Brett Richardson, an avid multispecies angler from Bergenfield, New Jersey, reports: "Of all the memorable smallmouth excursions through the eastern Great Lakes region, the last 10 years of Lake Erie-Niagara River trips rate at the top. Yet, often the biggest smallies had backed off prime structure to instead hold along subtle breaks. The key to great catches in nearly all cases has been downsizing.
"During prime conditions, the aggressive nature of the smallmouth will void the need for finesse tactics. But when the bite shuts down due to adverse conditions, downsizing baits can save the day. Lately I've seen more anglers embracing this trend, sometimes requiring me to one-up them with even more minuscule lures and lighter line.
"On big waters with frequent high winds, drift socks are standard gear to enable slow presentations for tight-lipped smallies. Even micro baits generally demand the standard weight of sinker or jig, due to wind conditions associated with post-front scenarios.
"Successful presentations include split-shotting small plastics; 3-way rigs anchored by slinky weights or snagless sinkers; tandem jig rigs tipped with plastics or livebaits; Carolina rigs with plastics or a small jerkbait; and a modified 'Float 'n' Fly' rig. On Lake Erie, I've yet to see another angler use float rigs, and rarely the other deadly systems.
"On some Lake Erie trips, we sometimes switched back to the reliable tube jig after the weather stabilized, and we caught plenty of big smallmouths. If bass will bite a simpler rig, that's what I use. But when they demand the more exotic, I'm ready with options. Switching to light line (6- to 8-pound mono) gives the baits better action and produces far more bass when conditions are tough."
RIGGING FOR FALL SMALLMOUTHS
Split Shottin': "The standard has been a BB-shot or two," Richardson notes, "depending on wind. The Mojo Rig is a great innovation, along with the more recent adaptations from Bullet Weights (Torpedo Weights with rubber T-stops), Top Brass (Pro-Jo Weights and rubber Peg-Its), and Bass Pro Shops (XPS Finesse Weights and T-Stops). These slimmer weights slide through rocks and vegetation more smoothly. Plain shot offers an advantage on sand or gravel, however, by slightly catching on the bottom and giving the lures a jerky, natural look.
"For micro-plastics, we've had success with Berkley's new Dropshot Bass Minnow, Dropshot Power Worm, or Power Leech; Iovino's salted Reapers; Yamamoto 2- to 3-inch grubs; Cabela's 'Livin' Eye' minnow grub; and Bass Pro Shops' XPS Twin Tail Minnows. Rig them Texas-style on light-wire hooks like Owner's Down-Shot hook in sizes #2 and #4, with the weight about 18 inches ahead of the lure.
"Cast or drift these rigs across rock-gravel or gravel-sand transition areas, or along the base of rubble reefs. Drifting is more effective if you can achieve accurate boat control along these sometimes vague boundaries, because you keep the lure continually in the potential strike zone. Keeping the baits as far from the boat as possible helps."
If winds or currents are strong, or when you're fishing deeper than about 15 feet, rig with a heavier weight. To a 3-way swivel, tie a 12-inch leader with a snag-free weight like Lindy's Rattlin' No-Snagg sinker or a Scott Eno sandbag or other soft sinker. Weights from 1/2 to 3/4 ounce should hold bottom well, but there's no reason not to go heavier if you lose feel. The bass don't care about the sinker and may be attracted by the sound and disturbance it makes.
Richardson recommends experimenting with the length of leader to the lure, starting about 2 feet and going longer. Sometimes, he says, the key to a hot bite is to alter the lengths of the two leaders or the sinker weight. "I've also had success adding a Betts Carolina Floater ahead of the plastic bait to raise it several inches off the bottom," he adds. "Try one of the small plastic baits mentioned above or upsize to a Lake Fork Magic Shad, Lunker City Fin-S-Fish, or Zoom Fluke. Leeches, crawlers, emerald shiners, or other livebaits also work when nose hooked with a Mustad Ultra Point Beak or Aberdeen hook. The Ultra-Point is insurance against dulling the point in tough timber or rocks."
"My favorite rigs are premade, like Kalin's Carolina Clacker and Bass Pro Shops Carolina Shortcut. They come equipped with brass sinkers, beads, swivels, and clackers so you need only tie on a hook. One deadly trick has been to run a small floating jerkbait like Rapala's #9 Floating Minnow, an Excalibur Ghost Minnow, or Yo-Zuri Pins Minnow on a 3-foot leader. Great for smallmouths holding over deep reefs or along bluffs.
"The Carolina rig lets you present small baits on heavier tackle, which helps to combat wind. Cast straight into a 20-knot gale if you like. You always have contact with the sinker, and the bait isn't far behind. The rig quickly brings your bait into the fish zone and keeps it there. Power finesse, I call it."
Float 'n' Fly: "The original rig employed small craft hair jigs set 8 to 12 feet below a fixed bobber. That's fine, but I also use a somewhat larger Thill oval float equipped with rubber rings to affix the line to the float. This buoyant float will support a larger lure like a fox hair jig or a shad-body bait on a 3/16-ounce jighead. Charlie Nuckols devised the system to cope with suspended smallmouths, a common occurrence in cold water. To catch suspended fish, suspend a lure at their level."
At times, Great Lakes fish hold deeper than the extent of a float rig. That's when Brett Richardson tries another novel rig that's widely available but overlooked. "Rig a small soft plastic minnowbait, like a Shad Assassin, Fin-S-Shad, or Berkley Power Jerk Shad on a Lunker City Belly Weight," he recommends. "This weight attaches to the shank of the hook and hangs below the lure, giving it a natural horizontal fall instead of a nose-dive. They're available from 1/16 ounce to 1/2 ounce, letting you drift baits down to any level. An alternative is to insert Lunker City Insert Weights, shaped like lead nails, into the belly of the bait."
One final tool for bass holding off bottom or away from structure is a rig with both a sinking and a floating jighead, each with a livebait. Tie each leader to a 3-way swivel, using a heavy leadhead (3/4 to 1 ounce) on the bottom line. Or, I hook a large shiner on the leadhead, adding a crawler or leech to the floating jighead. See which baits the bass prefer and rig both lines with that type. Try a Land O' Lakes Floating Jig or Northland's new Screw-Ball Floater to keep the other bait several feet higher. Experiment with colors as chartreuse or fluorescent orange can prove a winner at times, black at others. Check regulations, as this rig is illegal in some states and provinces.
As Richardson says, minor adjustment may be all it takes to trigger obstinate fish during tough times. Add your own wrinkles and try other lure selections. You may be the only one on the lake with these creative offerings. And, at times, you will be the only one consistently catching big smallmouth bass.