Catching Trophy Smallmouth Bass

Catching Trophy Smallmouth Bass

Four smallmouths fitting those dimensions found themselves in my boat over five decades of pursuit. But the 24-incher that automatically becomes the new goal eludes me. Every once in a while, a lucky angler appears in the pages of the outdoor section or on the Internet holding an 8-pounder. Or maybe not so lucky. Maybe they know something you and I don’t.


Or maybe they simply live near—or often visit—waters most likely to give up a bass that size. Certainly, those opportunities increase on waters like Erie, Green Bay, Lake Ontario, and the many lakes surrounding Grand Traverse Bay. But on waters that rarely produce a 6, those 5- and even 4-pound bass are trophies nobody should sneer at. And the same things that increase chances for catching trophies at Erie are in play on smaller waters.

Other than doing homework on where the most titans are swimming around, a number of things can up the odds for bringing a trophy smallmouth to hand. We can pass along a few observations, but we asked some guides and pros—people whose stock rises with every giant bass they or their clients catch. What makes intercepting a trophy bronzeback more likely? The answers might be surprising.

Tips for Trophy Smallmouths

  1. Find isolated cover.
  2. Find isolated structure.
  3. Isolated cover and structure should be small in area.
  4. Be the first one on spawning flats in spring.
  5. Be the last one on river migration routes in fall.
  6. Sight-fish to select for trophies in clear water.
  7. Giant smallmouths often key on small baits early, larger baits later in the year.
  8. The best trophy lure for smallmouths tends to be the best lure for numbers, too.
  9. Be stealthy.
  10. Always carry a spinning rod or two rigged for extra-long casts.
  11. When all else fails, hire a proven guide.

Timing


In all kinds of environments—rivers, lakes, and reservoirs—the experiences of quite a few exceptional anglers indicate that the biggest smallmouths often arrive first in prespawn staging areas each spring. Soon after ice-out up North, outsized smallmouths begin ghosting across shallow flats where they eventually spawn. So pile on the layers and get out there early. Female smallmouths are bigger than males, and they’ll never be bigger than when full of eggs.

Captain Bret Alexander targets big early season smallmouths with small tubes and hair jigs.

Bret Alexander, owner of Alexander Sport Fishing, backs that up. “If strictly hunting big smallmouths on Green Bay, timing is everything,” he says. “The biggest bass show up early, coming in with the first or second wave of fish. You have to fish the Door County area the last three weeks of May to have your best chance at a 7- or 8-pound bass. If you want to target a giant, fish small tubes and hair jigs painfully slow. Over the last 10 years, the most 6- to 8-pound fish have always come in the second and third week of May with water temps at 48°F to 52°F during prespawn.”

Maybe the best advice for anglers that need to touch a wall-bending bronzeback is to simply pay a proven guide like Alexander. “Last year, a guy fishing right next to me put an 8.76-pound smallie in the boat,” he says. “Three years ago, pre-fishing for the Sturgeon Bay Open in May, we got into a pod of bass over 6 pounds, including an 8.2. They came in shallow on a warm pocket of water. That’s the key in early spring—smallmouths find that warmest little pocket and they head for it every time. It’s usually right where a light wind is blowing directly into shore. Fishing in May and finding the warmest water—those are the crucial factors for trophies.”


In rivers and reservoirs, the opposite often happens during fall migrations. River smallmouths tend to migrate farther between summer and winter habitat than their lake-bound cousins. Telemetry studies have documented migrations over 70 miles in one direction. In most of the rivers I fish, the biggest smallmouths in the system tend to be the last ones to arrive near wintering habitat (plunge pools below dams, reservoirs, and deep holes)—as water temperatures dip into the low-40°F range.

The same spots hold smallmouths every day as they migrate through during river migrations. And the biggest river monsters I encounter, every year, are the last ones to pass by.

Jeff “Gussie” Gustafson, one of Canada’s best tournament bass anglers, plays the timing game, too. “In Northwest Ontario’s Sunset Country, our smallmouths spawn from late May through mid-June most years,” he says. “Some of the best fishing for big fish all year is during the Prespawn Period, when larger females stage on predictable secondary points and ‘stickouts’ adjacent to spawning areas in the backs of bays and coves.

