Extreme Smallmouth: Selectivity And Them Ol' Brown Fish
July 05, 2012
The surface was tortured glass. Baitfish took flight through this dark, twisted interface all around the boat. Smallmouths broached in pursuit. For several hours, as the sun sank and darkness rose, active, aggressive smallmouths pursued scads of bait on the tip of a point of land so windy it was unapproachable most of the day. As the wind subsided, smallmouths were engaged in a visible shallow frenzy.
A stunned shiner on the surface. Confidence. Smiles. Topwaters. No brainer, right? Nothing happens. Not to worry. Suspending baits. Wrong again. Smile is gone. Ol' trusty, then. Son-of-Sam killer plastic bait that always works here. Bam, sock, pow. A weak smile returns. Son-of-Sam never fails. So, back to the grand experiment. Tubes? Nyet. Shallow crank? Nope. Plastic worm? Uh-uh. Soft stick? Zip. Senko? Try again. Drop-shot rigs? Almost. Spinnerbait? Rattle Trap? Cheeseburger? No. No. NO.
Son-of-Sam is actually a homemade, sand-colored, 5-inch, action-tail grub. So I tried other 5-inch grubs. After ripping up 8 or 9 baits without so much as a bump, the hair on my neck began to rise. These bass will strike one bait, one size, and only one. Very specific. Color. Son-of-Sam is very subtle. No bright color or metal flake. As it grew darker I opined that brighter colors absolutely had to work better. After the sun sets, bass can't see color much anyway. Right? Don't ask me. At this point, I'm no longer certain the earth revolves around the sun, but I set about the task of force-feeding gaudy plastics to these picky things. Another half hour of utter failure and I turned once again to Son-of-Sam. One more cast, just as complete darkness settled over the puzzling scene and "whack," a four pounder. "What are you?" I barked at the poor creature. "Crossed with a trout?"
I don't know everything (not even close), but I know this lake and its crazy smallmouths fairly well. I know a lot of presentations that take smallmouths here when they're biting. And, on this day, out of all the things I know that will catch smallmouths in that body of water at that time of year, in the middle of a feeding frenzy, only one thing worked. In one color. In one size. At one speed. And one depth.
Bass aren't supposed to be this selective. Bass shouldn't act like this. Yet, sometimes they do. (The horror.) When? Why? We don't know. But don't let it bring you down. It's only theories burning. So what, exactly, do smallmouths get picky about?
How easy is it to bypass seemingly innocuous details and miss the bite entirely? Frighteningly easy at times. Dion Hibdon knows. He and his father Guido are two of the finest smallmouth anglers anywhere and just might be the best tube fishermen on earth. "One of the first things I do before a smallmouth tournament is walk the shoreline and turn over rocks, looking for live craws," Hibdon says. "The variation in color that can occur among craws is amazing. I want to duplicate the color and the movement of these animals precisely. More often than not, a precise imitation will outfish every other pattern, even when fished exactly the same way.
"I'm a firm believer in matching the hatch," Hibdon says. "If it looks like something they're used to chasing, it comes time to eat and they approach the bait closely, I think natural colors, shapes, and sizes produce best most of the time. Yet I seldom use a jerkbait that doesn't have a pink or chartreuse belly with a naturally colored back. It's hard to find lures with a pink belly, but when they're following baits and rejecting them, I paint a pink stripe down the belly of that bait. For some reason, aggressive or fairly hot highlights will trigger smallmouths at times better than an all-natural pattern. I've got a whole compartment on the boat that's nothing more than rubber-lure paints, paint pens, permanent markers, fingernail polish, dips, dyes and powder paints. Playing with color wins tournaments. Just putting a spot on a lure can make the difference between a fair bite and a hot bite.
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Extreme Smallies (cont.)
"Dad and I are just as picky as those smallmouths when it comes to color," Hibdon added. "I'm a big believer in making a bait look right. I've brought spottails and other minnows home and recreated the color precisely in a tube, and I feel it can make all the difference in the world. That's our niche. We're not power fishermen. We're not flashy. But we go to great lengths to make our bait look right and it's not always what you think. It can be natural or downright weird and you never know what combination is going to work, but starting out by copying the natural exactly is a good starting point -- a good foundation. I don't know how many times I've found tiny crappies and bluegills in my livewell. That's why you're seeing so many baits with purple tints today. Crappie and bluegills are highly overlooked as a food source for smallmouths."
