Giant smallmouth bass, like this 8-pound, 2-ounce specimen, are a rare breed -- a fish that requires skill, patience and luck to encounter.
Dr. James A. Henshall, in his classic volume Book of the Black Bass, described the smallmouth as "the gamest bass." That was in 1881 and many anglers would argue it's just as it's true today.
The smallmouth, you see, is a fish with a major-league chip on its shoulder. It doesn't peck or nibble at a bait; it slams it. Its powerhouse runs are awesome -- a big smallie has been known to rip the hooks right out of a crankbait when it gets up a good head of steam. And when it feels cold steel in its jaw, it takes to the air, more bird than fish.
No wonder the smallmouth has a cult following. Your typical hard-core smallmouth angler turns his nose up at largemouths ("green carp," one buddy of mine calls 'em). "Why, I'd rather fish a solid week in 20-degree weather just on the outside chance that I might get bit by one 5-pound smallie than catch a dozen limits of largemouths!" attest another acquaintance who has been badly bitten by the bronzeback bug.
The smallmouth's unpredictable nature makes it unusually challenging to even the most accomplished bass anglers. "I learned a long time ago not to place any bets on smallies when I'm competing in a tournament," veteran Springfield, Mo., bass pro Basil Bacon admits. "More than once I've been on schools of big smallies during practice only to have 'em disappear on the opening day of competition. Largemouths by and large are much more predictable and far easier to pattern. They're money fish. Smallmouths? Bank on 'em and you're asking for trouble."
Haunts & Habits of Smallmouths
"You can be a great a largemouth bass fisherman but a lousy smallmouth fisherman," Pickwick Lake guide Steve Hacker points out. "The two skills aren't mutually exclusive, but close."
One reason, Hacker claims, is that largemouths and smallmouths don't usually prowl the same places. "I'll catch a few largemouths on my smallmouth holes, but not many. They're both different fish with different habitat needs."
Largemouths, Hacker explains, like shallow, slack water with plenty of wood or weed cover. Smallies, on the other hand, prefer deeper water and, if it's available, current.
Cover? They can take it or leave it. "One of the hardest things for the experienced largemouth angler to grasp about smallmouths is that this is a fish that relates differently to cover. Largemouths often bury inside a weedbed or brushpile. Smallmouths will use the outer edges of cover, suspend over it or totally ignore it."
To illustrate, Hacker describes two big flats, one composed of mud and peppered with hundreds of stumps; the other pea gravel and with only a half-dozen stumps. "The first flat seems fishier, and it is if you're gunning for largemouths. But I'll take the second flat for smallies. They like gravel, chunk rock and an isolated stump here or there."
In deep, clear highland reservoirs, largemouths are often creatures of the shorelines and back ends of coves, while smallies prowl bigger, deeper, more open water. Dale Hollow guide Fred McClintock finds that smallies in this environment relate to points, ledges and offshore humps far more than they do the shorelines. "This is one reason why many otherwise competent bass fishermen seldom encounter a smallmouth -- they're casting into the bank, where smallmouths mostly aren't," McClintock believes. "Smallmouths will move to the banks on highland lakes, but most often at night or on extremely windy days, when they forage for crayfish. During the day, however, they're far more likely to be holding a hundred yards from shore at the end of a main-lake point, or suspending off a 20-foot ledge in 45 feet of water."
In lakes like Dale Hollow that lack extensive wood cover, the smallmouth angler should be alert for subtle changes -- in bank or bottom composition, in shoreline contour, in water color. "Smallies will gravitate to places where one type of rock changes to another. On a hundred-yard stretch of bank, all of the fish may be concentrated where fist-sized rock changes to gravel. These composition changes visible on the bank extend out into the water, and the fish may hold tight to bottom at their comfort zone, often 20 feet deep, or suspend somewhere out from the composition change. I've also seen them stack up on a main-lake point where a mudline has formed on a windy day. They use the discolored water as cover."
Pickwick Lake, Ala., guide Steve Hacker knows smallmouths are "the gamest bass." He caught these beautiful bronzebacks on tiny hair jigs.
