Few anglers forget the moment they first hooked into a smallmouth bass. Chances are they thought it was something bigger. The same thing can happen to someone who's caught thousands of them. Sometimes there's simply no way to judge how big a smallmouth is until it leaps several feet out of the water, providing an eye-level view of what you're battling.
You can't say that about many freshwater fish. When you set the hook on a smallmouth bass, it always feels heavy. The fish fight so hard that even a smaller specimen unleashes the type of power that borders on abnormal. Not to mention the aerial backflips and other evasive tactics it usually employs. Indeed, the excitement produced by a hooked smallmouth never seems to wane. The fish may run smaller than their largemouth cousins, but many bass anglers favor the bronzeback variety due to their tireless fighting ability and sheer acrobatic prowess.
Successful introductions of smallmouth bass into many reservoirs has extended the fish's range dramatically, as well as the number of anglers who pursue them. (Photo by Walt Tegtmeier)
Despite a well-deserved reputation as the pound-for-pound champion of freshwater game fish, the smallmouth's popularity among the angling population probably lags well behind largemouth, walleye, rainbow trout and channel cats. This is due, in part, to what was once a limited range compared to other popular species, especially largemouth bass. In the old days, smallmouth were pursued primarily by anglers in the North Country, upper Midwest and Northeast. The advent of large reservoirs across the Midwest and Southeast boosted smallmouth habitat and populations exponentially. Combined with successful introduction into non-native waters west of the Mississippi, the fish now inhabit practically every region in the United States and most of southern Canada. As a result, more and more anglers are discovering that the smallmouth bass is worth its weight in bronze.
When And Where To Find Them
Smallmouth bass inhabit clear natural lakes in the northern U.S., including the Great Lakes, as well as those in the lower latitudes of the Canadian Shield. They also thrive in rivers and streams wherever relatively clear and cool water exists at moderate flows, typically found in the Ozark, Appalachian and Blue Ridge mountain ranges, as well as many North Country flowages. Large reservoirs in the mid-South also support native or introduced smallmouth. In fact, some of the largest specimens found anywhere inhabit famous Southern lakes like Pickwick, Kentucky Lake, Dale Hollow and Bull Shoals.
Wherever they live, smallmouths are mobile game fish that can puzzle even the expert angler with their vertical and horizontal movements. In lakes, reservoirs or rivers, smallmouth utilize a number of different habitat options, making hard and fast location rules difficult to come by. But like largemouth bass and other warm-water game fish,
A warming trend can bring big early-spring smallies to the shallows in search of food and spawning grounds. (Photo by Ned Kehde)
smallmouth location can generally be patterned according to season.
Prespawn (40 to 60 degree F water temperatures)—Prespawn is a transition stage for smallmouth, when the fish emerge from their winter homes in deep water to venture out in search of food and spawning grounds in shallower water. Early prespawn movements can be characterized as feeding missions, while the latter part of the prespawn has the fish focused on procreation. Either way, when timed right, it is usually the best fishing of the year, especially for big fish. In natural lakes, smallmouth gradually move from deep-water dropoffs and reefs to gravel flats or rocky shorelines and flats exposed to the most sunlight or incoming water. Reservoir smallies will move from deep channel swings and vertical bluffs to more horizontal structure like flats, rocky points and riprap banks with the most sun exposure. In rivers and streams, the fish migrate from deep holes to wing dams, below riffles, feeder creeks and rocky shorelines with adequate depth and current breaks.Throughout the prespawn period, movements to the shallows or retreats to deep water depend largely on prevailing weather patterns. A stable-weather warming trend can trigger a mass migration to shallow habitat. The smaller the water, the quicker this move may occur, but the faster the fish will retreat to deep-water lairs when a cold front hits.
Spawn (60 to 67 degrees F)—Factors such as weather, sun angle and water level fluctuation play a large role in when smallmouth actually decide to spawn. For females, the period lasts only a week or so, but males will dutifully guard the nest until the eggs have hatched into independent fry. Spawning occurs in the shallow cover or structure elements where the fish ventured during prespawn, generally in 8 feet or less. Regardless of the body of water, look for calm, protected areas with gravel or rubble bottoms. Where legal (many states prohibit fishing during spawning months), catching spawning smallmouth can be feast or famine. Big females can be caught just before the final urge to lay eggs takes over but will ignore a bait during the act. Once their partners have left the nest, males can be easy targets due to their instinct to smash and move anything that approaches.
Postspawn/Summer (67 degrees F and above)—Once the spawning ritual is complete, females scatter to habitat at medium depths and resume feeding. Males join them after nest duties are fulfilled. As water temperatures approach their peak and weather patterns stabilize, the fish settle into a summertime pattern of feeding shallow, resting deep, and feeding shallow again, often at night. In small and medium size lakes, rivers or reservoirs, smallmouth often mirror their deep-to-shallow prespawn movements—only they go back and forth every day, making feeding runs to the shallows and beating the heat in deep water. In general, the fish are in a neutral to positive mode and fairly predictable, but most angler success will occur early and late in the day, at night, on overcast days or at the front end of a storm system.
