Summer Smallies on Overlooked, Creative Presentations

Regardless of how much we know about bass fishing and the methods we employ to catch smallmouths, the tackle industry and the world of bass fishing continues to evolve.

The status quo and modern mainstream techniques rule the minds of bass anglers. As new techniques and product introductions gain momentum and popularity, many anglers 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.

The success we have with our favorite lures and technique-specific methods depends on conditions, fish location and habitat. At the front deck of my Ranger, 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 I feel 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.

Fishing allows us to express our creativity, but outside-of-the-box smallmouth presentations, though not considered “out of the ordinary,” aren’t being utilized by smallmouth anglers today. The fact that they produce fish and aren’t popular should come as a surprise.

Jigging Rapalas
During the heat of summer, I turn to jigging lures to catch bass from deep, open water and along the deep edges of mid-lake rock bars. I began using Jigging Raps by accident while walleye fishing on the deep, clear and cold lakes of northern Wisconsin. Since its first accidental catches, I have regularly caught suspended smallmouths from open water as deep as 40 feet.

The Jigging Rap is no secret to ice and walleye anglers utilizing it for vertical jigging and pounding the bottom. The Jigging Rap emulates the erratic characteristics of wounded baitfish and can be both jigged vertically and casted and worked along the bottom with a snap and jerk retrieve. It’s not an everyday lure, but one that’s worth keeping in the boat.

Carolina-rigged flukes
Throughout the Great Lakes smallmouth fisheries, bass anglers have applied Carolina rigging concepts with soft plastic minnows to catch fish from these perch-, alewife- and smelt-rich waters. Very few smallmouth anglers are using the C-rigged minnow on inland waters. The Carolina-rigged fluke is a virtually weedless presentation that maximizes both the coverage of water and expanded strike zones. It fishes best along deeper weedlines, sparser cabbage beds, weed openings, larger pockets and sand grass. It can additionally be used around deep structure and drift-fishing large flats.

With anywhere from a 1/8- to 1/2-ounce egg sinker, or Lindy No-Snagg weight running along the main line separated by a bearing swivel with 18 to 24 inches of 12-pound fluorocarbon connecting you to the hook, a suspending fluke has never looked more realistic in the eyes of big smallmouths. Rigged weedless on a 2/0 Eagle Claw TroKar HD worm hook, the 4-inch GNUGEN Live Minnow, TriggerX Minnow and 4 1/4-inch Flukez by Stankx Bait Company have all received their share of big bites these last few seasons from smallmouths.

Swim jigs
Another set of presentations anglers aren’t utilizing enough are swim jigs and ribbed paddle tail swimbaits. This presentation is fished best with slow swimming retrieves and several rips in between, giving smallmouths the effect that the bait is in distress and evading, dropping down into the abyss of weed growth and the rock habitats they dwell near. A few swim jigs I’ve enjoyed swimming through cabbage beds are Terminator’s 3/8-ounce Swim Jig rigged with a 4-inch Kalin’s Lunker Grub and Jonn Graham’s handmade Warrior Jigs, also at 3/8 ounces rigged with 3- and 4-inch Big Hammer Swimbaits and Stankx Bait Company Damzel. With swim jigs, the importance and success of the technique lies upon the lively swimming action of the trailer and main color scheme of the skirt.

Compact swimbaits
Soft swimbaits catch smallmouths as well as they do open-water largemouths, but few guys still use them when it comes to smallmouths from lakes and rivers. However, I don’t fish my swimbaits for smallies anywhere in or near open water; it’s always done while casting for structure and cover-oriented fish, and during the summer and fall when fish are using weedlines to ambush perch and other baitfish during their seasonal migrations.

Some of the best swimbaits I’ve used are quite simple, affordable and well detailed to represent baitfish and other prey fish. I recommend checking out the Storm WildEye series of swimbaits. They come in packs of three to five in pre-rigged models and accurately represent the real thing. I cannot tell you the amount of smallmouth bass I’ve caught with their Shiner and Yellow Perch colors.

Downsized muskie bucktails
Quite often, muskie anglers fishing inline bucktails catch giant smallmouths by accident. Since 2011, I’ve spent a significant amount of time on various Wisconsin flowages and river systems catching smallmouths on muskie bucktails on purpose or by accident. I won’t attempt to convert you to try muskie fishing, but I highly recommend upsizing your tackle to accommodate these downsized blades that can be fished successfully in rocks, wood and weed beds. By using a bucktail, you can catch some of the largest bass in the entire system.

The most common types of bucktails I bass-fish with are single- and double-bladed models in size 5, 6, 7, 8 for blades. All are single, treble-hook lures made from marabou, hair, silicone skirt material, and flashabou. Some downsized muskie bucktails I catch smallmouths with are Mepps Musky Killers, Musky Mayhem Showgirls, Llungen Lures S-8 and LT-9 and Toothy’s Tackle Tidbits. The bigger smallmouths pound on them frequently during summer.

