Targeting Late Fall SmallmouthTargeting Late Fall Smallmouth Use these tricks and techniques from Clausen, Cousvis, and VanDam to help you put more fish in the boat!
By Jonathan LePera
In part one of this article, we looked at how early fall smallmouth relate to shallower water. Bassmaster Elite pros Luke Clausen and Jonathon VanDam as well as top Canadian stick, Nick Cousvis, are back at it for part two. They’ll weigh in on where smallmouth will stage before they head to their winter haunts and the best way to catch them once water temps begin to consistently dip well below 60 degrees.
For Luke Clausen, who will be fishing the Bassmaster Elite Series in 2016, the last weeks of August and beginning of September can provide an awesome topwater bite. He’ll comb the same productive summer areas trying to ring the dinner bell one more time. Either first thing in the morning or just before dinner, Clausen will seek out shallow aggressive smallmouth with a Megabass Giant Dog X in the GG Perch pattern. He will also have a jerkbait tied on. On some bodies of water, Clausen’s noticed that the bigger fish are the last ones to leave the shallow water-usually the first week of October. “You might only catch eight or nine fish a day but they’ll be better than average,” Clausen said.
From there, he rolls up his sleeves and gets ready to break a sweat casting crankbaits around deep vegetation. Of particular interest are areas that have cabbage weed in 20 feet of water but only grow 8 feet off the bottom. “A lot of people hit the bottom when they’re cranking, like for largemouth, but I fish over them,” Clausen started.
“I always want my crankbait to be several feet above the fish. If I’m fishing 15 feet of water, I have no problem throwing a bait that dives eight feet and I’ll work it the same way I do a spinnerbait.” His favorite crankbait is a Megabass Deep-X 150 in PM Setsuki Ayu, and GG Perch that he fishes on a Megabass Orochii XX Flat-Side Special rod and 12-pound Gamma Edge fluorocarbon. He swaps out the hooks that come from the factory and add #4 hooks with the biggest barbs he can find so those smallmouth cannot easily come unbuttoned. Clausen believes too much fuss is made about the colors of crankbaits. By far, the rate of retrieve is far more important when triggering bites.
Jonathon VanDam keys in on points that have real sharp drop offs on or nearby them. “You fish where it starts to flatten out near the bottom or on the top of it,” VanDam said. “They’ll either be there or on those breaks where those flats taper off and they meet a deep break that’s reel sharp and they’ll be on the top of that.”
VanDam quickly pointed out that it’s equally important to find fish as it is to find bait. He uses down imaging when running his Humminbird 1199 units because the view provides not only the best way to read bait, but he can distinguish the fish feeding within the schools. Come fall, smallmouth are notorious for hugging the bottom making it very hard to tell the difference between them with 2D sonar. With down imaging, the differentiation between them is unmistakable and an angler can clearly decipher whether they are seeing a rock on the bottom or whether it is a fish with its belly to the ground. When VanDam needs to key in on edges holding bait, his 360 imaging shines as it clearly decipher the contours and transitions in front of him. He’ll target similar deep-water areas throughout the year.
Fall can be tricky, especially when smallmouth are in the process of moving from their summer to their winter haunts. For many Elite pros who fished the AOY tournament at Sturgeon Bay, many struggled to pin down the mood or nomadic ways of a population of smallmouth who generally didn’t want to be found or bothered with.
“At Sturgeon Bay, they’d bite the first couple hours, then you’d get a bite an hour, and then between 1 p.m. and 3 p.m., you’d start marking fish again and they’d start feeding again,” VanDam said. Smallmouth are anything but predicable!
Sure VanDam still fishes a tube jig and dropshot, but when smallmouth become ornery, he digs out some of his winter gear and fishes a Silver Buddy or Strike King Rage Blaster on a G-Loomis NRX JWR 852C and a Shimano Metanium HG reel spooled with 10-pound Bass Pro Shops XPS fluorocarbon.
