The warm months of summer are the perfect time to start, or continue, a long-term love affair with smallmouth bass. Few finned adversaries are as easy to locate, willing to strike, and enjoyable to catch as these bronze bombers, and their broad distribution from the wilds of Canada through the Deep South means that summer smallies are accessible to everyone. Here are some tips that will help your smallmouth trips meet with abundant success.
Rocks, rocks, and more rocks
You don’t need an advanced degree in fisheries science to recognize that smallmouth bass are frequently associated with rocks through much of the year. Rocks and gravel are the preferred habitat for some of the smallies’ most important prey items – crayfish and sculpins (or gobies in some bodies of water) – and predator fish are never far from their favorite food. This relationship between rocks and smallmouth bass is particularly strong during the summer months, as smallies congregate on the rocks after the spawn and remain there through much of the remainder of the season.
Not all rocks are the same, however, and as such, not every rockpile will be equally attractive to bronze bass. On lakes, I look for offshore rockpiles that top off at 3-5 feet of water, have a reasonable shallow surface that might dip as deep as 8-10 feet, and then provide quick access to deep water. During prime feeding periods – low light, strong wind, or both – smallies will congregate right on top, as they cruise, chase, and corner bait in rock crevices. Less active, yet still catchable fish will loiter in the slightly deeper water, while inactive fish will typically slide off the rocks and sometimes suspend in nearby deep water.
On rivers, I look for rocks that are impacted by moderate current. Depth is not nearly as important as current speed in a river, and active smallies can be found quite shallow if the flow is just right – especially as summer wears on and water temperatures rise. Rip-rapped shorelines are a great place top start your river smallie hunt, as are wing dams found in larger, navigable rivers. In smaller rivers, look for rock points that protrude from shore into the flow, or outside bends that have a combination of rock and fallen trees to concentrate summer smallmouth.
Hook ‘em up!
My approaches to catching summer smallies are relatively simple. I select a presentation based on what I perceive the mood of the fish to be, based on weather conditions, time of day, and quite often, how many fish I’m seeing on my electronics or with my eyes as I survey the rocks.
When the wind blows or the sun is low in the sky, active smallies are likely to be found very shallow – on the tops of rocky reefs in lakes, on top of the wingdams, or right along the shore in rivers. Now is a great time to work a topwater bait, which really gets their attention and provides some exceptional entertainment for anglers of all ages. Classic poppers like Chug Bugs are smallie magnets, as are more contemporary offerings like the Rapala Skitter Pop. More subtle offerings, like the old school Rapala Jointed Minnow are also excellent choices, and perfect for beginners.
During the midday hours, or when I’m seeing large numbers of fish hovering in the middepth range, I fish Ned Rigs almost exclusively. It seems that few smallies can resist a Z-Man Finesse TRD rigged on a 1/10 oz Pro ShroomZ mushroom jig head. There’s no wrong way to fish a Ned Rig, but frequently, less is more when it comes to imparting action to the lure – the less you do to it, the more fish you’ll catch. Cast it out, let it sink to the bottom, and then slowly hop, skitter, and swim the bait all the way back to the boat. The Finesse TRD Blue Craw color pattern has boated smallies for me everywhere I have fished it, and I’m sure it will do the same for you.
When the bite is tough – bright sun and still wind, or post-frontal conditions – I’ll not too proud to turn to live bait. Up here in the north country, my favored bait is a big, squirmy leech, which can be fished on a light jig, or suspended beneath a slip bobber. Yes, some bass purists will turn up their nose at live bait, but I’ll guarantee this: if you’re out with your kids or grandkids, they won’t care what you’re catching fish on, as long as they come over the gunwales at a quick pace. When you know you’re going to be faced with a tough bite, don’t forget a few leeches for insurance.
Summer is here and smallies are ready to roll – enjoy the chase!