Tips for Catching more Smallmouths this Season

With ice fishing coming to a close, there’s no better time to begin preparing for this year’s open- water season, and evaluating expectations for bass. If last season’s bass fishing was below average, consider applying better ideas to catch more. There are no shortcuts to consistently catching quality bass, but there are certain strategies and methods you can implement to improve your success. I often analyze my performance from the previous year and review techniques and strategies that worked and didn’t. I’ll then build upon the ones that worked with the objective they may be successful again for the upcoming season.

Here are tips for catching more and bigger bass:

Sunny delight
One common bass-fishing misconception is how much fish avoid the sunlight. It could be true for largemouths at times, but smallmouths, on the other hand, beg to differ. The majority of my good smallmouth fishing takes place on sunny days. Sunlight stimulates smallmouth activity and drives their feeding patterns. Because they’re visual feeders, they are most responsive in such conditions year ‘round. The sun makes smallmouths happy, regardless of depth.

Warmwater sources
Springtime brings warming weather and higher water temperatures. In return, abundant schools of pre-spawn smallmouths invade the shallows to stage for spawn. Specific lake locations that conduct heat are instrumental in scoring early-season success. The areas that warm the quickest are determined by underwater structure and a lake’s geography. Typically, shallow bays with exposure to the southern skies will warm the fastest.

When sunlight hits specific pieces of structure and reflects off certain bottom types, the surrounding area will bake and warm rapidly. I generally reference these areas as “microwaves.” Every lake that I fish for smallmouths is full of these unique spots. These are nothing more than natural heat conductors. Good conductors to key in on in early spring are shallow sandy spawning bays (north and east shorelines), sand flats, rocky shoals, and boulders, downed wood and windblown shorelines exposed to sunlight.

Besides natural lakes, I fish on rivers and reservoirs. Fish magnets in these environments are laydowns, boulders, rock fields, eddies and current breaks, underwater benthic zones (current breaks along the bottom), creek mouths and inflows and man-made riprap.

Camping out for bites vs. lake hopping
From spring through fall I sometimes spend my day fishing a single lake, waiting for activity and feeding windows to open. At some point, we’ve all been guilty of leaving the lake too prematurely in the day. While it’s difficult to predict good or bad fishing, this mistake may result in missing out on bites and happens in spring before giving sunlight a chance to warm the water.

One of the most important tools is patience. Waiting for feeding windows to open and movements to happen resulting from a weather change, lunar period or a water temperature increase, can lead to an amazing outing if you haven’t left the water to go elsewhere. Fishing that may have been poor hours earlier can be better with patience and persistence, and being at right place at the right time. Camping on a lake all day may not be the solution. I’m also a proponent on lake hopping, fishing multiple lakes in a single day, something also beneficial during summer. This strategy fares best when I have nearby lakes to choose from that can be fished within minutes. It maximizes fishing productivity, helps me stay on bites and makes the most out of my precious time.

Seeking mid-lake spawners
During the spring and early summer spawn, anglers should beat the banks looking for vulnerable nesting smallmouths. This is productive and challenging, and these fish receive pressure and get beaten up by anglers well before nesting concludes. In recent years, I’ve turned away from the shorelines and have put more focus on looking for spawners utilizing shallow mid-lake bars. I speculate smallmouths spawn in shallow open areas of the lake to evade angling pressure, can spawn unmolested and use habitat that’s readily available and has access from their wintering holes.

Smallmouths here tend to nest deeper, between 5 and 10 feet. Fish are often aggressive, angry and unconditioned, and I’ve taken them on mid-depth crankbaits and jerkbaits. Finessing for bites is needed in the shallows, but isn’t necessary out in the open because you’ll be combating the wind. This spawning behavior doesn’t take place on all lakes, but it’s worth trying if yours has this type of open-water structure. A good percentage of fish here are never targeted during spawn.

Summertime night fishing
During the dog days of summer, big smallmouths become creatures of the night. When nighttime calls and most anglers are asleep, the fish go nocturnal and feed. Deep-dwelling gamefish retreat from their mid-lake, open-water locations and cool-water sanctuaries and encroach upon shoreline areas and littoral zones in search of prey. On the many natural lakes and flowages I fish, smallmouths undertake this short-distance movement to feast on crayfish and unsuspecting preyfish and insects.

Beginning in mid-July and lasting throughout August, a unique feeding window emerges on some northern lakes. Lasting anywhere from four to six weeks, depending upon region and climates, I’ve observed more big bass feeding at night rather than daytime. Because crayfish movements and locations influence after-dark summer patterns, shallow-water environments in depths between 5 to 10 feet are ideal starting points. Usually, these shallow depths encompass luxurious crayfish cover such as laydowns and downed wood, fish cribs, gravel and rocky shoals.

At the nocturnal period, when most think smallmouths go dormant, loud surface topwaters and vibration-emitting hard baits score gargantuan bass that are feeding heavily. Focus on habitat-rich shorelines and main-lake flats known as crayfish and smallmouth feeding grounds. I meticulously cover these by power-cranking and fan-casting with loud rattling crankbaits such as the Rapala Crankin’ Rap 05 and KVD Square Bill. As my most successful nighttime smallmouth lures to date, I have found these crankbaits to possess the loudest rattles and widest, most compact vibration, both critical traits for triggering strikes at night.