Twin tail grubs
Yesterday’s angling generation experienced the advent of the twin tail grub. From there, several variations of twin tail-style grubs with tentacles, appendages and skirts evolved into what’s become known as spider or hula grubs. Because of this, we seem to have forgotten about the original twin tail grub, a simple bait that spawned several variations. Displaying characteristics of crayfish, twin tails have become my best producers in recent years on lakes and rivers because they are capable of matching the profile of a bottom-scurrying crayfish. Additionally, they give conditioned smallmouths a downsized presentation, most effective during the spawning season and periods when crayfish are most abundant along lake and river bottoms.

Topwater floating minnows
The Original Floating Minnows from Rapala and Rebel Lures are some of the oldest, most effective fishing lures in history. One such trick I’ve learned is how to fish them as a topwater.

I was introduced to this method during a 2014 late summer trip to Rainy Lake in Ontario. Fellow smallmouth aficionado, Johnny Amato, illustrated the effective manipulation you could give to the minnow with the proper light action rod and line.

What I observed is twitching the Rebel Floating Minnow across the surface is a good way to get exciting topwater strikes when presented with calm conditions. Through midsummer, this simple surface minnow presentation works well on calm mornings and evenings around open-water areas where smallmouths are busting schools of baitfish on the surface. When it’s calm, smallmouths will see and hear subtle surface baits from a distance—bite-sized minnows like these draw them in.

Sculpin and goby imitators
In the Great Lakes, one of the most abundant smallmouth forage species is the invasive round goby. These small, 2- to 4-inch bottom-dwelling fish lack a swim bladder and are always confined to the lake’s bottom, utilizing the same rock habitat as the smallmouths.

Several tackle manufacturers have created goby imitation tubes and plastics to match the hatch. When fished properly, the goby imitating plastic is deadly. What many are unaware of is that the goby’s cousin, the native sculpin, flourishes in many of the lakes and rivers we fish. Most bass anglers still don’t know of their existence outside of the Great Lakes, which is why I’ve taken goby- and sculpin-imitating plastics and swimbaits to my inland waters of the north.

Paddle tail plastics such as the Stankx Bait Company Gobius Drop Swim 3 1/2-inch Sultress and Poor Boys Erie Darter baits are made for dragging and hopping by jig as well as drop-shot. Meanwhile, the Stankx 4 1/2-inch Gobius—a hand-poured replica with an internal weight system—and Storm’s WildEye Goby excel when swum along the bottom.

Weightless amphibians and reptiles
Frogs and lizards are never considered top options in smallmouth bass fishing. But these reptiles and amphibians are forage items in lakes and reservoirs where smallmouths use shallow weed growth and vegetation. Frogs and weightless lizards are great to retrieve across the surface because almost nobody fishes for smallmouths with these and smallmouths haven’t been conditioned to them.

There are the main frogs to consider: Poppers, such as the Spro Bronzeye, soft- and hollow-bodied frogs, such as the Stanley Ribbit, the Stankx Bait Company Buzz Frogz, Zoom Horny Toad and YUM Buzz Frog.

Many of today’s surface topwaters have been designed under the frog influence. It’s a special feeling and unique fishing experience to catch smallmouths on a soft plastic surface presentation that more accurately resembles the living creature, which nobody is doing.

Strolling and trolling
Strolling is a slow-jerk trolling tactic performed with jerkbaits and deep-diving hard baits. This technique involves the use of your bow-mount trolling motor and precision boat control and speed to artificially present your minnow-imitating plugs. Speeds typically run between 1 to 2 mph, and frequent rod snaps add an erratic action for triggering followers to strike. Electronics and GPS allow for necessary accuracy to determine the smallmouth’s depth and location, which then helps choose the best bait to target them.

Slow-trolling for smallmouths became one of last season’s best techniques. It grew in popularity among my circle of friends after Wisconsin finally legalized trolling on its inland waters. My good friend Cory Painter experimented with the technique on his home waters of the Madison Chain in Wisconsin. On Lake Mendota and Lake Monona, smallmouths frequently scatter and roam throughout the open- water regions and along deep milfoil weedlines in depths as great as 25 feet. Strolling the Rapala Shadow Rap 13, Painter was able to efficiently cover large expanses of water throughout summer and fall, minimizing the time needed to locate fish. Once individual fish were located, he was then able to focus on the general area near his waypoints for additional fish. The technique was successfully replicated on many other smallmouth waters following its breakout in Madison.

The process of lure selection offers anglers creative outlets to expand upon the thought and ideas of acceptable presentations. The outside-of-the-box smallmouth presentations I’ve shared aren’t new, but what makes them special is that most smallmouths aren’t conditioned to them. With an open mind and willingness for ingenuity, consider putting these 10 ideas in your new bag of tricks.