Tactics for Summer Smallmouths in Big Water
June 28, 2018
Walled in by green, I let the stream have its way with my kayak. And I cast topwaters, waiting for time to stand still in a blur of bronze, hooks, and flying water.
Threading through forests and valleys across the country are little streams populated with feisty, aggressive, less-pressured smallmouth bass—the path less traveled. Stream bass always seem more aggressive, often because they face less fishing pressure and need to react quickly to get a meal. They can be the best option when lakes turn green with plankton and baitfish reach peak abundance. Smallmouths in big water tend to be well fed and often uninterested in artificial baits.
I asked a famous guide and a seasoned pro how they face the late-summer doldrums—the infamous Dog Days. Their comments reinforce our understanding of how the forage base often determines differences in late-summer behavior of smallmouth bass in different regions and at different latitudes. But one thing's for certain—these fish are feeding.
The Great Lakes have been assaulted with one wave of exotics after another. Most notably, smelt, alewives, and now gobies have taken turns dominating location and behavior for feeding bass. Alewives and smelt cause smallmouths to suspend more. Today gobies are pinning them to structure.
Frank Campbell, guide and owner of Niagara Region Charters, addresses August doldrums on lakes Erie and Ontario with classic solutions: Downsizing and working deeper. "The glut of baitfish is the challenge," Campbell says. "It's not summer conditions that turn them off—it's the abundance of prey. So during August, we offer peanuts. I drop-shot with smaller lures, like the Strike King Half Shell. Smallmouths abandon normal hangouts in 15 to 25 feet, so I look both deeper and shallower. Sometimes they're in 10 feet or less and sometimes out in 50 feet of water. In either case, I use the lightest tungsten sinker that works, with the smallest hook and lightest line I can get away with—usually 6-pound fluorocarbon or the new 6.2- to 8.4-pound Seaguar Finesse Fluorocarbon and a #4 Owner Mosquito Hook.
"Up shallow I run a 1/8-ounce sinker, 3/8-ounce out deep," he says. "It takes time to get down there, but small lures fall faster and the lighter sinker—doesn't discourage bass that pick it up. When marking them up off bottom, we often have to use a 3- to 5-foot dropper below the hook. In deep water, use a long rod to get more lifta 7.5-footer is optimal. But the lures are small. When bass have an overabundance of food, offer a tasty desert to perk them up."
In shallow spots, Campbell tells clients to pitch out and reel back slowly. "You may find a small patch of vegetation, piece of structure, or a drop-off," he says. "Shallow fish are more aggressive than deeper ones. They're cruisers, with only one reason to be shallow this time of year. Working shallow is best during early morning and late evening low-light periods. Buckeye Lures' Spot Remover head can be dynamite with drop-shot baits like the Strike King Dream Shot. I try not to work it. Just move it a bit and let it sit. Let the action of the tail work in the current. There's always some current near bottom in Erie. I fish it shallow and deep, trying to get away with the lightest head I can—1/8-ounce shallow and 3/8-ounce deep. Try to hover over fish you mark deep. Drop it right to 'em and let it sit—same thing you do with a drop-shot."
Jeff Gustafson, a native of Ontario, is a pro on the rise. Now in his sixth year on the FLW Tour, "Gussy" came in second at an FLW event on the Harris Chain in Florida during February, and followed up with a seventh-place finish at Lake Lanier in Georgia this past spring. But up where he lives in Northwest Ontario, he takes an approach to big smallmouths that contrasts sharply with Campbell's Great Lakes tactics.
"Back at home we're fortunate to have excellent smallmouth fishing on many waters," Gustafson says. "Fishing as many bass tournaments as I do on waters like Lake of the Woods and Rainy Lake, I'm forced to fish in conditions during summer that can be less than favorable. The same is true for folks that visit for a trip during late summer. When the weather is stable, smallmouths can be caught on almost any technique, but when we're faced with hot weather or cold fronts, the bite can get extremely tough."
Gustafson addresses doldrums brought on by the year's hottest weather by switching to largemouth tactics. "One misconception many anglers have is when it gets hot, smallmouths go deep. But they often do the opposite," he says. "John Peterson (co-founder of Northland Tackle) and I have fished the Fort Frances Canadian Bass Championship tournament on Rainy since the early 2000s and have had some of our best finishes when the weather was as hot as it gets for us—in the mid-90s. When it gets hot, we break out our largemouth gear—frogs, swimjigs, and flippin' baits on heavy rods and braided line. A lot of the biggest fish go up shallow in the slop, where you'd expect to find largemouths. A little bit of rock—one boulder in a field of rice, reeds, or pads—becomes a magnet. We think that when it gets hot, smelt and ciscoes—preferred prey fish on Rainy—go deeper than 50 feet, out of the range of bass."
But cold fronts change the picture dramatically. Gustafson uses Rainy as a reference because of its similarity to many smallmouth lakes in Northwest Ontario in structure and forage profile. "The same principles apply to Lake of the Woods or most water bodies in the region," he says. "When we get strong cold fronts, baitfish rise higher in the water column, into the 10- to 30-foot depth range. Then we start to see smallmouths on main-lake humps, points, and bluffs. Last year at the International Falls Bass Championship in late August, my friends Scott Dingwall and I won and set the tournament catch record. We caught nearly all our fish in 20 feet of water or deeper. It had been several years since I'd fished deeper than 10 feet out there because we had good weather for multiple years in a row during for this event. We looked at the cool weather the week of the tournament and decided to hunt deeper. We didn't light it up in practice, but caught enough to tip us off. Over the next few days, while it remained cool and windy, the deep bite got better each day."