“Suspending jerkbaits like the Jackall Squad Minnow 95 are great for covering water and finding fish,” he says. “Before they actually break up to spawn you often find little packs of fish. Find one and there are others around. A Ned Rig is a top follow-up bait to pluck a few extra fish on spots where the jerkbait gets a bite or two. I like the Z-Man Hula StickZ as an alternative to the traditional TRD bait. I always use a 1/16-ounce jig this time of year and fish slow. There’s something about the way that ElaZtech plastic stands up in water. It floats and attracts bites. I seldom switch from using green pumpkin.

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Jeff Gustafason keys on the cabbage connection for specimen smallmouths during the Postspawn Period.

“After the spawn is completed, the timing usually concludes with new cabbage starting to pop up, which smallmouths often suspend in on sunny days,” he says. “It seems that they like the fresh green and red cabbage in early summer as they recover from spawning. Easy food is present in the form of small perch and minnows.”

In that early Postspawn Period, the biggest bass often find and dominate the fastest-growing, tallest patches of cabbage. And, as Gustafson implies, perch-­colored baits and green plastics tend to outperform other colors most of the time, especially for big bass. But females won’t be quite as big as they were a few weeks ago when laden with eggs.

“In early summer tournaments on Lake of the Woods and Rainy Lake, a combination of using topwater baits and marabou jigs has been a winning recipe for many years,” he says. “Big bass usually go for poppers. It’s simple but it works. Topwaters are best for covering cabbage flats where subsurface baits get caught up too often. Under windy conditions, a soft-plastic jerk shad works well, using a slightly oversized swivel about 15 inches ahead of the bait to keep it from skating on the surface. I like to ‘float’ through these weedflats and I avoid touching the trolling motor if possible to try and sneak up on bigger, warier smallmouths.

“Keeping the sun at your back if possible, drift along and pitch a 1/16-ounce marabou jig to standing clumps of cabbage. It’s a deadly summer technique for bigger smallmouths. Black is the best color for me. ‘Float’ the jig past the clumps throughout the middle of the water column and watch for smallmouths tracking the jig. They swim up behind it and slurp it in. It’s amazing how well they work when nothing else does for really big fish, which can get lazy during the period that often coincides with the mayfly hatch,” he says.

For many species of predators, the “big lure, big fish” theory often works. Not so much for smallmouths. A one-pounder will hit a muskie lure. But, of all the smallmouths I’ve caught with muskie baits, none have exceeded 3 pounds. A 6-pound smallmouth tends to strike the same bait that appeals to numbers of bass, and that lure is more likely to be a 3- to 4-inch worm than an 8-inch worm—especially in spring and early summer. It shouldn’t be surprising that a 1/16-ounce marabou jig—with feathers only 2 to 4 inches long—would be Gustafson’s choice for giant smallmouths, even in summer when bass reach their metabolic peak. But in fall, bigger crankbaits, swimbaits, and spinnerbaits often trigger more trophy bronzebacks.

Structure and Cover

Chris Beeksma, owner of Get Bit Guide Service, plies the water of Chequamegon Bay and the natural lakes of northern Wisconsin for smallmouth bass throughout the open-water season. And nothing raises the stock of a smallmouth guide like putting customers on bass over 5 pounds.

Guide Chris Beeksma likes to fish small cover and structure spots for the the biggest smallmouths.

“If I’m guiding trophy hunters that don’t care about numbers, I look for small spots,” he says. “An isolated weedbed, a big, lone boulder, a small hump—those are the kinds of places where you find a big bass or two. It can be cover or structure, but it has to be small in area so it can’t hold a lot of bass. That’s where an alpha-type specimen often sets up and chases smaller bass that try to crowd in. An isolated patch of cabbage no bigger around than your boat can be an ideal spot for big smallmouths—or a small rockpile surrounded by acres of sand. The larger the spot is, the more small bass it has—and small bass often rip baits aggressively right in front of big bass that are still deciding.” (How many times have you hooked a small bass that was followed to the boat by a much bigger one?)

Deep isolated cover (weeds, rocks, wood) and structure (humps, bars, breaks, spires, outcroppings) can be approached with a drop-shot rig in average to poor visibility. But in clear water, you need to cast from a distance. Fish-attracting sites isolated in shallow water should be spotted with side-imaging sonar or found one day and fished the next—or at least several hours later. Cast from a distance. Big, lonely bass are wary creatures.

