Locating August Smallmouth
August 07, 2018
The most miserable sight in smallmouth fishing: Watching a pod of bulging brown bass slip off a piece of structure you were just casting to.
August is famous for generating less-aggressive bites. Doldrums, dog days, tough times. By August most bass have seen a lure or two or fifty. Many have been hooked in the face.
Water temperatures are up and forage is plentiful, at least in many environments. Tactics that worked last month start to fade. That's the rap on August.
But is it always true? "I guess I'm a contrarian because I don't subscribe to the August doldrum theory," says In-Fisherman Field Editor Gord Pyzer, a relentless smallmouth patrolman. "For certain, bass have seen lots of presentations, but they're also operating at peak efficiency eating more each day than at any other time of the year. To be certain, the early bird gets the worm, so if you get on the water before most folks get out of bed, August fishing can be superb. Ditto, in the evening at last light. This is a magnificent time to catch shallow, prowling smallmouths on topwaters.
Pyzer beats the heat with shadow. "If it's sunny and warm, bass often retreat to the shadow lines as the sun gets up," Pyzer says, "but we should never forget these are 'sunfish,' and throughout much of the North Country the water a few feet under the surface rarely gets out of the 70s. So it's ideal the entire month. I love a few windy, unseasonably cool days followed by a calm hot, humid spell when smallies slip into knee-deep water. You can't be sloppy and try to get too close, but when they're up shallow they're aggressive. August doldrums—I don't buy into it."
But do different environments produce different conclusions on that? A few hundred miles south of Pyzer, the owner of Tony Roach Guide Service spends more time chasing smallmouths each year as their popularity grows. For Roach and his clients, dog-day doldrums are not a myth. "When water hits the 80°F range, smallmouths get finicky," he says. "They don't respond as aggressively, and they go deeper. We spend more time deadsticking flukes, dragging hair jigs, and finessing bass with drop-shot rigs. I downsize drop-shot hooks to #2 and even #4 with smaller finesse minnow-style baits like small flukes and finesse worms. The 3-inch Northland Smelt Minnow catches walleyes on drop-shot rigs, too."
But like many experts I've talked with, Roach doesn't think bass stop biting during the dog days. They just scatter and move deeper, becoming harder to keep track of. "Depths bass use may range from 10 to 40 feet," he says, "but I don't fish much deeper than 25 to avoid causing barotrauma. You can generally find them shallower—they like the shade big rocks provide at the base—not on top—of reefs when the water gets warm. After a hot stretch, they leave those reefs and edges and when they disappear I go to my winter rockpiles on deeper flats. August often mirrors that mid-winter bite, when we ice fish for them. Deep rocks or one big isolated boulder can hold 50 smallmouths. We may catch nothing on a gravel bar 100 yards long and find a pack of them on the biggest rock on that entire structure."
Big Water, Big Moves
"It's not that smallmouths won't bite in August," says Chris Beeksma of Get Bit Guide Service. "They go from 90 percent being crowded into 500 or 1,000 acres to 90 percent being spread out over 30,000 acres after the spawn. Nobody has to pattern fish before and after the spawn, but it's definitely patterning time in August." Mike Karempelis, owner of Walleyes & More LLC, guides for smallmouths on Green Bay and notices a letup in August—but not because bass won't bite.
"These bass move more than bass in smaller systems," Karempelis says. "Smallmouths begin to shift in August on Green Bay, going into transition between middepth and deeper structures. In August through September we begin finding them down 30 feet or more. My clients and I don't fish any deeper than 30 to avoid barotrauma, but smallmouths here are releasable at 30. And we have great days—when we can find them."
Electronics become critical. "Smallmouths mill around after the spawn through mid-June, but by August we have to use electronics to find them," he says. "We look for deeper rocky outcroppings, reefs, humps, and deep points. All offshore structure. They might come up on top of those structures, up to 12 or 15 feet when active, or they might suspend. And they go deeper when inactive. As soon as you find them, you have to keep tracking them.
Frank Campbell of Niagara Region Charter Service, says August on Lake Ontario and Lake Erie is similar. "Yes, dog days can be tough up to a point," Campbell says, "but it's also some of the best fishing of the year. The key is finding them. Smallmouths might be in 10-foot depths at 6 in the morning and suddenly you need to be out over 50 feet. You need to be mobile in August. Just a few years ago, most bass went offshore and suspended in August but that's not as pronounced as it used to be. Smallmouths are less apt to be 40 feet down over depths of 80 feet. We have less pelagic forage like emerald shiners and smelt. Rainbow smelt are abundant in Erie right now, but today's smallmouths are goby hunters in 40 to 50 feet. And that means structure. Something has to be there—preferably rock or gravel—to hold gobies."
Roach says smallmouths in Minnesota's inland lakes may hold shallow until surface temperatures top 75°F. "They remain shallow up to that point then move into deeper water," he says. "Then we use structure-scan and side-imaging to pinpoint areas quickly. My Lowrance HDS Touchscreen is a powerful tool. Find a boulder way off to the side, touch the screen there, and it puts an icon on your graph to come back to. If I see a fish off to the side 50 feet away, I touch the screen and it pops up on my map. I use that feature daily during the dog days. Study the chart then scan likely areas. You can comb a smaller piece of structure quickly because electronics are better. We can mark features faster. If you're not seeing marks, go to the next spot. Bass are easy to mark in August."
"Some bass suspend in August and we mark them with the baitfish," Campbell says. "It's like a video game. Watch your lure drop down to them on sonar, using a tube, swimming drop-shot rig, or jigging spoon, and set the hook when you feel anything different. But critical structure will be somewhere around those depths. Smallmouths won't leave a rich pod of gobies far behind, and we don't do as much open-water roving."