Gustafson fishes larger swimbaits, like the 4.8-inch Jackall Rhythm Wave, on a 3/8-ounce Northland Slurp Jig. "Shad colors mimic ciscoes well," he says. "Another favorite is a 3/4-ounce Nichols Spoon. The spoon is overlooked and something I learned fishing the Tennessee River reservoirs on tour, using magnum spoons like the Nichols Lures Ben Parker Mini Magnum Flutter Spoon. This is a secret bait in my part of the world and it catches big fish. I cast it over structure, letting it crash into the bottom, then rip it in 6-foot lifts, letting it flutter back. It catches bonus big pike and walleyes, too."
Gustafson uses a G. Loomis NRX 893C rod, Shimano Curado reel (8.2:1), and 15-pound fluoro for larger swimbaits. For ripping a spoon he goes with a G. Loomis IMX Pro (873C), same reel, and 17-pound fluoro. "We caught all of our fish on large, cisco-imitating lures," he adds. "On some waters, finesse is the answer to catch fish in cold-front situations but our season is so short that they don't stop eating during summer, so you need to figure out what they want to eat.
Two tactics shine for me in the Dog Days: Wacky-rigging finesse worms and 4-inch stickworms under a float, and deadsticking vertically with drop-shot rigs. Twenty years ago, my go-to response for shallow, forage-glut smallmouths in August was a jumbo leech on a #4 baitholder hook under a fixed float. Smallmouths couldn't refuse a big, lively leech, even when full to the gill rakers and spitting up shiners, perch, or craws all the way back to the boat. But something changed that dynamic. Maybe too many smallmouths were being caught accidentally by the walleye slipfloat/leech brigade. But suddenly—and we watched it happen in clear water—smallmouths came racing up to suspended leeches, stopped short, and slowly faded away. A big leech could still turn a few, but rejections became common.
A year or two prior to that development, smallmouth guide Gary Nault of Door County, Wisconsin, approached me at a tournament weigh-in with a tale to tell. He and his customers where having 100-fish days for smallmouths on leeches under floats. Nobody can carry enough leeches to outlast that kind of mayhem, so Nault decided to try dangling a wacky-rigged worm out there before the bait ran out. "It was amazing," he said. "Suspended wacky rigs started catching bass faster than the leeches."
For the past 6 or 7 years, bobber-wacky rigs have outproduced leeches every time we've tried both. There's something about a worm, bobbing under the waves, both ends flapping, then vibrating to rest under a float drives smallmouths to distraction. The easy target hanging there whispers, "eat me." We know smallmouths love wacky rigs on jigs, drop-shot rigs, or inched along bottom on a bare hook. But, during the forage gluts of late summer, those tactics take a back seat to the bobber-wacky most days.
I use 10-pound Berkley FireLine because it floats. Line shouldn't be so thin it cuts the surface tension and sinks. Fluorocarbon sinks right away, and mono eventually soaks up water and sinks, making those options poor mainline choices. Sometimes the float has to sit out on a key spot for several minutes or more before an over-stuffed, late-summer smallmouth loses control and attacks. With line submerged between rod and float, setting hooks is dubious.
The float is a Rainbow Plastics A-Just-A-Bubble—a plastic fixed float that casts with no weight on the line. Slip the braid through the surgical tubing that runs through the center of the float and twist it. The tubing grabs the line and holds it in place. Twist it on just tight enough so it can slide up or down to adjust for depth, but won't slip on its own. Below that, tie a barrel swivel and attach a 3- to 5-foot leader of 6- to 8-pound fluorocarbon, depending on the depth fished. The rig terminates in a #6 or #4 Gamakatsu Baitholder or Trokar Wacky Hook. Berkley PowerBait Wacky Crawlers and 4-inch Yamamoto Senkos shine, but almost any 4- to 5-inch finesse or cigar worm can be fine. For unknown reasons, a small split shot (about 1/64-ounce) set about three feet above the hook helps.
Many anglers slide a rubber O-ring onto the center of a worm and slip the hook under it. Sometimes that saves a few worms. A new wrinkle from Frenzy Baits called the Wacky Saddle provides several advantages: Two rings grip the worm better, and the hook goes through a saddle between those rings, creating more teetering action without damaging the worm.
In clear water, suspend worms halfway to the bottom over depths of 12 feet or less. In deeper spots, the worm should hang 4 to 6 feet off bottom, depending on where you mark bass on sonar. In cloudier water, keep it about 2 feet off bottom most of the time.
When fishing is super tough, the rig may have to sit for an extended period, or be continually drifted past a key spot. Other times, bass respond to manipulation. Twitch it in place, then pull it slowly three feet at a time to see if bass are staring at it and need to be triggered. Longer rods are best for manipulating rigs into prime spots or changing direction to trigger strikes. I use St. Croix Slip Sticks—telescoping 8-footers.
Our next best Dog-Day solution is a do-nothing tactic for deeper bass showing up on camera or sonar that won't bite. Put the boat on Spot-Lock. Grab a drop-shot rod, reel spooled with 6- to 8-pound Seaguar Abraz-X or other fine fluorocarbon mainline, and tip the hook with a 4-inch Berkley Gulp! Minnow. Drop it to the bottom, reel it up half a crank, place the rod in a holder, and eat a sandwich. Tie up some rigs. Make phone calls. Watch birds. Where legal, fish something with a second rod. The same principle that makes the bobber wacky shine is at play. The lure sits in place, moving gently win minuscule currents. Bass drawn to the boat by other tactics stare at it until something snaps.
Scent helps. Lather scent on bobber-wacky worms, too. Take every advantage. Fluorocarbon leaders, tediously protracted presentations, scent, and patience—those keys unlock tough, late-summer bites. When bass are belching away down there in the belly-stretching throes of a forage glut, try hypnosis. And if these concessions can't turn a few fish, there's the kayak option on small rivers threading through valleys the big-boat crowd knows nothing about.