How To Catch Smallmouth Bass During The Dog Days
August 29, 2013
Lakes, warmer than the air at daybreak, exhale blankets of mist. The morning air is dense with moisture. By mid-morning the mist is gone, cicadas hum, heat waves distort the far shore, and ultraviolet light blisters flesh. Some anglers give up on smallmouth bass during the so-called Dog Days. Since ancient times, Dog Days refer to the period from July 24 to August 24, when the Northern Hemisphere receives the least amount of rain. Ancient Romans believed that, since the Dog Star, Sirius, rose with the sun during that period—and because it was then the brightest star in the heavens—it caused both the rise in temperature and drop in precipitation so common in late summer. In the South, days get long and hot. Biomass, already high in the region's impoundments, is just past its annual peak. Smallmouths scatter into open water to chase suspended schools of shad, which crest in annual abundance. So much food exists that smallmouths often need to hunt for just minutes at a time. And disconnected from structure, nomadic schools of bass become hard to pin down.
In the North, baitfish and crayfish numbers also are high. Smallmouths may shift location to remain near abundant prey. In northern and southern waters, big smallmouths are elusive now. Finding numbers of feeding bass, always easier than finding trophies, is no cinch in August. Porcine smallmouths may occupy alternate habitat and generally feed differently. They use experience to define spots that allow them to capture the most food while expending the least amount of energy in the least amount of time. The Dog Days allow them to do that for weeks on end.
Near the northern extreme of their range, "smallmouths feed for a half hour then don't feed for two or three hours," says veteran guide Chris Beeksma on Chequamegon Bay of Lake Superior. "We get four or five periods of high activity each day. Not low-light periods, necessarily. As far as we can tell, they're random events."
In Arkansas, lure designer and outdoor writer Mitch Looper says "it's harder to catch a giant smallmouth here in August than in Minnesota. Most people don't fish for bass in August here. Smallies hover about 8 feet below huge rafts of shad, which are trying to avoid massive flights of birds. Smallmouths are easy to find. Just look for the biggest crowds of gulls, terns, and cormorants. That's where the biggest fish in the system are. If you get too close, you spook the birds. If you spook the birds, you spook the fish. Those bass are constantly moving. If you finally catch one, it might be hours before you catch another. Your lure is competing with massive schools of shad and natural food. Bass may be out over 150 feet of water. You know where the shad are because of the birds. But it's scratching. One here and one way over there."
By all accounts, the Dog Days are tougher than spring or fall. Not because big bass feed less, or because of heat, or Dog Stars, or cat-scratch fever. Dog Days beat you down because bass scatter into a greater variety of patterns and secondly are surrounded by abundant food. As a result, feeding periods become shorter and more intense. The odds are against scoring many big fish. But you can do it. No new presentation, no magic lure, no special skill required. But a bit of thinking is involved.
Identify the Possibilities
When big smallmouths become harder to find or catch, the lead domino is the same as it is at other times of year: Identify locational patterns. To get to that lead domino, it's sometimes necessary to backtrack from the last one that fell. Finding the key pattern requires understanding the underlying environmental causes of behavior.
In summer, bass are not spawning, recuperating, stocking up for the shortages of winter, or finding limited habitat for extreme conditions—unless they live in rivers that threaten to dry up. Since comfort is practically everywhere, and procreation is on hold until the following spring, the primary motivation is food. The key is identifying the most prolific sources of food, then determining what environmental factors concentrate those forms of prey.
Savvy bass know how to position themselves where food is a short tail thrust away. Joe Balog, one of our top contacts for bass around the Great Lakes, has learned to identify some of those "adults only" areas on big water. "On lakes Erie and St. Clair, August can be the best time of the Summer Period to catch giant bass," he says. "While the number of bites goes way down, the areas I fish are 'adults only,' where it's common to catch 4- to 6-pound fish exclusively. These areas are unique. They tend to be very deep with current.
"As the Dog Days arrive," Balog continues, "big bass may seem lethargic and difficult to catch at times, but they move into predictable areas. On both Erie and St. Clair, trophy bass move to structures that border the deepest basin areas in the lake. That doesn't mean they always inhabit the deepest water, but they hold on top of structures within the deepest water. On Erie that means isolated reefs or shipwrecks. On St. Clair it means small weedy areas rising out of the main basin. In either case, those areas usually are near the main shipping lanes, along channels, or out in the main basin where both natural and wind-generated currents are prevalent."
On large lakes and reservoirs, trophy smallmouths often choose isolated structures and areas where the wind has fetch or where main-lake currents have the least obstruction because current carries food, reducing the need to expend calories when foraging. "On Erie, a few days of wind from one direction creates a current," Balog says. "After it calms, these areas experience a reverse-current effect for a day or two. Current is almost always present in these zones, often strong current."
On Lake Superior, lake trout rule the basins. Smallmouths are restricted to bays along the south shore, but Beeksma sees a similar move to deep structure in August. "Average size of the bass we catch remains the same all summer," he reports, "but trophy-size fish are less common. If I have a customer that will be happy to catch just one 6-pounder, I go to deep water with a football-head jig and a plastic craw. Deep is 30 to 40 feet, right in the shipping channel. In my experience, big fish stay deep in August because they can find more food while expending less energy. We seldom see them shallow this time of year.
