Scoring Rocky Mountain Trophy Smallmouth Bass
May 31, 2012
I grew up with largemouth bass. Any early memories involving trophy fish include largemouth as a central focus. Yet it took only a handful of notable smallmouths from New Mexico's Gila River forks to completely change my perspective. Today, largemouth are amusing enough, but I choose smallies whenever possible. There's the long debate over which fights more doggedly, but those early red-eyes quickly settled the matter in my mind. Pound-for-pound, it's the smallmouth, period. Now that's settled, there's also the matter of aesthetics. Smallmouths live in prettier places — or at least from the perspective of a lifelong westerner drawn to mountains and clean waters where trout sometimes swim. Catching smallies is just part of the fun but, admittedly, a big part. Here's the best ways I've found to catch the heaviest.
On northern Idaho's renowned Dworshak Reservoir, where Gem State smallmouth records have fallen in recent years, it's a scene played out each spring and early summer. Timing's dependent on run-off and resulting water temperatures, but it's going to happen, as predictably as any government agency squawking about underfunding. Each spring, as water temperatures hit about 46 degrees, smallmouth bass congregate at the mouths of feeder streams and rivers. They appear in numbers and they're ravenous after a long winter of relative inactivity, making them easy targets for savvy bass fishermen. The best spots are predictably the most difficult to access; anglers hiking down the North Fork Clearwater River from Aquarius near Headquarters, investing in the long boat ride to reach Breakfast Creek. But don't discount smaller feeders, even those that slow to trickles with late summer.
It's really difficult to go wrong. Kids catch these winter-softened bass on worms offered to trout beneath bright bobbers. Just about anything in your tackle box is apt to catch these hungry fish. Still, I seem to have the best luck on trophy bass when using curly-tailed grubs on lead-head jigs — offerings remarkably small for the size of the fish sometimes encountered. I'll toss a 1/4-ounce jig into moving water at the cove head from an ultra-light rig, lighter line cutting deeper/faster, allowing the jig to bottom-bump into the first settling basin below. If I haven't received a take by then (rare), I gently twitch it back in short, jig-and-reel action. The takes are not subtle.
Now remember, any Rocky Mountain stillwater fed by active streams or rivers is a candidate for early-spring inlet action. It's not really about fancy technique, but simply being there. It can produce the fastest, most productive action of the season.
New Mexico's Elephant Butte is vast and spooky deep (sonar readings of 150 to 200 feet commonplace), a rocky desert lake sometimes reminding me of Baja's Sea of Cortez. Striped bass were once the main event, and the lake's largemouth population is certainly worth investigating. But what many fail to acknowledge is the Butte's huge smallmouth potential. Catching smallies in the 4- to 5-pound range is par, while bass up to 7 1/2 have been boated. Smallmouths are privy to a wide variety of foods here, crawfish large among them, but the mainstay is threadfin shad.
Combine the lake's seemingly bottomless depths, readily available rocky-cliff structure and shad and you've a winning combination for trophy bass. There are endless possibilities, from Kettle Top's plunging cliff, to the Jungle Gates' submerged rock walls, to the reaching points across from Marina del Sur — just to throw some names out. A guy could spend a month exploring possibilities. Here's the point — don't spend too much time on a single spot if it doesn't produce quickly. Keep moving, trying new spots and eventually you'll find that hotspot. The Butte's like that, lots of gorgeous water completely devoid of fish, other places apparently holding them all.
Securing bait is the first priority. Take a cast net and try coves on the south end of the lake, seeking shad "popping" in shallows. Securing an excess (and having a reliable bait tank) allows "chumming" appealing structure, tossing out a handful of live shad to test the waters. It's then just a matter of rigging a simple hook/sinker rig and sending it down along drop-offs and points, and remaining poised to set the hook on a violent take.
RUNNING WITH FLY-RODS
When it comes to smallies, don't discount running water — or fly-fishing. When I say this I immediately think of Arizona's Black River. Flowing out of the White Mountain region between Showlow and Globe, Ariz., it represents some of the best smallie water in the West. The upper Black creates the boundary between the White Mountain and San Carlos Apache Tribes, so fishing permits from one of these groups (depending on which side you approach from) are required, but the cost is reasonable.
The Black, like New Mexico's Gila River, is wild, remote water where bass in the 2- to 3-pound range are extremely plentiful, and occasional 4- to 6-pound bass come to those who fish diligently. Anglers here successfully employ standard-issue spinners and ultra-light plugs and live bait such as hellgrammites gathered streamside by flipping rocks, but I've experienced my fastest action while fly-fishing.