"The only creatures that relate to humps more than smallmouth bass are camels!" quips Priest Lake, Tenn., guide Jack Christian. "They love to hang around a high spot rising out of deep water -- the closer to the main river channel, the better. A dream smallmouth hump has an 80-foot channel three casts away, a 25-foot shelf one cast away and 10-foot water on top. The fish can suspend 40 feet deep over on the channel lip, work its way up to the base of the hump during the day, then prowl the top at night." Christian says cover isn't important, it's the depth of water surrounding the hump that's the tip-off to good smallmouth potential. "Largemouth fishermen think 10 feet is deep, but that's shallow to the experienced smallmouth angler. These bass will move shallow, true, but they spend the vast majority of their time in deep water."
"Points are key smallmouth structures, but they're also the most visible structures on the lake -- and therefore the ones that usually get the most fishing pressure," believes Lake Whitney, Tex. guide Ron Gardner. "Smallmouths spook a lot easier than largemouths. When largemouths get pressured, they pull deeper into a brushpile or weedbed, where they're still catchable by flipping a jig. But when smallies get pressured, they scatter. They'll suspend out in open water or hang around some 35-foot ledge until the heat's off."
Probably the most logical way to monitor the habits of the smallmouth bass is by season.
PRE-SPAWN -- By early March, many of Dixie's smallmouth lakes have a surface temperature of 45 degrees. Smallmouths are deep and sluggish, but unseasonably warm days and tepid rains may quickly warm the water. When this happens, smallies move out of deep water, making their way to the shallows via long, tapering points and ledges connecting to main-lake flats. Fast-rising, murky water, such as typically occurs after a day or two of hard rain, may trigger a wholesale movement to shallow water. Smallies will hang around scattered stumps and rockpiles, usually close to a deep drop-off.
SPAWN -- When the surface temperature bumps 56 degrees, the biggest smallmouths will begin taking over the choicest spawning grounds. Smaller fish usually won't spawn until the water hits the low 60's. Smallies bed on flats with a composition of gravel and/or clay, often 8 to 15 feet deep. They may fan out a nest close to a stump or rock if one is available.
POST-SPAWN -- Smallies will fan out from their spawning areas before moving to deeper water. Some may hang around the outer perimeter of flooded willow bushes; others gravitate to the deeper edges of spawning flats, often suspending around 15 feet deep in 30 feet of water.
SUMMER -- Smallies take up a main-lake lifestyle, gravitating to river channel drop-offs and points, humps and ledges. In deep, clear lakes, they often suspend above the thermocline from 25 to 45 feet deep, and may wander open water feeding on migrating schools of shad or alewives. In shallower, murkier lakes, especially those with good current flow, they'll be much shallower, but seldom close to shore -- look for them on offshore humps and rockpiles down to around 18 feet. At night, smallies may come to rocky banks to forage for crawfish.
FALL -- Steep rock banks (especially those with a 45-degree slope into deep water), as well as long main-lake points, will hold smallies in clear lakes. They'll suspend at extreme depths (sometimes over 50 feet) by day but may move shallow at night to feed. Main-lake points will hold concentrations of smallmouths, but again, these fish are often suspending in deep water and may not move within casting range until nightfall, unless a stiff breeze is blowing. In murky lakes, smallies will hold on long main-lake points in 8 to 15 feet of water, especially on windy days.
WINTER -- In clear highland lakes, smallies will hang around deep points on both the main lake and in the deeper tributaries, often at the 20-foot level. They will move much shallower on main-lake points buffeted by high winds on unseasonably warm, overcast days. In murky lakes, they are far less active in the winter than in clear lakes, unless considerable current is present. If it is, they'll move to the extreme upper end of the reservoir and locate around rockpiles and shallow bluffs in the 8- to 15-foot zone.
You don't need a thousand bucks worth of lures to nail a trophy smallmouth. Here are some you should have:
- Grub --- Probably the No. 1 lure for both numbers of keeper smallies and trophy fish. Smoke, chartreuse and pumpkin-pepper are universal smallmouth colors. Try a 4- or 5-inch grub with a 1/4-ounce. leadhead. Fish it horizontally by swimming it close to the bottom on spring spawning flats, then drop it on a tight line on 45 degree banks and deep points in fall and winter. A grub caught the biggest smallmouth bass taken anywhere in recent history, a 10-pound, 8-ounce. monster from Dale Hollow caught by a tourist from Indiana in 1986. Yep, he was using a spincast outfit.