Sometimes color seems to trigger smallmouths, as if the partial flash of one shade of one color from the bait at the last moment mimics something they see reflected from preyfish during the last phase of decision-making. But finding the right color can be just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.
Smallmouths sometimes hit a crankbait moving only at one particular speed and won't touch it at any other velocity. Tomorrow they might want the same bait delivered at a much different pace. And the real trigger -- a pause, a rip, or a direction change -- can change constantly. Just because you tried a crankbait doesn't mean you really tried it.
The concept of lure speed is not confined to crankbaits and spinnerbaits. Hibdon took 8th place at last year's Everstart Championship on Lake Cumberland and learned something about drop speed in the process. "It was during October," he says. "Smallmouths were 30 to 40 feet down. They came up to feed on shad, but only at midday and only if it was calm. If you happened to get right on top of them, you'd get bit, but when they went down, they were feeding on crayfish and became the toughest fish I've ever seen."
At these depths, logic demands at least a 3/8-ounce jig, right? "I tried 3/8- and 3/4-ounce jigs and caught nothing," Hibdon said. "Then Dad (Guido) started playing around in the back of the boat and proceeded to kick butt with a skirted, 1/8-ounce, green-pumpkin-purple jig." Why green-pumpkin-purple? "Because the craws I found at Cumberland last year were green with bluish-purple highlights. So we dyed purple splotches on the green-pumpkin Baby Guido Bugs we used for trailers. I tried 1/4-ounce jigs and could catch a few, but not near as many as Dad caught behind me. He had noticeably more bites. We pitched these jigs into 15 feet of water and worked them down a series of bluffs and ledges. Smallmouths were positioned near the lips of the ledges. I think they were following it down from one ledge to the next and, if it dropped too fast, they wouldn't follow. It took forever to work a 1/8-ounce jig down those bluffs. Most of our time was spent feeding line. I would never have the patience to even consider it if Dad hadn't been kicking my butt back there."
For Guido, the switch to a 1/8-ounce jig stems back to early lessons from the Twilight Zone of smallmouth logic. "We fished with Billy Westmorland a lot," Dion says. Westmorland, author of Them Ol' Brown Fish, landed more 10-pound smallmouths than the rest of us combined. "Billy would give me handmade hair jigs in the 1/16- to 1/8-ounce range that take forever to reach bottom. He was always convinced it would take something really subtle when they're not biting -- which is about 80 percent of the time. And Billy often caught fish when we couldn't. Since then, I catch a lot of bass on Lake Erie when guys are dragging those heavier jigs. And I generally catch bigger fish than most, in a crowd of boats over 20- to 35-foot flats when I'm using 1/8-ounce jigs. When they're not really feeding, I go to light stuff."
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Extreme Smallies (cont.)
What does all this tell us? Smallmouths are more vulnerable to being triggered than some fish. Action, aggressive colors, speed, and change of direction can trigger strikes when the same baits fished differently remain ignored. And, while it seems trout are vulnerable to realism while smallmouths are more vulnerable to surrealism, smallmouths sometimes act a lot like trout -- refusing everything but the most natural representations of what they're actually feeding on. But "trigger" is the definitive word. It's possible to trigger some inactive smallmouths, while triggering inactive trout always seems more difficult. Finding the right trigger is more often the key to successful smallmouth angling than matching the hatch.
Playing with drop speed to find the right trigger is sometimes necessary on a daily basis. "Sometimes we use hair jigs," Hibdon adds. "Hair falls differently than silicone, plastic, or rubber. Even a smallmouth is kind of an ambush predator, darting out to surprise prey. But the mere appearance of a bait in their strike zone is no guarantee of a bite. Some days it has to look right, fall right, and act right."
THE 'S' DIMENSION
"When smallmouths are bitin' they're the most exiting fish in the world," says Hibdon. " When they're not, they're the most frustrating fish in the world."
In-Fisherman Field Editor Gordon Pyzer, a smallmouth tournament angler and former fishery biologist for the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, agrees. "I've learned more about smallmouths in the last 20 months than in the last 40 years," Pyzer said. " It all starts to jell after half a century, I guess, but here's an example: Five years ago I won a fall tournament on Lake of the Woods and somebody beat me to my number one spot, so I flipped over to number two and it was 9:30 before they pulled off. I said to my partner, 'We'll rest it 15 minutes and try it,' but, of course, another boat pulled up on it and spent an hour there. Now it's 11:30 and my number-one spot had been fished all morning. Still, I insisted we try it. In 5 casts we put 20 pounds in the boat and eventually culled through 5 limits of smallmouths. We were fishing behind very good anglers and had to wonder, what did they miss? Smallmouths so often come just fast enough or good enough that we think we've got it pegged, but there's always a better way to catch them.
