Winter is coming. We all know it. So do smallmouth bass. Water temperatures are already below 60°F throughout much of their range. Shorter days spur bass to congregate, and with less radiant heat from a more distant sun, water temperatures are set to plunge.
As Mother Nature flirts with turning us into white walkers, smallmouths patrol steep-breaking shorelines, main-lake points, and rock humps in search of food. Packed into pods, they don’t quietly go into a winter slumber. Instead, they plot strategic feeding rampages. Should you encounter these fish under ideal feeding conditions, you’d swear they’re destined for extinction, as they crush baits with a reckless abandon. These are the “can do no wrong” days. But most times it takes a multi-faceted approach to capitalize on the curious, intelligent nature of smallmouths.
For as far back as any In-Fisherman reader can recall, a lively minnow, chub, or shad rigged on a livebait rig has been a staple for late-fall bass. But anglers who rely on livebait to get the job done on smallmouths often return to the dock empty handed, cursing the impending winter. Those with a diverse game plan—one that includes both livebait and artificial lures—rarely get short-changed.
While livebait rigging remains an effective late-fall option, it can be made more effective not only with some refinements, but also by incorporating artificial lures into a broader system to locate and trigger more fish. This means doing two things at once—pulling baits and working lures. When done properly, each tactic serves to benefit the other. If multitasking isn’t your strong suit, assign one method to each angler and switch roles between casting and manning livebait rods. The emphasis is to have both approaches occurring at the same time.
My preferred system is to fish with three anglers in the boat. Depending on local regulations, this typically allows for the use of four livebait rods and at least two rods working different lures. Two livebait rods are placed in holders at the bow and two at the stern. Lures are worked off the bow or sides of the boat while baits are slowly dragged with the trolling motor over prime structure, which is typically quick breaking edges or windswept points and shorelines.
The two setups at the bow consist of line-counter reels on 8- to 9-foot moderate to fast-action trolling-style rods. Longer rods allow for more flex in the tip prior to the rod loading throughout its power section. This not only helps to avoid detection by fish, but also provides a better presentation in choppy conditions by acting as a shock absorber for the bait.
Line-counter reels should have the lightest bait clicker. To test, loosen the cast control knob and put the reel in free spool while having the bait clicker engaged. Then slowly pull line from the reel. Select reels that offer the least amount of resistance. Most often, if a bass feels tension from the rod or reel, they drop the bait, often killing it on the initial strike and then refusing to eat it. Some anglers equate this to a slow bite day. This is rather typical behavior of late fall bass, however, and can be converted into more landed fish with proper equipment and technique.
Some of the finer line-counter reels with lighter-tension bait clickers, reliable line counters, and flawless drags are the Okuma Cold Waters, Abu Garcia Ambassadeur 5500LC, and Daiwa Sealine SG17LC3B. Avoid spooling with no-stretch braids for this technique because it allows fish to more quickly feel resistance of the rod and spit the bait. Instead, use a low-stretch monofilament like 10-pound-test Trilene XT, or a copolymer like Silver Thread Excalibur. These lines offer good sinking characteristics and moderate stretch for sufficient sensitivity and solid hook-sets.
I use 1- to 1.5-ounce Lindy No-Snagg sinkers on the bow rods for fishing baits tight to the bottom. The heavy sinkers allow for quick corrections with the trolling motor to precisely follow sharp depth contours and to do 180-degree turns to repeat productive passes. With the sinker directly under the boat, you know exactly where the baits are at all times, and they’re less prone to tangle in the trolling motor.
Choose the appropriate strength of fluorocarbon leader based on water clarity, and consider a Lindy Snell Float above the hook. The float adds color to the rig and enhances the action of the livebait. The final component is the hook. Since fall smallmouths often eat baits without making a quick initial run, avoid circle hooks, as they are generally more fatal to fish when swallowed.
Light-wire octopus and bait-style hooks are effective when bites are carefully monitored and hooks set promptly upon the fish committing to the bait. Quality thin-wire livebait hooks include the Owner SSW Super Needle Point, Eagle Claw Lazer Sharp and TroKar Octopus, and Gamakatsu Octopus. Pack hooks from #4 to 2/0 for baits ranging in size from 3 to 8 inches. Change hooks to match the size of bait. A hook that’s too big weighs down and encumbers the movement of small baits. Hooks that are too small lack sufficient gap to get an effective hook-set. Far too often anglers start with one hook and never switch regardless of bait size.
With a lively bait hooked lightly through the mouth and out the top of the head, place the rod in the holder positioned nearly parallel to the water. If conditions aren’t too windy and a slow drift is anticipated, set the bait a foot off the bottom and adjust its position while keeping track of the depth with both the bowmount and console sonar. Under windy conditions, let out more line based on the speed of the drift and severity of the line angle as it enters the water.
A split screen locator with down- and side-imaging, like the Humminbird Helix 10, is a bonus. These units let you know not only the exact shape of boulders and the height of any remaining bottom vegetation, but also what structural changes exist out to the sides of the boat. This allows you to raise or lower baits without snagging based on what you see on sonar.
Constantly watch the bait rods in the holders as you work beyond the steep edges with artificials. By making long casts with lipless rattle- and bladebaits, you can cover more than a 200-foot radius around the plotted course of the boat. This enables you to probe shallower flats, as well as the start of the basin where the deep break levels off. While high spots and steep breaking edges typically hold some fish, they don’t always hold the highest concentrations of bass transitioning between areas. Fast-moving lures that cover water quickly are ideal for finding these schools. Then reposition the boat to give them a dose of livebait, too.
