Smallmouth In Weeds
May 07, 2015
Following the spawn, smallmouth bass aren't as fragile or reclusive as some believe. While they take time to recover from the rigors of procreation, they also must feed to re-energize themselves. In this process, they often move to the best vegetation available, since it offers abundant food sources.
Joe Balog of Michigan is no stranger to the quirks of smallmouths. He's noted this pattern in natural lakes that contain cabbage, milfoil, or other vegetation types that grow tall. Oneida Lake, Chautauqua Lake, and parts of the 1000 Islands area of the St. Lawrence River come to mind. Lake St. Clair perhaps epitomizes this pattern, as it lacks main-basin structure like rocky points, reefs, or sunken islands. "It's a vast sandflat so vegetation is critical here, especially early in the season," he says.
Kevin VanDam is deep rooted in all things Michigan, from the Detroit Lions to the monster smallmouth bass of Lake St. Clair and other natural lakes there. He says that Lake St. Clair and New York's Oneida Lake are among his favorites, along with Lake Champlain on the Vermont-New York border, and looks forward to the Postspawn Period because he feels he can pattern bass quickly then, as shallow bites prevail.
Balog also has high confidence when tournament dates on St. Clair coincide with the postspawn. "At that time, I try to get a couple big fish from a couple of different areas. Overall, it's hard to find fish over 3.5 pounds then. Those 4- to 5-pound kickers are what make the difference."
Canadian FLW pro Jeff Gustafson is a threat in any tournament on Rainy Lake, on the Ontario-Minnesota border. Growing up there, he's learned it well. "Rainy Lake supports a strong grass bite," Gustafson says. "For many years in the Fort Frances Canadian Bass Championship tournament we've caught big bags by driving around looking for thick, topped-out cabbage. That plant also is a player at Lake of the Woods throughout the summer and in many other lakes of Ontario's Sunset Country Region. If plants look dead or are covered with slime they aren't as good," he adds. "If they're growing in deeper water, they may stay healthy until early fall."
The Green Scene
Gustafson fishes vegetation throughout summer, knowing that groups of bass regularly visit it. "On Shield lakes, from the Postspawn Period through the summer, fishing cabbage is a primary tactic for big fish. Plants seem to offer comfort and plentiful forage. On sunny days they often suspend next to clumps of cabbage. They seem lazy but bite a well-placed lure."
On Lake St. Clair and other northern waters, Balog first seeks vegetation near spawning areas. He's found that after spawning, big females often shift to the first transition area where cabbage stalks are starting to thicken. These isolated areas typically hold 4 or 5 bass. Smallmouths in large lakes typically spawn in large bays, in bulrush beds or in ditches. "After the spawn, I look for zones from 5 to 8 feet deep," he says, "where the first major transition to deeper water occurs, then scan for vegetation. If the timing is right, this pattern rarely fails." Balog says some areas are so small that other anglers overlook them. "I've found bass in clumps not much bigger than my boat, often one or two big ones."
VanDam notes that while vegetation is important, in larger weedy areas, edges are key. "Fish typically favor outside edges, but scattered clumps with open sandy areas between are gravy," he says. "And rock or gravel is a bonus as well. "You often find a big group milling around areas with rock, gravel, or sand with vegetation nearby. When they're feeding, they're often near the top, over grass clumps if it's thicker. Smallies don't bury into grass like largemouths, especially not this time of the year. They hold near it because that's where their food is."
To find such areas, VanDam relies on several Humminbird ONIX 10 units. He remarks that these new units produce a far clearer image of vegetation than earlier models, especially when side-imaging. "I've found some great spots while scanning the outer edges of weedbeds and coming upon a rockpile or other isolated cover. I recall one gem I found on Oneida that way."
He uses his Humminbird Bow 360 to follow weededges and to stay a cast away from them, so as not to spook fish. He recommends setting the range at not more than 50 feet to better define isolated clumps. "I don't use 360-imaging to see fish," he says. "But cabbage and other taller plants show up well with it."
Even for lakes that contain rock structure, the allure of cabbage is simple—food. For this reason, VanDam awaits the prespawn like a kid waiting for Christmas morning, knowing that goodies and lots of fun await. "Cabbage beds support abundant food sources, offering mayflies as well as preyfish," he says. "The major hatch may only last a week or two but some flies hatch over a month or more. And once summer arrives, bass shift to other food sources including crayfish, which also inhabit vegetation. And on some lakes, they shift to perch fry that start to appear in July. Perch seek protection in grass and by schooling." VanDam marvels how big smallmouths gorge on perch fry that may be less than an inch long.
Smallmouths in vegetation, especially cabbage, typically haunt the edges waiting to feed, either suspended in the upper part of the water column looking up, or else roaming within sparser vegetation. Thus, anglers should consider a three-pronged approach—reaction, power, and finesse.
While VanDam is known as a spinnerbait and crankbait aficionado, he gets jacked up when the opportunity arises to throw topwaters. "In calm conditions, topwater can be the best way to go," he says. "Fish are looking to feed upward and come a long way to strike a lure."
His first choice is Strike King's KVD Splash Jr. that he casts on his signature Quantum KVD Tour 6-foot 10-inch medium-power casting rod that has an extra-fast tip for casting light baits a long way. He spools 14-pound Bass Pro Shops XPS monofilament onto a Quantum KVD Tour TKVD150HPTB with a 7:3:1 retrieve. "That Splash is a fine finesse popper and it walks, too, shaking its feathered tail. It's tail-weighted, so it casts well for a small lure. They almost always eat it when it's sitting still, which is great since you don't miss many and usually get a good hook-set." He favors natural patterns like shore minnow, sexy ghost minnow, and perch. He likes a fast retrieve to keep the bait skipping along prior to the pause. He tries to produce distinctive "bloop" sounds by working it with short twitches that also impart an irresistible side-to-side action.
