Finding Smallmouth Bass On New Lakes
By Richard Sims
Living in Ontario, Canada on the north shore of Lake Erie, has taught me to be versatile. I have not only learned to target largemouth bass in areas you wouldn't expect to find them, I have also learned to fish smallmouth bass as a main target fish in tournaments, and to fish other species with general expertise. While I still have a lot to learn, I believe I have learned enough about smallmouth to put together a pretty good pattern on a regular basis. Not just on Lake Erie, but on any lake that holds a decent population of bronzebacks. Hopefully with this I can help you too cash in on perhaps the feistiest of the bass species - the smallmouth bass.
Smallmouth in general are a tough fish to pattern. Lots of pros say you can't do it seasonally, as they are unpredictable roaming fish. And they are. They are heartbreakers to most in tournament situations as they tend to be "there one day, gone the next" type of fish. The name of the game is finding more than one productive smallmouth hole, and fishing them one at a time. But what is a productive smallmouth fishing spot? How do you know how deep to fish? Are they picky about colors and bait sizes?
A productive smallmouth spot will generally be slightly deeper water than the largemouth likes to hide in, or at least have quick access to deeper water nearby. Smallmouth usually travel in schools and follow the baitfish or potential baitfish holding areas. Anyone who fishes a river knows to look for current breaks near a deep hole, bend, or channel in the river. These are smallmouth hotspots. Well, these are hotspots in most lakes too.
For instance, while fishing for largemouth many years ago my father was drifting over weedbeds in 7 feet of water, casting spinnerbaits and fat crankbaits. His partner saw a particularly deep section in the weeds, cast to it and caught a hefty 5 pound smallmouth bass. My dad was quick to throw a marker buoy to that spot, and kept the boat in a position so they could both continue casting at the spot. Sure enough on my dad's next cast with a white spinnerbait, he got a 4 pound smallmouth. After they were sure they had "fished out" this hole, probably 2 hours later - they moved up to it to take a look. It turned out that this was a meteor crater which left an indent about 15x15 feet wide and 12 feet deep! This small depression was holding smallmouth in a flat area known for largemouth and pike fishing. This goes to show you that the deep water access is a necessity for big smallmouth bass.
Alright you say, just go to deep areas and start fishing! Well, no it's not that simple. While largemouth are largely cover oriented and will seek areas on structure with heavy weeds, docks or timber - smallmouth tend to find structure of more importance. This means areas like humps, points and channels. Find deeper humps, points or channels with some rock or weed cover on them - and you have a recipe for success.
The type of point you want to look for is preferably a rocky or sandy point that stretches from shallow water to deep water. Usually points, especially in river basins, will have one side that drops off much steeper than the other side. Smallmouth will often position themselves on the deeper edge of these points and ambush anything that ventures over top of them. I can't tell you how many times I have seen smallmouth chasing shiners or dragonflies near points like this early in the morning. With a cottage that I visit often on a Canadian Shield lake, I know a lot about ambush habits of smallmouth on rocky points.
I like to fish these points by positioning my boat 20- to 50-feet back from the deep edge of the point. I will cast my baits up onto the shallow side and run them back over the deep water, as this is what the bass are waiting for feeble baitfish to do. My preferred baits for this are topwater baits like Jitterbugs, buzzbaits or jerkbaits early in the morning and throughout the day on some days.
As daylight wears on a spinnerbait, deep diving crank, tube jig or jigging spoon usually do the trick. A lot of anglers overlook the jigging spoon, but they shouldn't! I have caught countless big smallmouth in areas on jigging spoons where others are using tube jigs or crankbaits. The trick is to cast the jigging spoon as close to the edge of the drop as you can, and simply let it sink, then jig it in, and reel up the slack until you get back to the boat. Try to keep the bait at the depth where the fish are sitting. If you don't know what depth they're sitting, try different depths until you get a fish.
The kinds of humps you want to look for are just about any hump in 8-25 feet of water, or deeper in the case of early spring/late fall. Humps with any sort of cover on them are definitely worth giving some time. For most hump fishing, it means vertical jigging of some sort. While you can get fish on baits like spinnerbaits and crankbaits if you put your time in, my first go-to bait when fishing humps is a tube jig, Carolina rigged plastic worm or a jigging spoon. I use my depthfinder to try to find areas where bass are holding, or where baitfish are holding. Always remember to fish different areas within the hump. Sometimes smallmouth will group tightly on one corner or edge of the hump because it is more oxygenated or blocks current. When you find fish on these humps, you'll likely get a bunch! I've never fished a hump where the smallmouth weren't schooled up.
When fishing channels on reservoirs or feeder creeks, you must fish it like it is a river. Since most all channels have current, you will want to look for subtle current breaks, or cover in the channel. Bends in the channel are obvious spots that most people will fish. I also like to fish areas where the channel is right beside a shoal or flat. This is especially productive in the spring when smallmouth are starting to spawn. When the water reaches 50 degrees, the bass will seek out that shallower, flat spawning type bottom to nest on. Sometimes areas of the channel will fill in or there will be sand bars on it. These are very important areas to key in on. Sandbars are a favorite for the smallmouth bass, and they will sit on the deeper side and await baitfish or other food to come down their way, right into their mouth!
This is my favorite spot to fish the ever so popular tube jig. Many people will simply drag it over the bar and let it drop into the deeper slack water behind it. This is a great tactic. But don't ever rule out anchoring and vertical jigging. This is also a great spot for a jigging spoon. And don't forget your crankbaits! Cast them up current and simply chunk them back. Active smallmouth will usually ambush the crankbait as it comes flying over the sandbar.
Hopefully with the tactics included in this article you can seek out smallmouth on new fishing waters, and put some good ones in your livewell. I still have a lot to learn about smallmouth, but these are the tactics that I have picked up. Remember to have lots of areas to catch smallmouth, because on some days they will be in a spot, but within days or even hours they can roam off of that spot in seek of new baitfish areas. They are efficient feeders, and are much more active than their large-mouthed cousin. Maybe that's why they're so muscular, and put up such a great fight on lighter gear! Whatever the case, give smallmouth a fair shot the next time you fish new water, and put these tactics in your arsenal.
Good luck, stay safe, and tight lines! Until next time, this is Rich.