Reacting and reciprocating baits on conditioned fish
Smallmouths don’t always follow our prescribed patterns faithfully; just because you’ve located them doesn’t always mean they’re apt to strike. They still must somehow be triggered. Throughout the year, the usage and reciprocation of hard and soft jerkbaits is a key tool, and one of my most effective, deadliest fish-catching presentations. It’s important to understand the nuances and situations for when to use both simultaneously. Selecting between a hard and a soft jerkbait, realize first that you’ll need both lure types followed by patience when prospecting for smallmouths. For me, finding them with these techniques often means speed in presentation with aggressive jerkbaits. I’ll then turn to more subtler, slower jerkbaits when I know I’ll be camping out at the spot and a nice concentration of smallmouths has been located

While a percentage of fish initially encountered will be aggressively feeding, a handful within the population is stubborn. As smallmouths grow conditioned and end up seeing multiple casts thrown their way, a number of them may refuse to strike or attempt to only push or nudge baits, avoiding hooks altogether. This is where I follow up with the soft jerkbait to clean house.

Equally effective for smallmouths—even better, depending on fish activity—soft jerkbaits in the fluke style can be fished with the same cadence as a hard jerkbait to draw strikes. It produces strikes from aggressive fish, but also triggers reluctant strikes from wary, conditioned fish. The soft jerkbait can catch smallmouths from the same spots where the hard bait blew past them moments earlier.

Outside-the-box presentations
I often keep 10 different rods and reels rigged and ready to combat most smallmouth presentations. In the rod storage compartment below, I keep an additional 10 wrapped in my Rod Gloves, ready to use if necessary. Though this excessive collection isn’t needed, I’m covered for most every possible bass-fishing tactic, and it suits my style. The diversity of my boat’s tackle selection has enabled me to become a more versatile angler, have open-mindedness for experimentation and enjoy the thrills of success with each new experience.

As new techniques and product introductions gain momentum and popularity, many have a habit of forgetting about lures and techniques that don’t get used. They also fail to utilize certain others that would be considered “outside of the box.” These may include lures designed for other species or largemouth bass lures that aren’t getting applied for smallmouths. Fishing allows us to express our creativity; the process of lure selection offers anglers creative outlets to expand upon the thought and ideas of acceptable presentations. Outside-the-box smallmouth presentations aren’t new, but what makes them special is most smallmouths aren’t conditioned to them.

Fishing on lakes that don’t stratify
The dreaded period of fall turnover leads to difficult fishing conditions and lock-jawed bass. Luckily, I’ve found ways to combat this problem thanks to the availability of lakes I have to choose from. Among the many are some that never stratify or develop a summer thermocline. Consequently, turnover doesn’t exist and the smallmouths can be excellent without biologic interruptions.

Lakes that don’t stratify are typically shallow bowl-shaped lakes and flowages that are shallower than 25 feet. Most are mesotrophic lakes with clear water and moderate fertility. Large reservoirs or natural lakes that have constant wind or a frequent current will not typically turn over either. On these waters, smallmouths can be concentrated in similar locations you would see in lakes that turn over, such as deep holes and the steepest breaklines. Being able to fish these lakes during the traditional turnover period of early October has been able to extend my bass fishing season, and allows me to fish shallower throughout fall.

Wind and water clarity
Bass anglers often complain about the wind, but they’d have a better tolerance for it if they knew how much it produces. The region churned up by waves attracts the lake’s entire food chain, from phytoplankton to baitfish to smallmouths. The reduced light penetration will also allow you to fish aggressively with crankbaits, spinnerbaits and jerkbaits in order to capitalize on a feeding frenzy. However, also take into consideration that smallmouths will still require good water clarity in order for these spots to be fished successfully.

When fishing Wisconsin’s super-clear smallmouth lakes, I prefer some wind, especially if it’s blowing hard enough to generate a 1-foot chop. I have confidence that I’ll catch smallmouths due to the lake’s food sources and cooler water temperatures being blown into these regions of the lake. Wind drives smallmouths into the shallows, making them easier to catch and oxygenates the water, which is a tremendous benefit during midsummer as it cools surface temperatures.

I often experience a major spike in smallmouth activity during a west and southerly wind. There’s nothing worse than winds out of the east or north, as these slow the bite. If it’s been slow fishing on the calm side of a lake, drive to the windblown side, as the bite can often be strongest there.

Mapping and cartography
Learning to fish a new lake for smallmouths requires researching the water’s ecological makeup including its topography, fishery and history. And by having an idea of the composition, you will have insight as to what the lake’s topography is and the type of bass fishery it may comprise.

In order to be successful at picking apart a new lake you must be good at reading a map and learning how to understand the readings produced by locators and navigation charts. Electronics are so good these days that even a novice angler can use modern electronics to find schools. But it’s the good anglers using them to their full capacity who are likely to be the most successful. GPS and topographic maps on fish locators have made finding spots and returning to them a breeze. Knowing your way around a new lake used to be a major ordeal. I grew up without this technology, trying to hold onto a paper map on a windy day to figure out where on the lake I was. Learning to understand and interpret your graphs will make you a more well-rounded and successful angler.