The Best Smallmouth Baits
November 09, 2012
In baseball, it's the bullpen ace. In football, it's the backup quarterback. When the game's on the line, when all else seems to fail, get on the horn and haul the heat out of the pen.
In fishing, it's the livebait box. When the day seems lost, hail the baitwell and get a topnotch reliever on the line. Even for smallmouth bass. Tournament fishing has created a bass-equals-artificials psyche across the country. Which is fine.
Artificials work best at least half the time, which leaves half the time when artificials don't work so well. Why keep the best players on the bench? Well, sure, sometimes you just prefer to fish with artificials. But not me, when the bite goes bad.
Finding bass is one thing. In my mind, nothing beats suspending minnows, tubes, cranks, spinnerbaits, or hair jigs for active smallmouths. When location is wired, when bass are working classic spots and feeding heavily but suddenly turn off because of a change of weather or heavy pressure, working those same spots with bait often transforms a nonbite into a bite, sometimes a good one.
Many experts who fish for smallmouths in rivers, reservoirs, or the Great Lakes, tend to fish unadorned baits. No spinners, no frills, just the right hook and a fresh lively bait. But rigging, bait choice, and nit-picky details involving hook style and leader length demonstrate creative adaptations to specific local environments. Different baits work better in different waters for many reasons.
The anglers here depend on artificials most of the time, switching to livebait when the situation demands. An old In-Fisherman credo: Be good at many things rather than master of one. Those who develop a feel for both livebait and artificials, who know when to choose which, tend to be the best all-around fishermen on any system.
Jeff Snyder—Big-Water Bass
On Lake Erie, Jeff Snyder has seen and done it all. His 23 bass tournament victories (maybe 24—he lost count) are tops on the big lake. Along the way, he amassed impressive records for things like the largest smallmouth ever weighed in an Erie bass tournament (6.83 pounds), the biggest 6-fish stringer (35.4 pounds), and the biggest 10-fish stringer (57.1 pounds).
"I use artificials 80-percent of the time," Snyder admits. "I use livebait when I have to, and livebait's been working this year. It's a dirty-water year, because of constant high winds. Smallies are sight feeders, but in cloudy water, the added attraction of livebait really helps. Smell, taste, vibrations, and time to find and scrutinize work in conjunction to outproduce the varied cues of artificials. I think livebait produces high-frequency sounds that we can't hear but that fish pick up."
Snyder uses minnows all year for smallmouths, even during the cold months. Early in the year, he collects his own emerald shiners. "We use throw nets in spring," Snyder says. "But they move down to 20 feet or deeper right after spawning in late May, which makes throwing nets on 'em difficult. By June, we switch to golden or pit shiners from local pits. On Erie, procuring bait from the system isn't necessary. I net my own in the 5- to 7-inch range. Commercial bait operations rarely supply anything over 3 inches. Bigger fish (especially for 5- to 7-pound-class smallmouths) require bigger baits."
Experts from other fisheries relate how other baits are better in their waters, but minnows are the key bait on Erie. "Smallmouths have so many forage options here—shad, alewives, shiners, smelt, even gobies—that they seem to feed opportunistically on whatever comes along," Snyder says. "Bass take shiners well, especially baits in the 5- to 7-inch range. And bigger baits definitely keep sheepshead off the hook.
"Second, the smallmouths, being so abundant, always are in a competitive mode. Always. A bad day on Erie is 25 bass. I prefer to use emerald shiners, natives to the system. I match what bass are feeding on when I can, but it's not critical. Smallmouths are so competitive and opportunistic here that they take the first lively shiner dropped on 'em.
"I can use big minnows to catch smallmouths under any conditions," Snyder continued. "I caught smallmouths last year two days before Christmas in 38°F water with 6-inch shiners. Big minnows not only target bigger bass and deter sheepshead, but they also appeal to razor-sharp competitive reflexes.
"Rigging depends on how and when I'm fishing," Snyder says. "Most of the time it's windy, and most of the time bass are on rocks, two situations that call for slinky or sand-bag rigging. Slinky rigs are by far the best system for presenting livebait on Erie. A slinky refuses to snag in rocks. I go a size heavier because a hard sinker is compact, while the slinky is spread out. To get the same feel, I use a 1/2-ounce sand bag where I'd use a 3/8-ounce bottom bouncer. A slinky is so much more snag resistant than a bottom bouncer, though."
A slinky is buck shot inside a short length of parachute chord that is heat sealed at the ends. The nylon sleeve seldom catches on rock. Several companies make slinkys, but Snyder prefers the What A Drag by Inspiration Lures (919/362-3993), or the Sand Bag by Scott Eno Tackle Company (315/625-4064).
