Searching for Smallmouths
Call me biased. It's okay, really. I think Canada's Lake St. Clair is one of the best smallmouth lakes there is. I think the world of Lake Erie and others, too, but living, fishing and guiding on St. Clair (when I am not on the BASS Elite Series Tour) has taught me a lot about smallmouth bass. I've caught a lot of them in July, both in tournaments and on guide trips. One thing I've realized with smallmouth during this portion of the Post Spawn phase is that you have to find them to catch them.
Much like largemouth anglers turn to a Carolina rig or crankbait to search for fish, I've identified three search baits to aid in my hunt for smallmouth. Two can be used nearly all the time, but if life as a tournament angler and a guide has taught me anything, it's to have a backup plan when the weather doesn't cooperate.
Keep in mind that although I am Canadian, I actually live south of Detroit, which means that my home in Windsor, Ontario, is pretty central to the populations of smallmouth in North America. Obviously, the farther south you live (the Ozarks), the earlier in the year some of these techniques I talk about will work for you. If you live in upstate New York or Vermont, it might be later in the summer before these methods pay off.
In July, you're dealing with Post Spawn smallmouth. During this time of year, I've learned that the bass are really focusing upward in their pursuit of prey. One of the reasons for this is because across most of the country, this is the time of year for the mayfly hatch. So it's important that you go with a bait that allows you to cover water and presents prey that the smallmouth will attack from below.
Most of the time, these smallmouth will still be pretty shallow. I start looking for fish starting on the spawning flats and back out as far as the first big break leading from those spawning flats to deeper water. The fish will spawn in about four feet of water and might be back out to six or eight feet and won't be very far from where they spawned. In flatter lakes, they will be in the exact vicinity of where they spawned. When I locate these areas, I position the boat on the outside and cast to the area making long casts.
My first bait choice is a Berkley ® PowerBait ® Hollow Belly Swimbait. Rigged traditionally with either the weighted extra-wide-gap hook or the treble hook included in the package, this bait should be retrieved slowly to get the fish to commit to striking it. Don't worry if you think it's not deep enough: the fish will come from 20 feet or more to get at it if they are in the area. I throw this bait on 12-pound Berkley Trilene ® 100% Fluorocarbon line spooled on a Pflueger ® Presidential ® and a 7-foot medium-action All Star ® rod.
While the Hollow Belly technique is a relatively new one because the bait hasn't been out very long, the second technique is old reliable for me. All I do with this one is tip a 3/16-ounce round-ball jig head with a 4-inch Berkley PowerBait Power ® Grub. One of the keys to this presentation is to rig the bait with the hook up and the tail down. This helps the bait run truer and keeps the tail from fouling around the hook. I don't do anything fancy with the rig just cast and retrieve, slow and steady. Any natural color in either of these baits will work. With the grub, I use a 10-pound green or clear Trilene 100% Fluorocarbon spooled on a Pflueger Supreme spinning reel mounted on a 6-foot, 9-inch All Star Wacky Rig spinning rod.
Both of these techniques will produce lots of smallmouth and allow you to cover a lot of water. Not only are they fast enough to be search baits, but they are very efficient: you don't have to worry about all the fish you didn't catch when you move places. If there are smallmouth there, they will bite either one of these baits. If the weather throws you a curveball and the water goes glass calm, bites can be hard to come by during this time of year. When this happens, I turn to a 3-inch Berkley PowerBait Power Tube.
Rigged with a 1/2-ounce tube weight on 10-pound Trilene 100% Fluorocarbon spooled on a Supreme spinning real mounted on a medium-heavy spinning rod, I cast the tube out as far as I can and let it sink to the bottom. Once it hits bottom, I snap the tube at least eight feet up in the water column with a powerful jerk. Most times especially in clear water the smallmouth will watch the tube land and spiral down. Once it has been snapped off the bottom, they usually hit it before it lands again. This is the best way to catch smallmouth on tough days and it has saved a lot of guide trips when other boats weren't catching anything. The fish go nuts over this technique like someone has flipped on a light switch for them.
I always look forward to the tour swinging north, when we get to fish the smallmouth. But don't think that these techniques are only for us Northern guys. Southern reservoirs can have some phenomenal smallmouth fishing, so when you're tired of catching largemouth, try searching for some smallies and you'll soon discover why guys like me are so addicted to it.