Drop-shot rigs and tubes on bottom are Campbell's first options for structure in August. "My drop-shot line is 8-pound Seaguar Tatsu Fluorocarbon," he says. "I use it for casting since it's so soft and supple. I want the least amount of weight in the smallest package, so I use Strike King Tungsten teardrops in 1/4- to 1/2-ounce. It's a smaller profile weight, better concealed, so bass concentrate on the lure, not the sinker. Our best bait last August was the 3.5-inch Strike King Drop Shot Half Shell in green-pumpkin goby. It has a paddle coming off the bottom almost like a reaper tail. Just get it down to bottom or to suspended fish and drag or drift it with very little shake. In open water, drop it down, give it a subtle twitch, and they're on it. You can watch it on the graph. We use G. Loomis NRX 7-foot spinning rods with Quantum Smoke reels, which hold a ton of line and make ultra-long casts. They also pick line up fast, which is important when fishing deep. I use the same tackle with tubes."
Campbell drops Strike King KVD Coffee Tubes and Tour Grade Tube Jigs. "I may switch to Seaguar Abraz-X with tubes on bottom because of the mussels and rocks," he says.
"Braid tends to rise off bottom when you're fishing that deep. We have a lot of line out when dragging, so you want a tough line and the lightest jig possible. Once in a while I use a 1/2-ounce jig, but if I can get away with it I use a 1/4-ounce. Most times it's 3/8-ounche. Beeksma, who works Chequamegon Bay on Lake Superior all summer, has a sure cure for the doldrums. "Go home," he laughs. "Or throw jerkbaits, like the Rapala X-Rap or new Shadow Rap. Bright patterns—clown, gaudy pink, or blaze orange—seem to work better than naturals in August, even when the water's really clear."
Beeksma has been known to downsize in winter for tough smallmouths through the ice, but he uses the opposite approach during late summer. "I like to buzz a heavy spinnerbait through cabbage," he says. "But when smallmouths get tough in August they won't come up for it. You have to get down in the cabbage and plow through with a 3/4- to 1-ounce spinnerbait that won't hang up in the thick stuff. Cabbage is at the height of its growth. You want to grind through it, not bulge the surface. The heavier head keeps it down at pace, so go heavy or go home.
"I use an Abu Garcia Revo Toro with a 6.3:1 gear ratio—not terribly fast, but you have to keep that heavy head up, and the only way you can do that is by reeling like mad. I spool 30-pound Sufix 832 and tie on a 12-pound fluorocarbon leader and seat it on a medium-heavy St. Croix Mojo. A glass crankbait rod is perfect for handling 1-ounce lures with some forgiveness. Set the hook with no give on a fast graphite rod and you snap the line since they hit so hard.
"If bass follow but won't bite, we know where to drop sucker minnows right under the boat," Beeksma adds. "August smallies crush a 3- to 6-inch sucker minnow when they won't eat anything else." He lip-hooks suckers with a #2 VMC Neko Hook, using 6-pound fluorocarbon on a medium-light spinning rod. "Use a couple split shot—just enough to keep the sucker down," he says.
Meanwhile, Karempelis will be on Green Bay, using his Minn Kota Spot-Lock feature over humps and long underwater points. "Sit on top of them and you can call your shots—vertical jigging with spoons, dragging a 1/5-ounce Z-Man Ned Rig or a tube on a heavier head, or drop-shot rigging. Jigging minnows, like the Moonshine Lures Shiver Minnow, are overlooked. Snap-jigging for walleyes is popular now, but the number of bass we catch mixed in with walleyes is impressive. Shiver Minnows cast a mile, get deep fast, and cover water. They appeal mainly to aggressive fish, but go back through with a Ned Rig or tube and you almost always pick up more bites. The new Johnny Darter, Rapala Jigging Raps—all those jigging minnows work. Let it hit bottom or almost, give 1 or 2 snaps, and let it fall. Sometimes it's 3 or 4 snaps. It doesn't have to fall all the way to bottom, but get your rhythm down so it at least approaches bottom. It's another great tool for deep water in August."
Karempelis uses 10- to 15-pound braided line on spinning gear with 10- to 15-pound fluorocarbon leaders with jigging minnows. "Fluorocarbon is more abrasion resistant and stiff enough that it won't allow the lure to tangle though all the aggressive jigging," he says. "Most anglers have a rod that works for this."
August is drop-shot time on many inland lakes, and Roach uses 6-pound-test fluorocarbon and the lightest tungsten weights. "With a good drag, you never have to worry about breaking off when bass move to deep structure," he says. "The key is not moving the lure this time of year. I fish a nose-hooked fluke with less action. Sometimes I just lay it on the bottom and barely twitch it. Less is more in this case. I opt for something different this time of year, too. Smallmouths often haven't seen hair jigs for months, and with new lines like Sufix Nanobraid, it's possible to cast jigs farther than ever."
Roach likes a 6-foot 8-inch to 7-foot 1-inch medium-light rod with backbone and a light tip. "Light biters drop baits when they feel tension," he says. "The balance is between sensitivity, give, and hook-setting power down deep. I use a 6-pound fluorocarbon leader on 6-pound Sufix 832 or Sufix Nanobraid. I like Nanobraid because it's unreal how far you can cast with it. If I mark a boulder on structure-scan, I can cast to it. A fluorocarbon leader is critical in clear water when the bite gets tough."
Bass scatter more in late summer than during any other time of year. Sometimes a forage glut slows the bite or forces us into finesse mode, but the dog-day doldrums don't have to be something we arrange our calendar by. Try different environments, and search faster. Somewhere out there, August smallmouths are up off bottom, easy to mark, and feeding as if their metabolism is peaking. Because it is.