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Extreme Smallies (cont.)
"This was proven to me this past year in another tournament on Lake of the Woods," Pyzer continues. "We picked up 1 or 2 fish on that same spot, then left and went to another spot. We could still see 'number one' -- a boat pulled up on it as soon as we left and took 50 to 70 smallmouths right behind us. It seems, sometimes, no matter how much you fine-tune, there's always a better way or some detail you didn't pay attention to. Sometimes it's speed, Sometimes it's color. Sometimes the addition or subtraction of metal flake is all it takes to make a huge difference. I'm not sure if it's conditioning or what, but more and more, those little details are making huge differences.
"Did those bass 'just turn on' as our boat left? I don't think so. I think one of the key principles of smallmouth angling is that bass are products of our presentation. If the sun is shining and the sky is clear, the conventional thing to do is go small and think it's going to be a tough bite. But invariably somebody heads out there with a bigger, more aggressive bait, fishes it fast and tears 'em up. Sometimes, just by thinking 'tough bite,' we actually create one. We're victims of our own assumptions.
"Guido Hibdon told me, last time he was up here, that he asked tournament officials, 'What works?' They told him, 'Crankbaits'. He said, 'As soon as I heard that, I knew we could smack 'em on tubes', and he did. He and Dion fished tubes very aggressively and came in second in a field of over 200 boats. Half the time they were following other anglers using tubes. But Guido said that when you found the trigger and worked the tube right, the brown water on the top of the shoals turned black with smallmouths. Nothing bit on the drop. The key was how they worked the tube."
Dion explains that the exotic rusty craws that now dominate Lake of the Woods are very aggressive swimmers. "They often cruise along a foot or two off bottom," he says. "Rusty craws are so aggressive we could actually catch them by just laying a tube on bottom for a few seconds. Imitating not only the color but the swimming action was the key to catching smallmouths in that tournament."
Which all sounds supremely logical, but the Hibdons would be the first to caution that it's rarely so simple anymore. Smallmouths seem to increasingly force us to find the right "things" (color, size, speed, and many other factors) through a process of elimination that has no basis in human logic. Those who succeed in this elusive, existential enterprise are able to tap into the oxymoronic realm of smallmouth logic. Yet, smallmouths are sometimes predictable. Chew on that for a second. And be afraid. Be very afraid.
Selectivity And The Smallmouth
Selectivity is a term sometimes reserved for trout. It indirectly refers to times of abundance, when so many insects or larvae -- all the same size, shape, and color -- cloud the water, that trout develop tunnel vision and select only things of that size, shape, and color. All fish do this to some extent, but rarely to the extremes that trout do. A "hatch" of shiners can create huge clouds of baitfish, all the same size. Crappies begin cropping them off first and may become selective about size -- but rarely seem choosey about precise shape and color. Action tails, marabou jigs, or small fathead minnows on a jig that approximate the size of the most abundant class of shiners tend to work just fine.
However, "just fine" isn't "best ever," is it? Actually netting those little shiners and using them for bait often produces a better catch than other baits or artificials, although a lure in the same size, profile, and color of the most abundant shiners might actually work as well or better, simply by covering more water in less time while imitating distressed forage -- a natural target for any predator.
When those shiners reach a size that smallmouths will chase, the same thing might occur. Maybe. Here's the conundrum: Once we know what trout are being selective about, a reasonable facsimile combined with a perfect presentation works for at least 30 minutes if not several hours or days. In no way does a smallmouth bass belong in such an ordered, logical universe. Smallmouths are from another dimension -- a weird dimension. They might become "selective" about the size or shape of the blade on a spinnerbait. They might become picky about the action or thump produced by a particular crankbait. They might choose one color of plastic over all others, and that color might be chartreuse with purple metal flake or some other weird combo that seemingly has little to do with the color of the most abundant forage.
For smallmouths, the term "selectivity" takes on a whole new meaning. It requires a different kind of intuition on our part, drawn entirely from time on the water, as little else helps explain the selective behavior of smallmouth bass.