When he sees fish five feet off the bottom or less, he’ll drop a Strike King Dream Shot worm or Blade Minnow in green pumpkin and natural baitfish patterns. If they are any higher in the water column, VanDam will keep looking until he finds fish that are relating more closely to bottom.
For Nick Cousvis, the natural progression for fall smallmouth is to leave the shallows and move into their staging areas before they head for their wintering holes. For many anglers, they’ve never fished the 10- to 20-foot range, call it fear, lack of experience, or a general belief that smallmouth either live in super shallow water, or super deep.
For Cousvis, it’s all about intercepting fish going deep to shallow or visa versa. He fishes the transition area to sneak up on eager travellers. A jerkbait is used to target these smallmouth, but he alters his cadence to ensure the jerkbait hits its maximum running depth. “If I’m working a Vision 110 and I’m on a 2- to 5- foot flat, if I want it to go as deep as I need it to go, I’ll pop my rod tip down. If I want it to go 2- to 3- feet then pop my tip sideways. If I’m fishing the top of a rock pile, I’ll work the rod tip upwards,” Cousvis said.
He stresses the only way to get a jerkbait to hit its maximum depth is by slowing the cadence down and work the rod tip downward. Ultimately, if your bait isn’t being presented where the fish are, you are wasting your time.
‘The only time I don’t start my retrieve with a steady pull is when I know there are fish around. Then, I’ll drag it down for a second or two and start working it,” he said. “If I know they are sitting high in the water column, I’ll start working it as soon as it hits the water. With a Megabass Vision 110+1, I can achieve a maximum depth of 8 feet by working the bait with the rod pointed down, 5- to 6- feet with the rod at 9 o’clock, and 3- to 4- feet with the rod pointed at 9 o’clock. The slower you work the bait the deeper it will go.”
Anytime Cousvis is fishing any kind of sand/weed transition, he always throws a Megabass Vision 110+1. If he’s around any type of rock, he’ll never scale down his line diameter to 8lb test to make his bait dive deeper because he’s learned the hard way that smallmouth are far too intelligent for that. “The first thing they’ll do is drag that bait down and try and knock it out of their mouth by banging off of the rocks on the bottom or by dragging my line along them,” Cousvis started. “They are going down there and trying to pull the hooks out. To me, when the fish are aggressive and feeding, you can’t beat a jerkbait.”
There are days where throwing a jerkbait for smallmouth in cloudy weather has the same effect as kryptonite on Superman. “Smallmouth sit lower in the water column when it’s cloudy. Cloudy days are a jerkbait disaster,” Cousvis said. He’s had days where the sun was high, a ripple on the water, and smallmouth would be crushing his jerkbait. Once a touch of cloud cover moved in, it totally killed the bite, yet the bite fired up again once the sun moved back in.
Cousvis is quite particular about wind direction. “I don’t like where wind blows at a structure, they don’t seem to be as aggressive. If wind blows along side it, it works much better for fishing a jerkbait,” Cousvis said.
Once the water temps reach the high 40's to low 50's, most fish will slide into their wintering holes in the Great Lakes. Cousvis seeks out large underwater points and structures 30- to 55- feet deep and concentrates on edges where rock meets sand. He’ll use his Humminbird electronics to locate fish and upon doing so, he’ll punch a waypoint as a reference toward where he needs to direct his efforts.
A Megabass 3" Spark or Hazedong Shad in green pumpkin or real colors are his confidence baits. He will dropshot them on a Megabass Orochi XX Dropshot rod paired with 6-pound fluorocarbon rigged with a ½- to 5/8-ounce weight to get the bait to get to the bottom quickly and allow him to stay connected.
Once locating fish on his electronics, he’ll also drop a Megabass Blade X in ½- to 3/4-ounce weights. Gold and silver hues produce most everywhere. He fishes it on a Megabass Orochi XX Flat-Side bait caster with 12-pound fluorocarbon and a high-speed reel. Cadence is part of the deal, especially in cold water, and it’s definitely one of those times where less is more.
