are two go-to baits for Bassmaster Elite Series Pro Seth Feider.

“Without a doubt the best time of the year to fish a topwater for smallmouth up north is June, and pending the water clarity, I’ll select either the Chug Bug or Cover Pop,” Feider says. “If the water is clear, I’ll go with the Cover Pop, as it’s silent, and if the water is stained or I’m fishing a river with current, the Chug Bug gets tied on, as it is super loud.”

When smallmouth are more hesitant to come up and attack a topwater, the soft side-to-side cadence of a plug like a Zara Spook is a great bait choice. A bait like this can be cast well ahead of the boat as to not alert cruising smallmouth to your presence, and the walk-the-dog action will call smallmouth in to strike from great distances.

Suspending jerkbaits have developed into many anglers’ go-to lure for smallmouth, especially on bodies of water where those fish will suspend in the water column. This is because anglers can fish them in numerous ways, and they can keep the bait in the effective strike zone for an extended period of time.  

There are a multitude of jerkbaits on the market for anglers to select from, with each having its own unique action and sink or rise rate in the water column.

“Over the past few years, the Rapala Shadow Rap Deep Shad has become my favorite jerkbait,” Feider comments. “It casts easily, it offers the bass a unique action, and I can work it shallow or deep, depending on the angle of my rod.”

The angler’s choice of line used will have a huge effect on how the chosen jerkbait runs. If fishing a suspending jerkbait or dead-sticking bait, fluorocarbon like Seaguar TATSU is very helpful in achieving the desired depth for the bait. For pound test, 12- to 15-pound test on a casting rod is common, with 8- or 10-pound test being used on a spinning rod. The strength of line an angler selects depends on the depth of water he or she is trying to achieve with the bait and how pressured the bass are.

Another great way to target open-water smallmouth and search out that active school is with a soft-plastic swimbait rigged on a jighead, as it does a great job of replicating shad. The size of the jighead will be dictated by the depth of water being fished, and what depth the bass are sitting at in that situation. If they are sitting close to the bottom and the bait is down there as well, a jighead heavy enough (3/8- to 3/4-ounce) to put the bait at that same depth will be needed. Likewise, if the bait and bass are suspended, using a lighter jig (1/8- to 5/16-ounce) allows anglers to target that depth with ease.

If the goal is to cover water and experience one of the most bone-jarring strikes an angler can experience, fishing a spinnerbait is a great idea. With a double willow-leaf configuration, the bait puts off lots of flash, thus emulating fleeing baitfish and getting a smallmouth’s attention from great distances.

I like to use a spinnerbait that is 3/8, 1/2 or 3/4 ounce in size, pending the depth of water I’m fishing. Generally, I’ll tend to use a 1/2- or 3/4-ounce War Eagle Screamin Eagle. It allows me to use a heavier-weight spinnerbait, so I can make long casts, but the bait retains a smaller profile (a 1/2-ounce bait is the size of a standard 3/8-ounce bait) since the weight is molded on the shaft of the hook.


Regardless of which of the above tactics was used, after locating that active school of smallmouth feeding in open water or pinned down tight on a piece of underwater structure, consider turning to the second piece of the combo: a finesse tactic. Many times, this allows anglers to dissect and catch multiple smallmouths off that spot.


When smallmouths are close to the bottom, they either aren’t very active or are holding tight to bottom cover that’s holding the food they are eating…crawfish. In this situation, it’s hard to beat dragging something along the bottom.

Regardless if I’m choosing an All-Terrain Tackle Football Jig or a Swing-Head Rock Jig, I’ll select the smallest size weight I can get away with based on water depth, current and wind. By using the smallest size jig, it helps keep the jig from falling in between the rock and getting hung up. On the back of these jigs, I’ll use a small crawfish-imitating bait that mimics the color pattern and size of the crawfish that the bass are eating.

For many smallmouth fishermen, there’s no better way to target these fish than when they are visible on electronics, next to a big boulder, and the angler drops a drop-shot down to them and watches them eat the bait. This video game fishing is an extremely effective technique to catch big smallmouths that likely won’t chase down reaction baits.

When smallmouth fishing guru Jonathon VanDam is looking at structure and smallmouth below his boat, he sets up his electronics so that he’s assured to see the smallmouth.

“I’ll set up my Humminbird HELIX units with the dual beam transducer,” VanDam explains. “That way, when I’m fishing around grass, the MEGA Down Imaging will help me see the bass in the grass or underneath a school of perch.”Selecting the right hook when drop-shotting not only depends on the size plastic you are fishing, but also the cover and type of water body you are fishing.

“If I’m nose hooking my soft-plastic bait, I’ll use the Trokar Drop Shot in a size 1, but if I’m fishing in cover or in current, I’ll bump it up to a 1/0 Trokar Finesse Worm, as it will increase my hookup ratio,” VanDam states.

Whether they are feeding on top or down in the depths of a deep, clear water lake or current-filled river, smallmouth bass can be targeted in a wide array of ways. Having several lure options rigged up and ready to go will help you take advantage of the bite when it’s hot.


As tournament bass anglers have found, an organized tackle box is key to maximize time and efficiency on the water. The quicker it is to find the exact hook size or drop-shot weight needed, the easier it is to rig up — thus, more fishing time.

Pro angler Seth Feider suggests Lure Lock plastic cases. He points especially to the proprietary gel coating on the bottom that keeps “hooks and expensive tungsten weights stuck in place.” Because of this, he says he doesn’t have to worry about “hook points rubbing on each other and dulling” or paint chipping off his tungsten weights.

Many anglers will use several small tackle cases like the LL3 from Lure Lock to create cases for specific terminal items or technique-specific situations. A case can be assembled for drop-shotting, for instance, with all necessary drop-shot hooks and weights. Then, when a re-tie is needed, the angler can grab that labeled case, rig up and resume fishing much quicker.

With a systematic organizational approach like this, it’s also easier to track the inventory.

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