Snyder slides the slinky on the line with one bead on each side, then ties on a #3 barrel swivel and ties a leader to that, ending in a #4 VMC octopus hook and a lip-hooked shiner. "Leader length depends on how far off bottom the fish are," he says. "However far bass are off bottom, I multiply by two. If sonar shows them three feet off bottom, I use a 6-foot leader, and so on. I use 8-pound green Berkley XT about 99 percent of the time. I think line color makes a difference, and since Erie is green, the line melts right in."
Snyder likes to drift the slinky rig, targeting a distinct side of structure. "Smallmouths are drawn to the upwind side of reefs, humps, and shorelines," he says. "I use my trolling motor and two depthfinders (front and back) and keep working at a specific depth. If I catch one at 26 feet, I don't waste time over 25 or 27 feet. Smallmouths in Erie tend to feed at a precise depth. Get sloppy and your catch rate drops."
If smallmouths are more than four feet off bottom, Snyder switches to a slipfloat rig. "When bass are way off bottom or if there's no wind, I get precise about placement with slipfloats. I put a couple split shot three feet above a shiner hooked in the back right behind the dorsal, so he swims in a circle. I get better hookups that way, too, using the same #4 octopus hook. I need a big enough float to hold the minnow up, but I don't want a lot of resistance, so I use pencil-shaped slipfloats."
Bait fishing isn't a seasonal thing, Snyder says. "It's condition dependent. I fish bait in dirty water. A guy using tubes or grubs will outfish two bait rods some days on Erie, but not in dirty water or on flat days with bright sun. In tough conditions and when the water's cloudy, bait beats artificials.
"I use baitcasting gear. I think I have more control over my line and the fish. Lamiglas just introduced two rods, the XDC 703 (7 foot) and 763 (7 1/2 foot) I designed specifically for this. With lighter line, a long rod produces better hooksets by taking up stretch. Plus, the bass can't jump and wrench free as easily. A long, limber-tipped rod keeps me tight to the fish. I also like the Abu Garcia VC4600C reel."
With apologies to Berkley, Snyder calls shiners nature's Power Bait.
Joe Monteleone—The River Connection
Joe Monteleone has smallmouths over 7 pounds to his credit. Featured in several past In-Fisherman articles about smallmouths, Monteleone is a respected source on tactics that produce big fish. He often uses big livebaits.
"The bigger the better," he admits. "I've never seen a creek minnow I thought was too big, because I'm after giant bass. I caught two smallies over 7 pounds one day while drifting 7-inch creek minnows."
Although Monteleone calls them "creek minnows" because he gathers them from the tributaries of rivers he fishes, they are large silver shiners. "I use the biggest creek minnows I can seine, or sometimes I use minnow traps in creeks from the same system I'm fishing. I think indigenous baits outfish generic bait-shop minnows. River smallmouths slam indigenous baits when they seem cautious with generic baits."
Monteleone lives in Tennessee, a Mecca for outsize bronzebacks. He spends most of his time hunting overlooked trophies in small to large river systems, and he throws lots of artificials from spring through fall. "I fish big minnows during the winter, when the water's below 60°F. Or in summer when the water's low and clear, and fishing's tough. The best time to go livebait fishing is in clear water under a clear sky with bright sun and no wind. Tough conditions."
"Indigenous minnows are fairly hearty," Monteleone adds. "I can keep them alive longer in summer, though sometimes I use crayfish. Keeping bait alive on the hook is critical, too. The life expectancy of a minnow is cut in half by casting.
Better to troll or drift most of the time. I use no weight unless I need to use a 1/8-ounce cone sinker ahead of a swivel to keep a bait down in heavier current. I hook a minnow through both lips to keep it from drowning too quickly. And always moving with the current helps..
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"I slowly troll past likely spots, or I drift. Turning the motor on and off isn't a good idea. With motor control, I try to drift-troll livebait about 30 feet off the bank in most of these rivers, making little S-curves over 4- to 12-foot breaks or flats, so I'm not always running over the fish. Instead, I swing in upstream of key spots, slipping the boat around the spot, so the bait, not the boat, slides through the target area.
"I try to keep the bait a minimum of 60 feet away from the boat. In clear water, I can see smallmouths follow at that
distance. I've watched them follow for 20 or 30 yards before committing. Give them enough time to eyeball a healthy, struggling minnow and they bite more often than not.
"If the river's really rolling, I can't present livebait effectively," Monteleone continues. "That's when I switch to a crankbait, jig, or spinnerbait, and cast. But when the water's extremely clear, getting close enough to cast is hard. And, sometimes smallmouths won't commit unless the bait is downsized. Drift-trolling becomes one of the few viable options."
