While big smallmouth bass are not exclusively the product of big water, there’s no denying that they are often found there. Two of the biggest waters, Lake Erie and Lake Champlain, enjoy the warranted reputation for producing “bubba-sized bronzebacks,” particularly in the fall.
Accomplished bass tournament angler Deron Eck is home on smallmouth waters of all types, but especially those of Lake Erie, where he’s amassed an impressive record, including top honors in an FLW American Fishing Series event. When September comes around, you’ll find Eck plying the rocky shallows of Erie.
“The fish will move into really shallow water during the early fall,” Eck noted. “The key depth is from 15 feet to as shallow as two feet, with boulders being the cover that holds them.”
While rocky habitat is common along Lake Erie shallows within the Eastern and the (eastern portion of the) Central basins, Eck is looking for larger boulders and rock flats, ones common at many of the creek mouths. This includes Four Mile, Six Mile, Eight Mile, Twelve Mile, Sixteen Mile and Twenty Mile Creeks. These streams enter Lake Erie east of the city of Erie, Pa.
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Eck uses side-imaging sonar to shorten the hunt for bass-attracting rock. Eck suggests running the boat in about 20 feet of water while scanning shallower water for points and boulders.
“Get on the 15-foot contour line and begin making long casts with a suspending jerkbait, lipless crankbait, squarebill crankbait, soft swimbait or spybait,” he said. “Seek out those isolated boulders. At times you’ll see baitfish surfacing in the shallows. When this happens, I’ve taken smallmouth on topwaters and spinnerbaits.”
The Achilles heel of the shallow-water bite is that it’s weather sensitive, calling for a calm day to be effective. Strong winds can roil the shallows, turning the water off color, temporarily shutting things down. When this is the case, it’s wise to move to structure located farther offshore. It’s worth noting also that the shallow-water bite is more of an early fall event. By October, bass will be moving deeper, regardless of the weather.
Seek out ledges with significant dropoffs, such as 15 to 22 feet, or 27 to 35 feet. Smallmouth tend to hold along these steep-breaking ledges. An area where such habitat is particularly abundant is located a few miles west of North East, Pennsylvania, which is located just west of the Pennsylvania/New York line.
Smallmouth bass on offshore structure respond well to drop-shot rigs and tube jigs that duplicate the round goby, an invasive that’s become top bass fodder. By using a football head (rather than a standard insert jighead) one can give a tube a goby-like appearance. The “Erie drag,” a controlled drift where you drag a tube or drop-shot rig with a goby imitation, remains a classic yet effective method for working these larger, offshore areas.
When the wind blows, and it often does on Erie during the fall, protected areas like Buffalo Harbor can salvage a trip. Smallies can often be caught in good numbers around the staggered rock barriers that rim the harbor.
Lake Champlain shares similar characteristics with Lake Erie, aside from the fact that both produce big, fat smallies. Both feature an abundance of deep, cold water, with bass using the available shallower habitat suited to their cool water/warm water character.
According to Captain Mick Maynard, a longtime guide on Lake Champlain, smallmouth bass are distributed throughout Lake Champlain, but some of the best habitat is found in the northern and northcentral part of the lake, roughly north of Plattsburgh, New York, and Colchester, Vermont. Maynard’s clients regularly catch smallies in the 3- to 5-pound range, with exceptional 5-plus bruisers showing up occasionally.
“Come September the weed beds start to die off, and that exposes baitfish in shallower water, making them more vulnerable,” Maynard explained. “So, smallmouth will start cruising up shallow.”
Maynard said that on a day-to-day basis, smallies will move into these shallow, deteriorating weed beds at night. He targets these fish first thing in the morning, preferring calm mornings when the topwater bite is on. Hot baits include the Bill Lewis StutterStep, Zara Spook and Whopper Plopper. He noted, too, that the best weed-bed flats are adjacent to hard-bottom areas, where the smallies also have crawfish on the early fall menu.
“After about the first hour, I expect the bass to move deeper, but they won’t be far,” Maynard noted. “We’ll start targeting areas in the 12- to 14-foot range, along points and reefs.”
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A favorite tactic for working these deeper zones is fishing vertically, yo-yoing a Bill Lewis Rat-L-Trap. Maynard said the dying weed-bed bite generally holds for about a month, tapering off around early October. However, good smallmouth fishing extends well into the fall, even early winter, though the patterns change.
“On Champlain, around the first of October we start getting winds, the temperatures drop more sharply, and the fish move deeper and to offshore structure, actually to the same basic areas that they use during the summer.”
As fall continues to progress, starting around the end of October, Maynard said smallmouth bass will have moved into the deep wintering areas that will hold them throughout the next few months. He continues to catch smallies as the water temperatures cool and drop through the 50s and 40s. Using deep jigging tactics during the late fall, he often catches smallmouth mixed in with walleyes.