Ontario Bass FishingLargemouth & Smallmouth Bass Fishing Techniques
Scoring BIG on Summertime Smallies
While spring makes way into summer, a certain anxiousness is felt throughout the angling community. As that first topwater cast shatters the calm surface, or the first pop of a leadhead jig connects with a boulder, smallmouth hunters congregate on their favourite waters to do battle with the majestic bronzeback. Although largemouth are still high on my “sought after” list, it’s the aerial acrobatics and hard runs of the smallmouth bass that really quicken my pulse, and keep me launching my boat day after day throughout the summer months. With the proper knowledge of the preferred habitat, the right equipment and the most productive techniques, “smallies” will win their way to your heart, and to your net too!
Unlike their cousin the largemouth, which prefer shallow, weedy areas of the lake, the preferred habitat of the smallmouth is largely rocky areas. The common ingredient that cause smallmouth to patrol the rocks is due to the source of their primary forage food, the crayfish. Smallies love crayfish, and that’s why 9 times out of 10 you’ll find smallmouth in areas of the lake that hold healthy populations of crayfish.
Most lakes are filled with rocky-bottomed areas, yet there are a few that generally will hold more, and bigger, fish. Islands are a good place to start, due to a number of different reasons. Islands are like “fish magnets” to bass because of their ability to draw in large numbers of forage foods. Any structure area amongst a large expanse of a lake has the ability to do this, provided the bottom composition is ideal. By that, I mean rocks, pebbles and boulders, all in varying shapes and sizes, with a handful of weed and sand thrown in for good measure. If you can find all of these key ingredients, you may just of stumbled upon the motherlode. Islands are one of my top choices to fish during “wind and wave” days, especially the side that’s getting the worst of the elements. Wave action crashing into the shore of an island has a dual impact; first it washes in insects and bugs, which causes the minnows and baitfish to feed heavily, which in turn, causes the smallmouth to move in for an aggressive feed. Although it may not seem the most comfortable conditions to fish in, it definitely may be the most productive.
Rocky shorelines and shoals also provide excellent habitat for the smallmouth bass. Early morning periods will find smallies patrolling the shallower shoreline areas in search of food, providing an excellent opportunity for the angler to intercept them. As the sun pushes higher into the sky, many of these fish will retreat to the safety and comfort that deeper water provides. Many early morning periods will find me fishing in relatively shallow areas, and, as the day progresses, will see me move deeper as the fish do themselves. Shallow shorelines and shoals are also dynamite evening and nighttime haunts of big smallmouth. As the moon starts to rise, the fish move in, and, for those not afraid of the dark, prime topwater action awaits. I must caution that this is not for the faint of heart, as the sound of a smallmouth smashing a topwater plug during the “witching hour” will definitely increase the heart rate!
The final spot I look for in my search are underwater humps. These, simply put, are islands protruding from the bottom, yet not visible above the water line. The top of these islands can range from many feet to mere inches from the surface, and can be anywhere throughout a lake system. Unless they are marked for safety reasons, they can only be found through the use of topographical maps and your trusty fish finder. Smallmouth bass find these areas irresistible because they basically represent an “underwater tabletop.” Crayfish and baitfish relate to these structures, which again, bring in the larger predators. Early morning periods will find large numbers of fish schooled up on the shallowest part of the hump feeding, and will slowly move deeper as light penetrations increase. For this reason, fishing mid-day humps just requires the simple move of the angler to deeper water, away from the top of the hump, until the school is found again. Windy, overcast or rainy days will often hold the fish on the top of the humps throughout the day, and some of my best days of smallmouthing have been at high noon during a miserable day in just two or three feet of water. Experimentation is the key here, and by trying different areas, during different parts of the day, a pattern will soon become evident and your catch ratio will definitely increase.
Tools of the Trade
When it comes to fishing equipment, I’ve always stood firm in the belief that more is always better. I usually carry between 5 and 8 rod and reel combinations each time I head out in the boat, but I recommend to most people that the bare minimum should be two. Those two would be a spinning outfit and a baitcast outfit.
A medium-action spinning rod is your best choice for use with jigs, topwaters and light jerkbaits. I prefer a rod length of 6-foot 5-inches with lots of backbone in the bottom half. Choose a quality reel with a smooth drag and go with line in the 6 to 10-pound-range, depending on water clarity or technique. Eight-pound-test is usually the preferred line weight, although I will go down to 6 pound if I’m jigging in extremely clear water conditions and the fish are finicky.
The other set up should consist of a baitcast rod and reel for handling spinnerbaits, crankbaits and jerkbaits. My number one choice for this style of rod would be a 6-foot 6-inch or 7-foot rod. I prefer a lighter tip in a baitcast rod, however, the backbone still has to be present. Again, a quality reel is your best bet, and the greater number of ball bearings it has, the smoother the reel will be. Fill the reel up with line in the twelve to fourteen-pound-test range, in either monofiliment or any of the new “superlines.” As you build on your rod collection, choose rods in different lengths and actions which will complement different lures and techniques, enabling you to broaden your smallmouth repetoir.