Flies simply allow more natural presentations and, in the case of sighted fish — common in such clear, unspoiled waters — teasing reluctant fish into striking. I use a 6-weight rod with floating line and 9-foot, 8-pound leader (waters here are full of tree roots and rock, big bass requiring some muscle). You'll need only two fly patterns in various shades. Crawfish patterns and Wooly Buggers in sizes 4 to 2 prove best, tossed to the whitewater at pool heads, allowed to tumble down into deeper holds before twitching them crosscurrent or crawling them along the bottom in calmer stretches. Fish all possible holding water, even the skinny stuff, but also pay special attention to undercuts beneath plunging cliff, and deep drop-offs where faster water sweeps overhead. In the latter, adding a few more split-shot allows flies to cheat current and reach more productive holds.
Again, don't hesitate to apply what I've related here to waters closer to home. Hook a 5-pound bass in flowing water and you're in for the ride of your life!
While largemouths are denizens of weeds and woody structure, smallies thrive in rocky environments. This makes waters such as New Mexico's Navajo Lake or Utah's Lake Powell, just as examples, smallmouth hotspots — there's little else in the way of cover available. And while weed and timber can make plug fishing a nightmare of snags and lost tackle, rocky reservoirs are ready-made for plugging success. Rocky points plunging into deeper waters, submerged reefs and islands of rock make ideal places to work plugs, starting with shallow runners to work the edges, switching to a big-lipped deep runner to prospect hidden ledges, shelves and caves, working even deeper with weighted "rattling" or "count-down" plugs. Also, in those highly common scenarios when sheer cliff meets deep water, don't discount the topwater plug for steady action; bounced right against rock faces, or worked parallel long rock points. Strikes can prove explosive, and I've actually witnessed days when topwater out-produced diving plugs.
I think the mistake most bait-casters make in regard to smallmouth is approaching plugging with a largemouth mindset. Mostly this means using plugs that are too big for consistent success. They continue catching aggressive "pounders" so never stop to question their approach, even when trophy fish remain elusive. Though it may seem counter-intuitive, bigger fish sometimes come by employing smaller baits — just something to keep in mind when experiencing a slow day. If big isn't getting the job done, try something smaller instead of bigger. Of course, plugs should imitate life, meaning crawfish in nearly all smallmouth waters I'm familiar with, though (as I pointed out in New Mexico's Elephant Butte) shad can prove the mainstay. In others, it might be sunfish.
As real summer progresses in northern regions or by June in most any Rocky Mountain waters, temperatures can soar and send smallmouth into deeper holds. Smallmouths, recall, are less tolerant of warm water than their largemouth cousins. How deep they move depends on the overall dimensions of the lake in question, altitude, and recent weather, but at some point during the coming summer you'll find inlets deserted by trophy fish, and typically productive points and walls giving up little action. It's time to go deep and the best approach I've found is depth-charging Berkley's 5-inch Gulp Leeches. These baits not only have unparalleled action with the slightest movement, but built-in scent that seems to inspire confidence in even the sagest trophy bass.
I don't lean too heavily on electronics when bass fishing, using my fishfinder mostly to assure I won't hit bottom while boating, but during warm summer months I start paying attention to what it has to tell me. I also pay close attention to structure revealed during low-water periods found in many reservoirs during fall months after summer draw-down, marking exposed islands of rock or sudden rubble ridges surrounded by otherwise deep water. These are places you'll consistently discover trophy bass when water temperatures rise — safe-haven structure surrounded by deeper, cooling water. For example, one submerged Dworshak rock outcropping, normally sitting in 90 feet of water in June (nearly visible by September) goes largely undetected by most anglers. Yet, I can always count on that small bleep on my depth finder to produce two to three stout smallmouths when inlets slack off.
I equip an 8- or 10-pound test spinning rig using a 1/0 worm hook (getting the hook point farther into the leech for automatic hookup) at the end of 18 inches of 6-pound fluorocarbon, a swivel holding a sliding weight in place above. In shallower water I might use a 1/4- to 3/8-ounce weight while employing the same worm rig, but in these deep-water scenarios I want to punch that leech past smaller bass holding higher and give the bigger trophy bass invariably well below a better shot at it. You'll lose plenty of tackle using heavier weights, but it's the nature of the beast. I buy hooks, swivels and sinkers in bulk for this reason alone. Beginners sometimes lose six or seven rigs in as many casts before getting a feel for it, heeding the subtle taps and jigging it off the rocks while walking it into lower holds. Strikes can also prove subtle (sometimes not), and an aggressive reel/pump is required for solid hookups at such depths.
I'm by no means a smallmouth guru, but these are the methods and gear I've used in various Rocky Mountain waters to catch my better smallmouth bass. Even though I live near some of the best trout waters in North America, I find myself magnetically drawn to hard-fighting smallies. There's just nothing else like them.