Monteleone rigs up for drift-trolling with a 4-bead swivel 18 inches up from a #1 186 Eagle Claw bait hook. The swivel reduces twisting and the leader is abrasion-resistant 8- to 12-pound line. "I use Triple Fish Camo-Esscent for rigging minnows or crayfish," he says. "It's tough and it hides in the water. The rod should be a little longer than standard for controlling line and fish in current.
"Powerful sweep sets are critical with large minnows. Tip speed is vital for good hooksets, and longer rods increase tip speed. I use a Browning-Lews BB1N casting reel on a 7-foot medium-heavy Browning Vectra rod. A little longer rod takes up more line for better sweep sets. A medium-heavy action sets hooks and controls big fish a lot better. Baitcasting helps control a big fish a little more, by cranking against pressure a little better.
"Those days of multiple giant smallies, I mean fish over 7 pounds, are getting fewer, and livebait makes your chances a lot better. For the average fisherman, livebait tilts the playing field in his favor."
Tim Dawidiuk—More About Big Water
Chartering on Lake Michigan for salmon, steelhead, pike, and walleyes wouldn't seem to leave much time for smallmouths, but Tim Dawidiuk manages. Last spring, he and his partner (some hack outdoor writer named Straw) won the Sturgeon Bay Open, one of the nation's largest smallmouth tournaments, by throwing Normark Husky Jerks in 4- to 12-feet of water during prespawn.
But when Dawidiuk's really under pressure, guiding for clients on a slow day, he depends on bait. "Smallmouths can't resist a lively, twisting crawler," he asserts. "They just can't. When nothing else works, crawlers produce, even when smallmouths are inactive and stuffed with alewives. In fact, it's the only bait smallmouths on Lake Michigan always bite, regardless of conditions."
Summer and fall are key times for crawlers around Wisconsin's Door County, an area surrounded by some of the world's finest smallmouth fishing. "Alewives are a key forage here," Dawidiuk explains. "When alewives finish spawning and move out to deeper water, some smallies follow. It's a Zara Spook bite, because so many stressed alewives are struggling on top. At times, minnowbaits or spinnerbaits work so well that wasting time with bait is a shame. But when smallmouths congregate on structure and get more difficult to catch, I switch to a crawler."
Dawidiuk, a 15-year veteran at the guiding game, claims nothing works better than crawlers because nothing else can catch smallmouths under every conceivable condition. "I urge clients to pitch jig-crawler combos to rocky points and bluff banks in 10 to 20 feet of water about 80 percent of the time throughout summer and fall. Standard gear is a 6 1/2- to 7-foot medium-power moderate-action spinning rod with a medium-size reel holding 6-pound line, sometimes 8. I run clear or green Berkley XT or Big Game Inshore, due to the rocks. The water's green, but I haven't seen line color make much difference when I'm using livebait."
The key is finding the right kind of rocky slope.
"Certain combinations of boulders with varied-size rocks, creating a lot of crevices, attract more smallmouths. Three or four points or shoreline-bluffs might look identical, but only one will hold any number of smallmouths. When smallmouths are keying on crayfish in the rocks, I think crawlers work better than a live crayfish, because bass take either bait off bottom, but also rise up to meet a descending crawler."
The water is clearer than ever around Door County, so Dawidiuk runs his bowmount trolling motor up to the spot, casts up the slope, and lets the bait work down. "When the fish are really on, the bait doesn't reach bottom. When we get on a school, we go through a dozen crawlers real quick. With a light jig, the crawler just undulates down through the water column. Smallies are sight feeders, and they see the crawler from the time it hits the water."
Most of the time, Dawidiuk presents crawlers on a 1/16-ounce jig with a wide-gap hook. If it's windy, he might jump to a 1/4-ounce jig on 10-pound line, but a crawler is much less effective if it drops too fast. "I especially like the Bait Rigs Odd Ball or Northland Buck-Shot jigs, with a full crawler threaded on by the nose," he says. "Smaller 1/16-ounce jigs are best for fishing deep-water points in summer and fall.
"We have so many rocks here, and deep rocks just claim too many harnesses and rigs. Maybe sand bags or slinky rigs would work, but pitching offers an advantage in clear water because smallmouths tend to look up most of the time. It's easier to spook 'em with rigs because, classically, the boat has to present the bait."