Gustafson favors Jackall's SK Popper, fished on 30-pound-test Power Pro braid with a 14-inch leader of 20-pound mono and a Shimano 7-foot 2-inch Crucial rod and 150 Chronarch C14 reel that also has a 7.3:1 gear ratio. He finds that the stiff mono leader lets him muscle fish out of vegetation but also keeps the line from tangling the front hook. If bass shun the popper, he opts for a Jackall Mikey jointed wakebait, which he casts with a 7-foot 6-inch Cumara medium-heavy crankbait rod.
Sometimes a 5-inch pearl white Zoom Super Fluke gets the job done. "I keep the Fluke moving," he says, "since you want to cover water and find fish." He fishes it on a G. Loomis NRX 7-foot 3-inch 893C JWR rod and Shimano Stradic CI4 3000 reel spooled with 15-pound Power Pro braid with a 14-inch leader of 12-pound Sunline Sniper FC fluorocarbon attached to the mainline with a swivel, which weights it a bit so it doesn't "skate" on the surface.
VanDam tries a Strike King Sexy Dawg when the water is slick and he sees fish coming up and barely dimpling the surface as they pick off flies or slurp perch fry. "The Sexy Dawg works great because I can fish it faster and cover more water than with a popper," he says. "I tend to fish it fast and favor the larger 3-hook model because I think my hookup ratio is better." He uses the same reel and line as for the Splash, but steps up to a medium-heavy rod.
Anglers are well aware that with the calm comes the storm, and sooner or later the wind is going to blow. Then, VanDam immediately shifts into jerkbait mode, knowing that his ayu-color KVD 200 series Jerkbait is a tempting treat. He designed the smaller version to have a more erratic action than the 300 series lure. He fishes it on a 6-foot 10-inch medium-heavy Quantum KVD Tour rod, paired with his signature series reel in a 6.6:1 retrieve, and spooled with 14-pound Bass Pro Shops XPS fluorocarbon, which helps keep the lure higher in the water column, above the vegetation.
He says it's critical to move a jerkbait with slack in the line. He always moves the bait towards the boat with the rod, not the reel. "Start and finish your retrieve with slack in it," he advises. "For lure action I mix it up. I may jerk once then three times, then four, then twice, breaking up the rhythm but always with slack between rod and lure."
Balog also feels jerkbaits are key on Lake St. Clair, and fishes them more than any other lure there. He favors a 7-foot 7-inch medium-power Daiwa Tatula rod and Daiwa Tatula Type-R baitcaster spooled with 12-pound Sufix Fluorocarbon. He avoids gaudy colors, preferring perch patterns, greens, and blues. He targets smallies suspending high in the water column above vegetation with a Lucky Craft Pointer 100 or else a Lucky Craft Staysee if he finds fish a bit deeper. He also mixes up his cadence with varying pauses and retrieves.
If power-fishing is the deal, Balog fishes crankbaits on the same combo as jerkbaits but with a 7-foot 7-inch rod. Opting for shallow to mid-depth cranks running 6 to 10 feet deep, he tries to get the bait to tick along the tops of the grass or occasionally hit a clump. Rapala DT6 and DT10 baits, Strike King 5XD, Norman Deep Little N, and C-Flash cranks all get the nod, depending on where the plants top out.
For fish that follow the bait but don't strike, VanDam keeps a drop-shot rig ready on deck. With an 1/8-ounce weight, dirt-color Strike King Dreamshot worm, and Mustad KVD Double Wide drop-shot hook, he pitches to fish that show themselves. That color is a pumpkin/watermelon laminate that resembles a mayfly.
Smallies sometimes cruise along weededges or between stalks. They're not feeding but can be coaxed into biting. Gustafson delves into his box of tricks for a 1/16- or 3/32-ounce marabou Northland Bug-A-Boo Jig colored black, brown, or green pumpkin. He fishes it on a 7-foot 2-inch Shimano Cumara spinning rod paired with a 2500 Shimano Stradic CI4 reel with 8-pound Power Pro and an 8-pound Sunline FC Sniper fluorocarbon leader about 4 feet long. Once he spots bass cruising, he gets the hair jigs out. "Light hair jigs 'float' among the cabbage stalks; smallies have a hard time passing them up," he says. "Keep the jig gliding through the water column, never touching bottom."
VanDam is noted for his speedy approach to fishing, but if he finds fish that need more coaxing, he tries a weightless wacky-rigged 5-inch Strike King Ocho rigged on a 1/0 Mustad Double Wide drop-shot hook. He fishes it on a 7-foot 4-inch KVD Tour spinning rod and reel spooled with 10-pound braid and a 15-foot leader of 15-pound XPS fluorocarbon.
The choice for Balog is a watermelon ISG Dream Tube rigged with a 1/4-ounce Bite Me 60-degree flat-eye jighead. He fishes the tube between weedstalks. If that proves unsuccessful, he resorts to a shaky-head jig with a Zoom Finesse or Trick Worm, Berkley Gulp! 5-inch Sinking Minnow, or a Strike King Finesse Worm, all in green pumpkin. "Baits with a straight tail are key in this situation," he says. He fishes them on a 7-foot medium-power Daiwa Steez spinning rod and reel spooled with 10-pound-test green Sufix 832 with a leader of 8-pound Sufix Fluorocarbon. "The only time of year I use a shaky-head jig on smallmouths is during the postspawn," Balog says. "It saves the day when I can't catch them on other stuff. I've tried them at other times of year with no luck."
Contrary to some theories, the Postspawn Period is promising. When it comes to brown bass, think green.
*Jonathan LePera, Port Richardson, Ontario, is an avid angler and freelance writer. This is his second contribution to In-Fisherman.