Fall/Winter (55 degrees F and below)—When water temperatures decline in autumn, smallmouth generally spend more time near their typical deep-water haunts of summer and winter. The shallow-water feeding movements are more short-lived but also more intense. A warm, Indian summer day can have the same effect in the fall as a warm front in the early prespawn, and the fish will likely be in the same location. These brief but frenzied feeding forays produce great action for both size and numbers of smallmouth, almost as if the fish know that winter isn't far away. But as winter ensues, especially on waters that freeze over, smallmouth activity takes a serious nosedive. Location is usually restricted to the deepest water with available cover or structure, where the fish seek sanctuary for the next few months of cold water and infrequent feeding. However, in Southern climes, smallmouth may stay in a relatively active mode throughout the winter. They'll winter in areas with easy access to shallow, rocky areas that warm up quickly on sunny days, but with similar easy access back to the depths. This usually means a bluff or other structure that enables rapid vertical migration.
Day in and day out, jig-and-soft plastic combinations catch more smallmouth than any other artificials. (Photo by Jay Angel)
Many anglers mistakenly believe that smallmouths only eat crawfish. Though crawfish (or "crayfish" or "crawdads") are a key staple in their diet, smallies are as opportunistic as any of the black basses. Depending on the body of water, shad, shiners, ciscoes and other prevalent baitfish species can wind up on the dinner plate. They'll also gorge themselves on hatching mayflies and other insects at certain times of the year, as well as a variety of aquatic worms. It all depends on what's available in a given body of water at a given time of year. At times, aggressively feeding smallmouth will regurgitate prey when hooked, which provides a can't-miss clue as to what the fish are currently consuming.
Even when the food of choice isn't so obvious, it's critical to choose baits and lures based on an educated guess. Fish location can help dictate what lure, bait and presentation to use.
For instance, if the fish are shallow (6 feet or less), smallmouth are likely to be preying on anything from crawfish and small baitfish to insects, worms or hellgrammites. Here, a number of presentations are possible—shallow-running crankbaits, small spinners and spinnerbaits, top-water lures, light jig-and-soft plastic combinations, minnow baits, as well as surface flies, popping bugs and streamers. Starting with craw-colored lures, or a live crawfish hooked through the tail, is a good strategy that will typically put the odds in your favor. But don't hesitate to switch to lure colors that more closely resemble baitfish or other potential food in the area. A live minnow—either below a small bobber, on a jighead or a plain hook—will also catch its share of shallow-water smallies.
At medium depths, between 7 and 15 feet, lure selection narrows somewhat because the angle of presentation becomes more vertical than horizontal. Fish may be targeting either crawfish or baitfish, but unlike the shallows, other forms of prey won't be as readily available at moderate depths. This is where jigs with soft plastics—such as curly-tail, twin-tail and hula grubs, 2- to 3-inch tubes and craws—come into their own. If smallmouths are keying specifically on baitfish, a medium-running or lipless crankbait will often produce. Casting or drifting with live minnows or craws is another good tactic, especially when the fish are ignoring artificials.
When smallmouth are holding at depths of 15 to 30 feet or more, vertical presentations are the rule, and the fish are typically targeting only baitfish. Again, leadhead jigs and soft plastics are popular choices—the deeper the water, the heavier the leadhead. Often times this will necessitate a larger plastic body, but always use the smallest body possible. A chrome or gold-colored jigging spoon is another deep-water option, as is a shiny blade bait, which mirrors the action of a jigging spoon but with a slower, fluttering descent. Both lures trigger smallmouth strikes by producing the flash and flutter of a vulnerable baitfish. Of course, sometimes the real thing is tough to beat, so try hooking a large minnow through the back (dorsal fin) with a split-shot weight pinched 12 to 18 inches from the hook.
Smallmouths can be caught on tackle suited for largemouth bass, but most serious bronzeback enthusiasts downsize everything—rods, reels, line and terminal tackle. Most good smallmouth water, be it a natural lake, reservoir, river or stream, is clear to slightly stained in color. This makes a strong case for the use of the lightest line practical for a given situation, keeping in mind the presence of rocks, gravel and other potential line hazards. And light line generally calls for spinning tackle. Since even a 2-pound smallie can put a serious strain on light line, the smoother drag systems found on most spinning reels are a real plus. Another advantage of the spinning reel is the ability to back-reel during the fight, which enables skilled anglers to land enormous fish on very light line, without ever relying on a reel's drag system.
A good all-around combo for most smallmouth situations is a 6- to 6 -foot spinning rod matched with a medium-sized reel and 6- to 10-pound test line. This set-up will handle everything from jigs and minnow baits to spinners and blade baits. It will also allow for easier presentation of live bait. Bait-casting gear gets the nod for crankbaits, heavier jigs and jigging spoons, however. In either case, rods should be relatively light but with a fast tip.
Putting It All Together
Figuring out how to catch smallmouth bass isn't all that difficult. If an angler can determine where the fish are holding and which presentation(s) will fool them, smallmouth tend to be more cooperative than the other black basses, and certainly more so than finicky walleyes and trout. Similar to the largemouth, there are so many venues where an angler can pursue these spectacular fish. Whether it's the Great Lakes, an Ozark stream, a Tennessee Valley reservoir or one of the thousands of North Country lakes, smallmouth tend to inhabit some of the prettiest waters in North America. Whatever the scene, catching smallmouth bass is always an unforgettable experience, one that will keep you coming back for another round with freshwater's greatest fighter.