Size can be critical, Dawidiuk adds. "Big crawlers catch big small jaws every bit as well as artificials do, especially when the fishing's tough. I don't use minnows in summer, but chubs and 4- to 5-inch redtailchubs or suckers work well in fall. Using crawlers is easier, though, for most clients, and all we find in our local bait shops are shiners, which don't stay alive as long and make fishing bait the whole day difficult."
Dawidiuk pooh-poohs the notion that livebait kills more fish. "We release smallmouths as a rule," he says. "They more likely get hurt by crankbaits or topwaters when they're really active and engulfing things. When neutral and inactive smallmouths hit a crawler, it's necessary to feed them the bait only for about three seconds before they get the hook into their mouths, and more than 80 percent are hooked in the upper jaw.
"And crawlers are cost effective. I can buy a dozen for $1.50. But I sort for real long ones when I buy, the kind that stretch to 12 inches or so. I think they catch bigger fish, and the drop rate is slower. Bass look up, and this writhing, wiggly thing is just parachuting down on them. Most of the time, a crawler never reaches bottom."
In-Fisherman Staff—Natural Perspectives
A poll of In-Fisherman staff members reveals a reliance on artificials for smallmouths most of the time. But when things get tough on natural lakes in the North Country, we dig for hooks and sinkers.
Popular rigs include a Mojo Tackle Slip Shot rig, a split shot and a hook, or just a hook. The bait might be a big redtail chub on the Mississippi River, but on local lakes, a big "mud flap" leech is a good choice. Whole crawlers work, but perch and bluegills drive you nuts before long, so a healthy redtail is the next choice.
During summer and well into fall, smallmouths in natural lakes move onto reefs, humps, or main-lake bars, points, and flats. They cruise the top or lip of the structure in 4 to 12 feet of water as a rule. Options include a tube on a jig or Mojo rig (Mojo Tackle, 909/591-4739), a suspending minnowbait, or a spinnerbait. But when fish are pressured or spooky under flat calm and sunny conditions, nothing beats a jumbo leech sinuously snaking its way through the rocks.
Less-active smallmouths tend to group at the base of the structure, usually on an inside turn where rocks or gravel stairstep or slide down into 20 feet of water or more. In some Canadian Shield lakes, active smallmouths work a little deeper than 10 feet and spend inactive periods in 20- to 30-foot depths. Since these lakes tend to be rocky, Jeff Snyder's slinky rig becomes an option for presenting leeches or minnows.
Split-shot or Slip-Shot rigs can be pitched across the tips of points and reefs for active fish, or presented to less-active fish by control drifting specific contours in deeper water. The beauty in the pres-entation is its simplicity, which creates a natural swimming action. Few things work better for spooky smallmouths in clear water.
A #6 Mustad Finesse Hook with a straight eye matches well with 6-pound line. The Finesse Hook is so light and thin that it won't anchor the bait, offering little resistance when the leech tries to move or swim off bottom. Yet the tempered steel is so strong, it's difficult for fish to straighten. A #4 or #2 Gamakatsu Shiner Hook is a prime choice for minnows, with its larger gap and in-line hook point.
Mojo Tackle markets Slip Shot sinkers in a variety of sizes in 1/32-ounce increments for precise weighting. The sinker is a hollow pencil lead, and the kit comes with rubber strands and a wire tool for pulling the strands through the weight, which then slides up and down the line for easy leader-length adjustments. Active fish in shallow water are difficult to mark on sonar, so experiment with leader length to fine tune the presentation. When fish are marking high in deeper water, go with a 6- or even an 8-foot leader. When they're pegged to the bottom, go as short as 2 feet.
Use a medium-light-power rod with a moderate action like the 7-foot St. Croix LS70 ML. The longer blank and light tip action allow for long casts without ripping the bait, and the sensitivity is there for feeling light takes in deeper water. Spool a medium-sized reel, such as the Daiwa 1300 SS Tournament model, with a tough yet limber line such as PRADCO's Excalibur, something that can handle rocks while allowing the bait to move naturally.
In cold or windy, nasty weather, try anchoring and using slip floats. Large nymphs such as the hellgrammite or the hexagenia limbata mayfly nymph (sold commercially in some states as "wigglers") make dynamite float baits and bottom baits. When larger packages are ignored, small livebaits wiggling and suspending in the water column become the after-dinner mint. Bass may not be hungry, yet they find not sampling a small desert hard, even after severe cold fronts.
Smallmouths are Jekyl and Hyde types, crashing fearlessly into crankbaits one day, then getting lockjaw the next. When lockjaw sets in, artificials just can't compete with the writhing, twisting, living things that fish eat every day. And when the going gets tough, the tough bait up with the best smallmouth baits. It's the only insurance you can buy against tough bites.