June 29, 2016
The smallmouth patterns of summer are the craziest quilt ever. Reservoirs, Great Lakes, tiny streams, big rivers, ponds, inland lakes, and Canadian Shield waters—all have inherent patterns. Each one describes a unique mix of forage populations and movements. Each waterway contains different mixes of sand, rock, silt, and vegetation. Each has its own depth range, water tint, and clarity.
Moreover, most waters offer multiple summer patterns. The list is ever-changing. Among the factors that affect fish behavior are fishing pressure—and not just from humans. Biologists that work around Lake Ontario have told me the increasing flocks of cormorants can drive smallmouths deeper than 65 feet in summer—out of their diving range. Similarly, shallow patterns in some lakes have wilted due to angling pressure.
Summer is prime time for growth. Metabolic rates are high—for bass and baitfish and invertebrate populations. With so many patterns to pick from, the best anglers play the fun card. Have a favorite lure? Spinnerbaits? Topwaters? Swimbaits? In July, there's a place and time for every tactic. Some of the "who's who" in the bass world cross state lines to chase fun patterns for smallies. Others fish in their backyards.
A VanDam July
Kevin VanDam is either bass fishing, talking about it, or dreaming about it as you read this. What does the best bass angler on earth do for fun? With a day or two between tournaments, events, and filming in July, he looks for perch. Not to catch. Perch are indicators. "Up here in Michigan, I looking for young-of-year perch," VanDam says. "I've seen this in all lakes that have good perch populations—like Oneida and Champlain. Smallmouths feast on perch fry in July. Young perch hang around clumps of vegetation, especially cabbage and coontail. They ride high in the dense clusters of leaves so bass swim up high looking for clouds of perch fry."
Michigan's smallmouths have no secrets. Not from him. "Watch for telltale signs of this pattern," he says."When you catch a smallmouth, you may see it blowing little perch out of its mouth or you may see them flying as the bass leaps. And smallies show themselves as they feed. With perch up high in the water column in the thickest cover, you can spot swirls on large grassy flats if the wind is light. Smallmouths may be visible, too, so the best days are calm and bright."
Due to this prey preference, bass attack anything green, he says. "You can catch them on all kinds of lures. Jerkbaits are good, especially smaller ones like Strike King's 200 Series KVD Jerkbait in the Sexy Ghost or Yellow Perch patterns. Perch fry may be less than an inch long. These lures are much bigger, but bass don't mind. Tubes are another great option. I like the 3.5-inch Strike King Coffee Tube in the KVD Kick pattern, basically watermelon. I fish it with a slow, swimming action.
"In July I have multiple rods ready, all set up to cast as far as possible across big shallow flats. For small jerkbaits I use 10-pound braid with fluoro leaders. For tubes I use a 7-foot 4-inch spinning rod with a large spool and 6- to 8-pound fluorocarbon. Everything's set up for distance."
Sometimes VanDam finds better bites on rockpiles in July, but the fun fish are on the flats. "I see this shallow weedflat pattern play out extensively on lakes like Champlain and Oneida. Lake St. Clair is a little different because it has so many forage types. Patterns there are more diverse, but the shallow perch pattern holds, and it can be hot."
Chris Beeksma, owner of Get Bit Charter Service, lives in northern Wisconsin, where cool breezes off Lake Superior beat back the summer heat. Most clients want to fish Chequamegon Bay, and he's more than happy to comply. "July is one of two things: Deep weedbeds or wood in 12 feet of water or deeper," he reports. "Forget shallow wood at this time. In deeper water, you find old troughs from the logging days around the deep wood in Chequamegon Bay. Smallmouths are there whenever they can find minnows in those troughs."
Beeksma is a crankbait freak, so this is his favorite tactic in July. "We cross-section the wood, mostly with deep-diving cranks, like a Rapala DT10 or DT14," he says. "I use a medium-power, 7-foot 4-inch St. Croix Mojo Bass casting rod. The reel is spooled with 30-pound PowerPro with a 3-foot leader of 12-pound fluorocarbon. We line up along the timber and cast parallel, then we quarter our way around the deep side, hitting it from every angle. Sometimes bass are up on the edge and sometimes they're down in the troughs. It's a fast game. We zip from one concentration of wood to the next."
The wood also holds crayfish. "Bass find lots of crayfish around old logs," he says. "Sometimes they move up into shallower water to feed on them, but only when that shallow wood is next to a break into at least 12 feet of water. That's the key depth around weedbeds, too. You rarely catch smallmouths around shallower weededges in July here. Around vegetation, it's a spinnerbait bite. We throw 1/2- or 3/4-ouncers with white, chartreuse, or perch-pattern blades. Cast a Stanley Vibra-Wedge into the middle of the weedbed and slow-roll it through the stalks toward the deep edge. Cabbage stands are best."
Beeksma uses the same setup he uses for cranks. "In July smallmouths crush spinnerbaits," he says. "I told one client that the bass would hit hard so there was no need to set the hook, just bend the rod. When he got a bite, he set the hook on a big one. The snap of the line breaking sounded like a gunshot."