On an exceptionally clear lake in northern Minnesota last year, while casting to a rocky shoreline, I looked down and saw a tree. It was a huge hardwood that must have fallen in a big wind, drifted around, and finally sunk to bottom in 18 feet of water. In an aquarium-like setting, we could see the timber was attended by six smallmouths, all bigger than anything we caught that day. They ignored everything we put down there as they could easily see us and our boat, but we marked the spot with GPS.

The next day we approached the spot to just within 100 feet. The wind behind us, we made long casts beyond the tree with wispy 4-pound braided lines and long 6-pound fluorocarbon leaders. We counted 1/8-ounce jigs and small 3.75-inch soft swimbaits down to a depth of five feet and made slow, horizontal retrieves. Nothing. Then we counted them down to 10 feet and during the retrieve one of us felt that small, enervating “tap.” It weighed close to 5 pounds—which is really big for that particular lake. But we couldn’t entice a second strike, even after returning a few hours later—that’s how wary big bass can be on isolated structure in extremely clear water.

An isolated boulder is about as close to a sure thing that exists for finding trophy smallmouths. On calm days, when the surface is like glass, I’ve watched big bass slip out of the shadow of huge, isolated boulders to inspect and sometimes eat a wacky rig or a swimming ring worm, but that’s rare. Generally, they don’t mind being seen—but once they see you, they tend to lose interest in striking a lure in lakes that receive anything from moderate to heavy pressure. So mark the spot, come back later, and cast to it from a distance. Calm days are great for finding isolated spots and creating a milk run of waypoints to follow for years to come. Or use side-imaging sonar to do the same thing on any kind of day—but it’s both exciting and useful to actually see which spots are occupied by real specimens.

Other Factors

In June and July, Alexander satisfies trophy-hunting clients by sight-fishing. “We look at fish and select for the biggest,” he says. “We don’t cast until we see them, and we caught a lot of fish over 6 pounds last year doing that. Just keep looking until you find the ones you want. Some days, I won’t let the guys fish for an hour or two until we find the right fish. Bass stay shallow through midsummer here, and in this clear water, they’re easy to spot. We’re looking in 1 to 3 feet of water most of the time. So sight-fishing is another way to isolate and select for trophy smallmouths. The bigger fish are in pods of 20 to 30 that are all over 4 pounds. From June 1 to July 7, all I use is a hair jig—either marabou or bucktail. The best jigs are only 3 inches long. Black is the best color, day in and day out. They’re up there feeding on young gobies, so lures don’t have to be big to catch the biggest bass we see.”

On calm days, sight-fishing is possible in depths of 10 feet or deeper in the clearing waters of the northern Midwest. Zebra mussels, environmental laws, and a growing consciousness among shoreline property owners to protect riparian habitat are making it happen.

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Some anglers think moon phases are strong indicators of trophy bass activity levels (see Best Fishing Times in this issue or at in-fisherman.com). Surveying the dates of the biggest smallmouths ever caught does reveal a minor increase—a small spike—in trophy catches during the days surrounding the full and new moons, but it’s hardly convincing. Dr. Mark Rogers at the University of Flori­da, studying largemouth bass, found no correlation between spawning and any moon phase anywhere in Florida. Trophy hunters in the bass world that keep journals typically find little connection between moon phases and trophy catches.

Famous angler and lure inventor Joe Bucher recently wrote that he kept journals for years and was never able to match better bass fishing with times predicted by solunar tables—but he did discover that his fishing improves significantly within 90 minutes of sunrise, sunset, moonrise, and moonset. Some bass anglers theorize that those same four events that happen every day have an impact during half moon phases. And some simply say that bass can see better at night during a full moon.

We encourage anglers to use the Best Fishing Times, keep journals, and correlate these things for themselves, but there is no truly compelling evidence indicating trophy smallmouths are more vulnerable during specific moon phases. Personally, I have no time for weekly, in-depth astronomical calculations. Most of us just get out there when we can, hope for the best, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But you can jump the odds for encountering King Kong smallmouths by finding isolated cover, hitting it during key times, and using your eyes.

*In-Fisherman Field Editor Matt Straw is an astute multispecies angler, smallmouth expert, and decades-long contributor to In-Fisherman publications.

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