Smallmouth lures can be broken down into two different styles: horizontal and vertical presentations. Horizontal lures are usually used when the fish are aggressive and are keying in on faster-moving baits. Some typical horizontal lures are spinnerbaits, buzzbaits, crankbaits, jerkbaits and topwaters. Vertical presentations are best suited when the fish are in a negative mood, whether it is through a cold front, heavy fishing pressure or clear water. Some baits which fall into this category are jigs and jigging spoons. It is best to always carry an assortment of the different types of baits, and, depending on the conditions you face and the activity levels of the fish, choose baits that will provide the best outcome.
Spinnerbaits are a hot lure that smallies often can’t resist, yet are overlooked by many anglers. I always choose a big bait in the ½ to ¾ -ounce-weight with a large willow leaf blade. Throughout the years of fishing for smallmouth the majority of my fish have fallen prey to a white spinnerbait, and now that is the only colour I exclusively use. Stick with a black bait for nighttime use, as it will provide a better silhouette for the fish to key in on. Don’t be afraid to throw this bait in water as deep as twenty feet as I’ve had a lot of fish come up from the depths to hammer it. The key to remember is to retrieve as fast as you can turn the reel handle, and if the fish are striking short, to double up with a trailer hook.
Crankbaits deserve their place in any smallmouth tackle box, and for good reason. Aesthetically they are the most life-like lure that you can throw at a fish, and their wobble and action mimics a baitfish to a tee. Carry an assortment of shallow to deep-diving models, and depending on the water depth, use one that will get down deep enough to the area you wish to fish. A key point to remember is to try to bounce bottom with your presentation, as this will create sound, will kick up loose dirt and sediment and really turn the fish on. There is a vast array of colours on the market in crankbaits but I’ve found that it’s always a safe bet to match the hatch. Try to mimic the baitfish or crayfish that are in the body of water that you are fishing. Another good bet to remember is that the clearer the water, the more natural the bait should be, whereas the more stained the water, the brighter the bait should be.
Jerkbaits are a lure I often reach for as they can be worked in so many different ways. They can be slowly twitched on top, if the fish are in a more neutral mood, or violently jerked for more aggressive fish. A straight retrieve can also be used just for variation. Choose a bait in the 4 to 6-inch range and make sure the hooks are sturdy and sharp. I change all of the hooks on my cranks and jerks to Excallibur hooks as I’ve found that they hook and hold the fish best due to the rotating trebles.
Topwaters are the crème de le crème of smallmouth baits as there is no other lure on the market that can illicit heart-pounding strikes with such regularity. Smallies just smash these “innocent” baits and it has to be the biggest thrill that smallmouth fishing has to offer. Some of the more productive lures that I’ve found on the market are the Skitter Pop, The Pop-R, the Torpedo family and the ever popular largemouth lure, the buzzbait. These baits are a cinch to use as the technique mainly involves casting the lure out, letting the ripples subside, and giving it a gentle twitch. The most common mistake that anglers make when using this family of lures is to set the hook on the initial strike, oftentimes before the fish has taken the bait in. Try to wait 1 to 2 seconds before setting the hook and your catch ratio will greatly increase. My largest smallmouth of last year was a 6 1/4-pound fish that smacked a Rapala Skitterpop on the first cast out of the box. It was caught on Balsam Lake, in Southern Ontario, while a tournament was going on around me. It will definitely be one lure that will see it’s fair share of action this upcoming season.
When one thinks of vertical baits, jigs are usually what pops into your mind. These are one of the deadliest smallmouth baits that are on the market, as they can be fished at any level and are so life-like in appearance. Jigs come in an array of different shapes and sizes, yet, if I had to narrow my choice down, I would have to choose the common twister tail and the tube. Both of these imitate crayfish perfectly and can be slowly dragged, or lifted, in order to get the necessary action. Try to use the lightest jig head you can get away with, as it will make the presentation all the more realistic. Proven colours for smallmouth jigs are smoke, brown, grey and black as these represent the actual food that the fish are keying in on. Always apply a scent product to these plastic baits as it will mask any human odours that may be present and will make the fish hold on to the bait for a longer period of time. I’ve had tremendous success using Riverside Realcraw as it is actually made up of real crayfish parts.
Finally rounding out the vertical baits is the jigging spoon. This is primarily used for deep water and is an ideal bait for locating schools of aggressive fish. It’s a simple bait to use as all you do is drop the spoon down to the bottom, reel up a foot or so, and lift and drop. The more aggressive the fish, the more aggressive the lift can be. I’ve had success with this bait on underwater humps and also when I’ve found suspended smallies through the use of a graph.
Summer smallmouth fishing is definitely one of life’s greatest pleasures. Whether you are using a topwater plug or a tube jig, you always know that you’re in-store for some aerial acrobatics and hard-fought pulls. Step up to the plate with the cousin of the largemouth this season, and look forward to memorable and exciting days on the water.
By Justin Hoffman