Scoring Summer Smallmouths

Editor’s note: we asked Andrew Ragas to offer up some great places to fish smallmouth bass in his northern Wisconsin stomping grounds, which he is doing in a two-part series in MidWest Outdoors magazine. The where-to tips start with spring and summer, in the June, 2015 issue. Then, Ragas gives up some great fall smallmouth lakes in the August, 2015 issue.
Meanwhile, we asked him: “after we get to one of your favorite lakes, can you tell us how to catch summertime smallies on those waters?” Turns out he’s a very nice guy and loyal to MidWest Outdoors readers, because here are his best how-to tips for catching summer smallies on classic Wisconsin waters.
And here’s the kicker: these tips will help you in other places smallmouth bass live, in similar classic smallmouth habitat.
Go get ’em, and let us know how you do in the comments below!

Wisconsin is a great state for catching smallmouth bass. There are plenty of good lakes and they’re managed well, so the table is set for you. Excellent fishing can be had spring through fall, but the most challenging, rewarding, and consistent fishing of the season takes place in summer.

Where I fish, on the inland waters of Vilas, Oneida, Iron, Price, and Forest Counties, I am blessed to have hundreds of lakes and rivers to fish where big smallmouths are caught frequently.

Finding summer smallmouths
Good populations of smallmouth bass are present in most places. Nearly every productive smallmouth lake I’ve fished contains clear to moderately stained cola-brown water, and features a habitat composed of sand, rock, gravel, wood, and some weed growth that is mostly occupied by pelagic baitfish and other juvenile fish.

Traditional smallmouth lakes during the summer season offer deep and cool water. However, the best lakes contain depths of everything from shallow to deep, and somewhere in between.

Some of the best waters possess a maze of transitions from shallow to deep, and underwater contours. Examples are shelves, dropoffs, rock bars, sand bars, sunken islands, trenches, and fields of boulders. Any time you are faced with a lake offering all of this, it will be a smallie paradise. In my opinion, lakes offering too many specific spots to fish in one single day are the places worth spending time on.

Although smallmouths are present in most lakes containing the aforementioned variables, big water and lakes larger than 1,000 surface acres are places that will usually contain bigger fish, and substantial numbers. Smaller lakes, 50 to 200 surface acres, might not receive much fishing pressure, but lake size and available habitat are the limiting factors conspiring against big fish being present. One of the most common axioms in fishing is that big water grows an abundance of big fish. In the case of smallmouth bass, this goes undisputed.

Choose a lake, study the map, find some likely smallmouth spots, and time to get busy with some summer fishing.

Summer strategy
In summer, there are two characteristics I look for, that will lead me to good fishing: Depth, and water clarity. I head to the clearest and coldest waters I can find. When you get there, your depthfinder will help find deep suspended fish, and good spots.

Gin-clear water intimidates anglers, driving them away from some of the best smallmouth waters. However, smallmouths are more catchable in such water than you think. In fact, in summer, smallies are actually easier to catch from clear water than dark, often striking baits from great distance.

Smallmouth are adept visual feeders that are most active in sunny, daytime conditions. Most anglers believe that low-light, overcast days are best on clear bodies of water. With smallmouths being more active during daytime, and most responsive to sunlight and in a happier mood as visual feeders, don’t let water clarity prevent you from catching. This will work to your advantage if choosing the proper lures, presentations, and colors. Due to the smallmouth’s keen eyesight, anglers must disguise their lures and alter their approach, which calls for finesse and matching the hatch.

Keeping your baits looking as natural as possible, in appearance and movement, is the trick to catching fish consistently. Scaling down with natural baits that have the abilities to match the hatch is a technique I favor in clear water. Strike King coffee tubes, YUM craw bugs, Kalin’s lunker grubs, and Bass Pro Shops’ Tournament Series Caterpillar Grubs on a minnow head, and jigworms fished with ⅛- to ¼-oz. heads, will usually do the trick. Additionally, power-shotting and 4-inch soft jerkbaits in fluke style are effective too. Natural colors representing crayfish and baitfish such as black, brown, pumpkin, sand, smoke, motor oil, and white are excellent choices, as is a natural more subtle approach to working the bait such as swimming, dead sticking, and dropping.

If you’re not adept with soft plastics on a jig, consider power fishing techniques. Ripping jerkbaits, burning crankbaits and spinnerbaits, crawling a Carolina-rigged soft plastic, and popping or walking a surface topwater will score giant fish as well.

In most lakes I fish, smallmouths often feed along deep secondary dropoffs, which might be in 10 to 20 feet of water. In some lakes, these secondary breaks can be deeper, sometimes substantially deeper. These areas tend to have 45-degree angled slopes and they’re easy to find by observing the lake’s shorelines and upland banks.

On such lakes, you will also find smallies shallow during dusk, after dark, and even, at times, under post-cold-front conditions.

Additionally, smallmouths also tend to move offshore and spend a lot of their time on – and suspended off of – deep structure. Anglers perceive these fish to be more difficult to catch, but that’s because proper techniques and mindset aren’t being applied. In order to catch these deeper fish, patience is the key word. And fishing slower and methodically with the techniques highlighted above is the necessary tactic.

Clear water results in spookier, more wary fish. Look deeper during daytime hours, keying on the structural elements described earlier, for the cover, food availability, and cooler water temperatures. On these lakes, don’t be the bank-hugging guy fishing the shallows, for they hold fewer fish, that are also more difficult to catch.

More than anything and often overlooked, smallmouths mainly use deep water as an invisible source of cover. Meaning, they can hide in darker, deeper water and still ambush prey by trailing open schools of ciscoes and smelt. To find open water fish, modern fish locators and boat electronics are incredibly useful.

Don’t let clear water and depth frustrate you. These two characteristics are the keys to good summer fishing. Follow this simple guide and be prepared to fish slower, subtle, and stealthier. Unlike anglers, I doubt smallmouths read articles, so chances are you’ll have the upper hand and a better clarity for succeeding in summer.