“Once I'm in contact with the bottom, I'll gently lift it off the bottom a foot or 2 and let it glide back down. No quick jerks, just easy lifts and 9 times out of 10, they'll hit just as you’re lifting the rod,” Cousvis said.
When the wind blows, sometimes it is difficult to hold on specific pieces of structure so Cousvis makes strategic drifts over rocky areas concentrating near the edges where it connects to sand. He’ll opt for a heavy ¾- ounce football head rigged with a tube or 4-inch Spark Shad. He starts fishing 15-pound fluorocarbon and will jump to 20-pound fluorocarbonif boulders and sharp rocks are present.
“When you're dragging your bait far from the boat, your line takes a beating and break offs are quite common. Using heavier line reduces the risk of losing fish due to break-offs. Fish don't seem to mind the heavier line anyways. A long rod and high speed reel are essential for good hook ups,” Cousvis said.
Luke Clausen has a Carolina rig at the ready despite finding no pleasure in throwing the rig! He’s found success throwing the rig too often to able to ignore using it. He reasons that the Carolina rig keeps a bait in the strike zone with a great deal of consistency. Whether he’s throwing it in the grass or dragging it behind the boat, he throws one bait, a green pumpkin Z-Man Turbo Craw with a do nothing retrieve rigged on an 4/0 offset wide gap hook.
While some anglers rig up a sinker, bead, swivel and leader, Clausen opts out of using a bead; plain and simple. Around grass, he’ll opt for a ¾ bullet sinker and an egg sinker when he’s fishing around rocks. He’ll use a reel with a 6:4:1 retrieve or quicker paired with a Megabass Extreme Mission Type F and run 16-pound Gamma Edge for his mainline with a 12-pound leader.
When it comes to setting the hook, most anglers completely drop the ball. “I like to point the rod at the fish and reel as fast as I possibly can until the rod starts to load up and sweep into it. A lot of guys get a bite, and they jerk,” Clausen said. “You don’t know that fish isn’t in front of the weight, so you need to get as much of that slack out as fast as you can. You can actually feel the fish fighting back already as you are setting the hook.”
When Clausen is fishing his home waters on the Columbia River, he’ll target rock piles or break-lines with rock in 20 to 30 feet of water. As the river kicks out a 2 mile-per-hour current, fish will use rock to hide behind and rest. Clausen finds the Carolina rig to be an efficient way to present a bait in strong current. He’s found fish scattered along break lines while some fish hole up on sweet spots. He’ll approach these areas as well as old house foundations from a 45-degree angle and to ensure the bait bounces along the bottom naturally.
If a dropshot is the deal, Clausen fishes a Z-Man Finesse Shadz in crash shad and blue steel that he’ll nose hook while fishing a Megabass Orrochi xx f3.5-70. If he’s fishing in a natural lake, he likes to shake the slack in the line to trigger the bites. The set up consists of 10-pound Tufline Tournament 8 Braid with a 6-pound Gamma Edge leader. A ¼ oz sinker is the lightest uses in current. 3/8-ounce is the norm when fishing a natural lake and he uses a 3/16-ounce sinker in water less than 25 feet.
Figuring out what the fish want is key. Clausen also works a tube along the bottom hopping it four or five times before bringing it back to the boat. He’ll fish a green pumpkin/black flake tube with a 3/8- to ½-ounce jig head. He hops the tube to create a commotion and attract aggressive fish.
He’ll fish the tube on a Megabass Orochi XX Shakey Head rod with the same braided line but opt for an 8-pound Gamma Edge leader. Clausen prefers this rod due to its parabolic action. Once the bite is felt he gets the line tight and pulls back while keep his drag light set on the light side. He tries to not horse the fish through the water because braided line has no stretch.
Fall is a great time to test your mettle against smallmouth. It is a given that these fish will be fatter during this time of the year than in the summer due to the fact they are feeding heavily for the winter. Using the tricks and techniques of Clausen, Cousvis, and VanDam might help you not only put more fish in the boat, but perhaps win your next tournament.
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