During late summer and early fall, one might reason that smallmouths on most waters would be in deeper areas feeding on schooling baitfish as they shift toward the fall feed. Such is not always the case as 2010 Canadian Open of Fishing champ, Derek Strub, and I discovered. We scanned the usually productive 35- to 60-foot range of eastern Lake Erie with electronics. They displayed what looked like plenty of bass, along with baitfish to keep them nearby. Yet, day after day, they snubbed our offerings.
"Late August through mid- September has traditionally been a difficult time of year on the Great Lakes," Strub says, "especially for fish on deep structure. I found dozens of deep areas with good fish, but struggled each day to catch over 10, even though I was seeing hundreds on my Humminbird 998 units. The water temperature is usually near its peak then and bass with plenty of forage nearby can be tentative feeders."
Bob Izumi, 2011 FLW EverStart Thousand Island Champion and host of the television show Real Fishing, expresses similar sentiments. "I find that when smallmouths occupy deep water, they have more reasons not to be active than they do in shallower water. In late summer, when they're on, it's incredible, but they're more often inactive."
Scott Huffman, 2010 B.A.S.S Ontario Provincial Champion, theorizes, "I've always believed there are resident populations of smallmouth bass in Lake Erie that spend the majority of their time deep (25 to 45 feet) and those that are shallow (4 to 20 feet). This belief stems from my childhood, when I fished from a 14-foot cartopper," he says, "rowing around the Morgan's Point area of Lake Erie in the eastern basin. More recently, I've explored the entire shoreline from Port Colborne to the Upper Niagara with my trolling motor on high, looking for fish."
Where to Look
From his years of scouting, Huffman has learned to check 3- to 5-foot shoreline rock-boulder flats with inside ledges that drop into 5- to 7-foot depths before reverting to shallow flats. "Smallmouths cruise these inside drop-off ledges and wander up onto the flats in search of food, primarily crayfish. The glaciers formed deep cuts in the rocky bottom and carved roads for fish to traverse. They're used year-round."
These experts agree on where to target shallow smallmouths when deep-water fish turn docile. "From what I've seen, shallow fish on Lake Erie feed on schooling emerald shiners when they're available, also crayfish and gobies," Strub says. He notes their affinity for specific types of structure. "Areas of broken rock hold more and better fish than areas without broken rock. Those rock edges look dark. You can be 10 feet from a big bass on this edge and you can't see it until it swims away."
"Look for transitions," Izumi adds. "It could be moss patches on a sand bottom, sand meeting gravel or rock, or where rock meets gravel. Also look for isolated weed patches. Sweet spots always contain a transition of two or more elements."
While shallow sandflats can offer explosive smallmouth action, be aware that these fish are vagabonds. Strub suggests that if you find smallmouths roaming in search of bait, beat up on them immediately as they may leave as quickly as they appeared. "A rule, if you ask yourself 'why are they here?' or if there's no structural reason for such an aggregation, don't bet on them staying long. This applies to any flats situation where little or no major structure is present. Baitfish can hold them for a day or two, but don't count on it."
Strub has frequently watched this scenario, and Izumi learned a lesson while prefishing for a tournament on Lake St. Clair. "I was at the mouth of one of the rivers, following an edge that went from 10 feet to 2 feet deep," he says. "For almost a mile, I could cast 180 degrees around the boat and catch fish, accompanied by 1 to 3 followers. Firing a spinnerbait, you could have caught hundreds of bass. The last practice day and first day of the tournament, the wind switched to the west and I caught one fish there."
To find fish-holding structure, Joe Balog, an expert on Lake St. Clair and the western basin of Lake Erie, has a Humminbird side-imaging unit on his trolling motor to search for big rocks he can target with long casts. "In shallow areas, bass are there to feed. They're like cattle released into a new pasture. Out deep, in contrast, they're often hanging out. Feeding windows are narrower." Balog adds that the effects of current and the precision required of deepwater presentations contribute to the challenges of catching deep-water smallmouths.
Shallow bass tend to be leaner, but you can expect a lot of 3- to 4-pound fish with the odd kicker mixed in. Strub says that shallow fish feed more aggressively in summer and early fall because food generally isn't as abundant there. "The bottom isn't covered with gobies like deep structure is," he says. "Bass have to work harder to feed and must chase prey."
Chase they will, but since the water is clearer in the shallows, smallies use their excellent vision to select which offerings are real, which artificial. Therein lies one of the most important presentation keys for shallow smallmouth bass. If you don't pursue them aggressively, you must downsize lures and focus on realism.