- Fly 'n' Rind (Hair jig & pork) -- A great smallmouth lure in stained lakes; probably your best choice everywhere in 42- to 55-degree water. Fish it on light line on steep structure and gravel flats. In heavy current, remove the trailer. Contrasting dark colors -- black/purple, brown/orange -- work best. An excellent choice at night.
- Blade Bait -- Thin metal baits that vibrate intensely when retrieved, including the Silver Buddy and Gay Blade, are excellent fall and winter lures for big smallies. They can be fished fast in water to 55 feet deep, making them especially deadly when bronzebacks are holding on cavernous river channel structure.
- Spinnerbait -- Ideal at night in clear lakes on points and humps, and anytime smallies are shallow in murky lakes. Use a short-arm red/purple or black lure with a single Colorado blade at night; a white/green willow leaf model by day.
- Tailspinner -- Fast-sinking, compact lures like the Spinrite and Little George that work best in fall and winter. Fish 'em where anywhere you'd cast a blade bait.
- Crankbaits -- Quarter-ounce deep-divers in shad, crawfish and fire tiger colors work best in clear lakes in spring when the water is high or abnormally stained. Bigger crankbaits pay off in murky lakes in spring through fall; shad patterns work best.
- Topwaters -- In spring and fall, smallmouths will rise to blast Zara Spooks, Rapalas, Tiny Torpedos and other noisy topwaters. Try black on cloudy days, yellow or chrome on sunny days.
For lighter lures, use a stiff 6-foot spinning rod and 6- to 8-pound mono. For heavier lures, use a medium-action 6-foot baitcasting outfit and 10- to 14-pound mono.
Before you begin your quest for a trophy bronzeback, bear in mind that the chase often goes unrewarded, for these fish often defy our best attempts at patterning, pigeonholing and predicting.
But this, Dr. Henshall would argue, is what makes smallmouths "the gamest bass."
Discovering Stream Smallies
To many anglers, the ultimate bass fishing experience is wading or floating a transparent gravel-bottomed stream, casting tiny lures on an ultralight spinning rig for smallmouths. Thousands of miles of excellent smallmouth streams can be found throughout the country.
Stream smallies typically don't run as large as reservoir fish, but the avid creek angler doesn't mind, preferring scenery, solitude and a leaping 2-pounder to a day of fighting the crowds at a big lake. A 4-pounder is considered a lunker by stream standards. Indeed, a fish this size in crisp, cold current is more than a handful on light tackle.
Experienced stream anglers like Jim Walker of Franklin, Tenn., know that smallies are where you find them, and often thatâ€™s not where most creek anglers are fishing. Here are some tips he recommends keeping in mind:
- Do your homework -- "The best stream anglers I know are obsessive about discovering untapped water that might hold quality smallmouths. They're on a first-name basis with regional fisheries personnel, especially biologists who do field work in streams. They pore over county maps to find remote streams and marginal access areas, then scout these places by car, on foot and in the water."
- Fish prime water -- "I'd rather spend an afternoon on a great smallmouth stream than a week on a marginal one. Your regional fisheries personnel can tell you which streams have the best populations of smallmouths. Hint: These aren't usually close to urban areas."
- Fish thick cover -- "Steam smallmouths are a lot like brown trout. Unlike reservoir bronzebacks, they'll bury up in thick cover and hold on undercut banks. Make repeated casts to logjams and brushpiles. Sometimes it takes 9 or 10 presentations before the smallie comes out and smacks it."
- Use the right lures -- "A twist-tail grub is usually the most dependable lure for stream smallmouths. In-line spinners work well, but they're too expensive -- you lose a lot of lures in snaggy streams. Small creature-imitating crankbaits work well in deeper holes, but probably the biggest surprise is how aggressively a big stream smallie will smash a buzz bait."
- Legwork pays -- "If you want to catch quality smallies, you've got to do some legwork. Realize that most of the fish have probably been caught by live-baiters fishing the areas close to bridges and other easy access areas. You may have to wade several miles of stream before you get into prime smallmouth water."
- Catch & Release -- "Streams are fragile fisheries. The best policy to ensure good smallmouth fishing tomorrow is to release what you catch today. Besides, there's nothing more satisfying than a smallie flopping cold water in your face as you release it."