Beeksma finds the biggest bass associated with rockpiles, where crayfish are available even when baitfish aren't. "Schools of average-size smallmouths typically hunt baitfish. Here they pursue whitefish, cisco, and smelt on shoreline points that extend into deep water at the edge of the main basin," he says. "That's an August pattern; big points where current sweeps plankton and schools of baitfish past."
Big shoreline points extending into the main basin also represent primary fall patterns for smallmouths. On Lake Superior, smallmouths begin making the transition from summer to fall habitats toward the end of August. Big bass typically arrive first. In Minnesota, many lake-bound smallmouths remain shallow from May through July. As those patterns begin to fade, I have to remind myself every year that bass have begun to move deeper, already showing up on spots they use in fall and winter.
Jason Durham guides for smallmouths and walleyes in central Minnesota, where he took Governor Mark Dayton out for the 2013 Governor's Fishing Opener. "In late summer, smallmouth anglers sometimes get confused," Durham says. "Bass are purposeful, but understanding smallmouth behavior can be clouded by anglers' stubbornness. Revisiting areas that were productive a week ago is reasonable for starters. But in August those spots often turn into nurseries, where fish are aggressive but consistently small. It's time to change. The big fish won't be back to those spots until next June.
"Often the best option for big smallmouths in late summer is going deeper. Humps that peak at 20 to 35 feet are my go-to areas for big bass in August. Walleye anglers talk about tangling with behemoth bronzebacks on deep structure, yet bass anglers refuse to listen." August smallmouths sometimes abandon the outside edges and enter dense weedbeds. "It's nice to graph deep fish," he says. "But more fish are buried in deep cabbage beds at 14 to 16 feet, where few anglers look for them."
"Catching big smallmouths in open water under flocks of feeding birds is tough," Looper admits. "Recreational boaters don't make it any easier. We can't wait for October around here."
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He turns to a Yum tube on a 1/4-ounce insert jig. "It's not a sure-fire method, but it works better than anything else," he says. "I use a 7-foot medium to medium-heavy spinning rod. Cast about 70 feet, let it sink, and count it down to the depth you're marking fish on sonar. Tubes swim on the way down, so it's a slow count. Most days, they're 8 to 12 feet down. To keep the lure in the zone, pull the line tight, then raise the rod to 10 o'clock. Given slack, the jig drops, so you need line tension to keep it up in that 8- to 12-foot range. When it gets down where you want it, give a little slack and pop it, almost like you would a Zara Spook, and the tube glides to the side. Move the rod tip from 10 o'clock to 11 o'clock to keep it up in the water column, then drop it to the 10:30 position so it can glide. I use a three-pop cadence—pop-glide, pop-glide, pop-glide. That brings it up about 5 feet, so follow with a 5-count pause with controlled tension to let it glide on the drop, back down where you want it."
Durham also uses tubes and 1/4-ounce heads on deep structures smallmouths move to, but he has other tricks. "I also use Northland Tackle marabou jigs, drop-shot baits, and soft swimbaits in August," he says. "A 1/8-ounce marabou jig falls faster than a tube and it's a smallmouth favorite. Colors like brown, black, and white are top producers this time of year. Finesse worms are a great choice for drop-shot rigs, but in the deep water you don't need to target small spots and spend time shaking the lure. Instead, drag the weight a short distance, then let the bait sit for a few seconds.
"Cover ground with swimbaits rigged on jigheads. Let the jig hit bottom, lift it about 18 inches, then let it fall back. I periodically let the bait rest on the bottom for a few seconds before lifting. And before I leave a good deep hump, I make a few long casts with the swimbait and retrieve it slow and steady. Some smallmouths should be suspended in the area and they hit swimbaits violently."
To target isolated main-lake structures on the Great Lakes, Balog uses 3/8- to 1/2-ounce drop-shot rigs or deep-diving cranks (Norman DD22s and Rapala DT16s), depending on the aggressiveness of the fish. "This is where it's imperative to hold on the fish with a trolling motor," he says. "This year I'm trying the Minn Kota i-Pilot to hold on structures with the Spot-Lock feature. I'm excited about it because it's important to hold over the highest part of the structure. On Erie, bass get on the high spot of a reef, ridge, or wreck. Or they suspend out off a drop, or on a sharp break off the same structure. You have to hover above that spot or the right distance away."
On Superior, Beeksma says you can sometimes catch bass from isolated structure with topwaters—even over depths exceeding 40 feet. "I always have a Rapala Skitter Walk handy," he says. "Bass start to show up where they're going to spend fall, but they use more of the water column. And at times in August they pile onto adjacent shallow flats. You can see hundreds of them in 4 feet of water, sometimes in the middle of a bright sunny day. That's when I throw a 1/16-ounce VMC Half Moon jig and a Trigger X 4-inch grub."
Dog Day presentations may not be revolutionary or radically new, but it's all about nuance—adapting familiar presentations to a new regime. August patterns often differ from those of the rest of summer. Location is different. Smallmouths are on the move, and feeding is the primary motivation. A tough bite can be a sign that fish have already moved to fall spots. When the Dog Star rises, embrace the heat and slide out deeper.
*Matt Straw, Brainerd, Minnesota, is an In-Fisherman Field Editor and always has smallmouth bass on the brain.