Huffman almost exclusively swims 2½-inch tubes on 1/8-ounce heads with a 1/0 Owner fine-wire hook, using an Abu Garcia 6½-foot medium-action Veritas rod with a Pflueger Supreme XT 9230. "I run 10-pound Berkley NanoFil with 10-pound Berkley 100% Fluorocarbon leader. This combo lets you feel everything.
"The smallest tick or sudden slack indicates a smallie has inhaled your tube and is swimming toward you. It's imperative that you keep your lure above the algae-coated bottom. If bass chase your lure to the boat, drop the tube to the bottom a few feet in front of them and let it rest a few seconds. They can't resist. And once you get one to bite, it seems like every fish within 50 feet gets excited."
Huffman thinks small tubes imitate yearling crayfish. He even peels back the outside layer of tubes to the thinnest layer, yielding an even smaller profile. This core generally is lighter in color, particularly the green pumpkin and watermelon patterns he favors.
Strub uses Shimano Crucial dropshot rods with Stradic 3000s spooled with 8-pound Sufix Fluorocarbon. The Trigger X 4-inch Probe Worm is aptly named for what Strub uses it for—picking apart visible smallmouth habitat. He sometimes tries to fire up fish with a white X-Rap, following with a dropshot or a tube.
Izumi's approach to shallow fish is simple: "If it's calm, you have to catch them on finesse baits worked slowly. Otherwise you can speed up and catch them off-guard with a fast-moving bait. There's no in between."
For the subtle approach, he prefers a 1/8-ounce tube jig in smoke with black flake or he drop-shots a Berkley 3-inch Gulp! Fry in watermelon-white or green pumpkin. He may also make ultra-long casts with a green pumpkin weightless Gulp! Sinking Minnow. Izumi cautions dropshotters not to move the bait at all. "No twitching the rod tip or adding action," he says. For a speedy approach, his first choice is burning a spinnerbait on a G Loomis GL2 812C paired with a high-speed Chronarch and 17-pound Berkley 100% fluorocarbon. "Nothing beats slammin' shallow smallies on spinnerbaits. Talk about an adrenaline rush."
When Balog heads shallow, he power fishes. He suggests yo-yoing a Rapala Rippin' Rap off bottom or cranking a DT 6 or DT 10 in shad hues. On St. Clair, he rips a jerkbait.
He believes he's cracked the code for shallow smallmouths with his Goby Replica Swimbait. Weighing almost an ounce, this bait isn't for the faint of heart. A beefy setup is required, an 8-foot heavy-action Team Daiwa Zillion rod with 15-pound fluorocarbon on a Daiwa T3 reel.
"It works best if you drag it like a Carolina rig," he says. "When you get a bite, reel down to the fish and sweep the rod sideways. It's a big bait, so when you set the hook you need to turn it in their mouth to get the hook set."
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2½-inch ISG tube (peeled)
Berkley Gulp! Sinking Minnow
Water Clarity and Timing
Balog prides himself on his deep-water skills, but he's aware you can't force-feed smallmouths. When he's greeted with flat clear water and a high sun, he anticipates a good shallow bite. "It goes against what most people think but if I was going out to look for shallow fish, I'd wait until 10 o'clock in the morning, when the sun is shining. In those conditions I can see fish from afar and they can see my bait."
Any influx of cold water or a sharp change in wind conditions can kill a shallow bite. "Years ago at Escanaba, I fished an EverStart Tournament," Izumi says. "During prefishing, you couldn't burn a spinnerbait fast enough. Black 3- and 4-pounders were smoking the blades under calm conditions. But come tournament time, a strong east wind blew cold water from Lake Michigan into the shallow rock-sand transitions I'd been fishing. Water temperature dropped 11 or 12 degrees. They'd chase but wouldn't bite."
Balog relishes the quirks that make smallmouth bass unique, noting their varying behavior in different bodies of water. "Erie smallmouths are completely different fish," he says. "They school and hunt in packs." To locate such packs, he recommends selecting 2 or 3 lures in a few categories that you can cast far. "If you can't cast them, they're worthless. You have to cover water. Don't get hung up on intricacies of colors and lure details. Put the trolling motor on high and keep looking and casting. If you don't catch fish, move a mile or more. When you find them, they're often easy to catch."
"I like hunting for fish," Izumi says. "On a lot of lakes—Lake of Woods, Lake Simcoe, Lake Erie, and Lake Ontario—I head shallow, especially if it's flat calm and sunny. On these and other waters, more smallmouths seem to be in shallow water than in the past." That's a blessing. I can't imagine what life would be like without the bone jarring hooksets and high flying combat that epitomize the shallow bite."
*Jonathan LePera, Port Robinson, Ontario, is an avid bass angler and a freelance writer.