Bass pro Joe Balog lives between Lake St. Clair and Lake Erie—two of the finest smallmouth lakes. If he has free time in July, he spends it mining the waves for bronze. "My favorite July pattern involves current," he says. "In many areas of the Great Lakes, smallmouths that normally live in current areas and rivers move into bays in spring to spawn. By July, they're done and move to shallow current areas to feed before moving deeper. They're real shallow—in a foot to 3 feet of water. It's an awesome visual deal and I look forward to it every year."
Smallmouths spawn out of current, but love to feed in or near it. Letting current bring food is a postspawn tradition. "Bass set up on little hard spots and points on each side of cuts and canals off the main river system," Balog says. "Some go to shallow riprap and rock. The water is clear in early July. You must be stealthy, but fishing super-shallow current is a riot. You have to sneak up on them, which is best accomplished by drifting toward them. You spot groups of 1 to 6 fish.
"Ultra-long casts are essential, so I use spinning gear," he says. "I use a medium-power Daiwa Tatula (TAT701MFS) with a Daiwa Ballistic 2500 reel. The best lures are small swimbaits like the Castaic Jerky J on a 3/16-ounce jighead; light tubes like the ISG Intimidator on a 1/4-ounce head; and poppers like the Rico. In water this shallow, you see bass boil on the baits and you can see wakes heading toward the popper. Strikes are explosive."
Summers on Top
In-Fisherman Field Editor Gord Pyzer thinks nothing beats topwater action for his Canadian Shield bass in July. "Summer smallmouths are awesome anyway," he says. "But no question about it—for fun fishing in July, make mine a topwater bite that lasts all day long."
Pyzer gets a little help from Mother Nature to fill that order. "Most folks don't realize that this far north, topwater is not only an early-morning and evening deal," he says, "or for cloudy weather. In July, it can go on all day. Indeed, the hottest bite often is at midday on hot calm days when sweat drips from your elbows."
The key is the mayfly hatch. It may be the wrong month, but it's the right bug. "Despite their name, the mayfly hatch here peaks in July," he says. "While fishing, we often hear 'slurp' and spot mayflies on the surface. Then it breaks loose as smallies come up chasing. Any small popper, like the Original Rebel Pop-R produces big fish. The bite may last for days. The key is to pop it ever so gently—just rock it slightly—and let it sit. Bass know it's there, so don't overwork it. The less you do, the more you catch."
Bass might be looking for mayflies, but the key is that they're looking up. "I use spinning gear with a 10-pound, gel-spun superline because it floats and allows me to cast farther and cover more water," he says. "I use a 10-pound Maxima Ultragreen leader because it floats, too. And I like a snap or loop knot to free the popper for side-to-side movement."
When withering waves of heat wash over the land and near drought conditions drop rivers to their lowest ebb, it's all about wading wet. Smallmouth fishing my way, on a hot summer day, is drifting in a canoe, kayak, or small boat. We drift while casting, then get out and wade when we hit a group of fish in the Mississippi River or one of her tributaries.
Most days, we clip on a Heddon Baby Torpedo or Rapala X-Rap Pop and never change. When the pools are only 4 feet deep and the water is barely moving, two things happen: 1) Smallmouths begin to treat the river as a pond, roaming aimlessly, never setting up in predictable spots because there's no current to break; 2) A topwater bait is rarely more than a couple feet over their heads, meaning they simply can't ignore it. Even if they don't want to eat it, they seem to want to kill it.
Extremely low water like that doesn't happen every summer. But when it does, most styles of powered craft disappear. Even jet boats become problematic. And if most boys can't play with their big toys, they go elsewhere.
Drifting along casually, we cast everywhere—even across "nothing" zones where the deepest water is 2 feet, the bottom is dish shaped, and no cover is visible. Sometimes those are the best spots. Smallmouths often treat the low rivers of July like a pond, hunting everywhere and anywhere, blowing up on baits until the river seems like a minefield.
The rod I choose is a 7-foot medium-light St. Croix Avid, with a Shimano reel spooled with 10-pound Berkley FireLine tipped with a 4-foot leader of 10-pound mono. A rounded Lindy crankbait clip facilitates walk-the-dog popper tactics and allows quick changes to other styles, sizes, and colors. Style makes the most difference. Most of the time, if a popper doesn't work, a prop bait will. And yes, the detonations go on all day long, all through July, whether hatches occur or not.
On lakes, surface action seems to start late in the afternoon most days, at our latitude, often in the vicinity of rock structure. Bass break the surface most evenings, but sometimes nothing comes up unless the lake is inky and flat. At times bass mill lazily near the surface, hovering around with a bit of tail or dorsal fin breaking the surface. Hurry over there, trolling motor on high. Zell Pop. Skitter Prop. Let the rings settle. One good pop or rip. Long pause. Twitch. Gabloosh!
This pattern arrives abruptly and goes quietly with the passage of time and baitfish. The smallmouth patterns of July fade into the mists of August or September, and may or may not reappear until next year. Play the fun card whenever possible.
In-Fisherman Field Editor Matt Straw, Brainerd, Minnesota, chases smallmouth bass at every opportunity, from his backyard on the Mississippi to the wilds of the west and Canada.