The Livebait Bite
When a bass bites on a livebait rod, one of three things typically happens to signal the bite. 1) It immediately charges off with the bait and the bait clicker sounds like a coffee grinder. This is music to everyone’s ears but happens less than a third of the time. Hook-sets can be immediate in this case. 2) The first signal of a bite is one distinct tap that moves the rod tip 2 to 3 inches and then nothing as the fish holds the bait in its mouth without moving off. 3) On the most subtle bite the rod’s tip section sags and loads slightly. If you don’t detect this bite when it first happens, you may notice that the action of the rod is slightly deadened and doesn’t bounce quite as much with the waves. This last bite is nearly undetectable on a fast-action rod.
Once a bite occurs, put your thumb on the spool without exerting any extra pressure. Turn off the bait clicker and remove the rod from the holder. Allow the fish to take as much line as needed to raise the rod to hook-setting level. Firmly press your thumb on the spool and slowly lift the rod an inch or two to confirm the weight of the fish on the line. Then immediately engage the drag and set the hook. The process may seem tedious at first, but with a little practice it becomes effortless and can be executed in seconds.
The two rods at the stern can be set up in the same fashion with line-counter reels, or, to cover more water and to get a slightly different presentation from your bait spread, consider using spinning reels with a bait-feeder. This feature is more common on large saltwater reels, but manufacturers such as Okuma make several medium-size reels with bait-feeders, including the Trio Baitfeeder and Avenger ABF. The bait-feeder lever at the rear of the reel allows the bait to be set at the desired depth with the bail shut and the front drag not engaged. Instead, a tension knob at the rear of the reel allows minute tension to be placed on the spool. This keeps the spool from spinning freely, but still allows a fish to swim with the bait. These bait-feeder features are more sensitive than bait-clickers and are invaluable for light-biting fish. When a bite is detected, the bait-feeder lever is flipped and the drag immediately engaged to set the hook and fight the fish.
On these spinning reels, try running rigs with lighter sinkers to allow baits to freely swim back behind the boat and several feet off the bottom. This can generally be done with a split-shot rig or Lindy rig. With more line trailing behind the boat, bites can be more difficult to detect, so use larger baits. In the event it takes longer to set the hook on a fish, it’s less likely it will have swallowed the entire bait and hook.
Deploying baits of different sizes allows you to determine if bass are preferring a certain size. Smallmouths can be size-selective with artificial lures, too. Two of my favorite lures for aggressively working rock humps in depths of 15 to 35 feet are the Rapala Rippin’ Rap and Johnson Thinfisher. They can be retrieved in a variety of ways from subtle to pulling to ripping.
Experiment with lure size. For instance, the smallest Thinfisher at 13⁄8 inches and 3/16-ounce might get overlooked by bass anglers but it’s often a top producer for big fish when worked with a pulling retrieve. Add an occasional exaggerated rip that gets the bait charging up in the water column and then falling more slowly than larger and heavier bladebaits. The same is true of the various sizes of Rippin’ Raps. Each has a unique sink rate and tightness to its wobble on the upstroke. The largest #7 has the sloppiest action, while the smallest #5 has the tightest wobble. Based on the size of lures and the depth where they’re getting hit, the size and placement of livebait can be adjusted. Also, lures draw following fish to the boat and within range of livebaits.
When working wind-blown shoreline breaks where bass often stack up, crankbaits and suspending deep-diving jerkbaits are good choices. Start with an aggressive approach of casting square-billed cranks across rocks in the 4- to 8-foot depth range. Some of the most active bass are in this depth range until water cools into the 40s. Keep retrieve speeds fast to get lures wandering from left to right and bouncing off boulders. For deep divers, Rapala Deep Shadow Raps, the Dynamic Lure Travado-DP, and Berkley Cutter 110s are deadly when fished with periodic pauses in near-white-cap conditions.
Gradually move deeper in 4-foot depth increments until you locate bass. Then, position the boat along the 12-foot contour and cast toward shore with the wind. Lures like the Bandit 300, Rapala DT10, and Bagley Diving B2 work well in this depth range. Plastic and balsa baits have distinct actions, so experiment with some of each. When moving out to the 16-foot break, continue to make occasional bottom contact with lures like the Strike King 5XD, SPRO Little John Baby DD 60, and Rapala DT16.
For these large lures, a long powerful crankbait rod such as the 13 Fishing Envy Black EBC711C is a good choice to muscle casts across the wind and to make sweeping hook-sets when that distinct tap is felt at the end of a long cast. Its softer tip and moderate action also helps to keep hooks from coming dislodged when big smallmouths go airborne. Pairing this rod with a 6:1 retrieve ratio baitcast reel spooled with 15-pound braid, you can work lures quickly to locate fish. All the while, livebait is deployed under and off the back of the boat to convert additional fish.
Until the snow flies and beyond, smallmouths are vulnerable to both livebait and artificial lures. Fish them together and you get the best of both worlds. Fingers may be numb, but rods are popping and lures are getting smacked until ice-up.
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Steve Ryan is an accomplished multispecies angler and has pursued smallmouths throughout North America.